Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Problem with Our Way of Defining Success

I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers: The Story of Success. Although I enjoyed it immensely, there have been a few thoughts niggling in the back of my mind--a few things that don't quite add up for me. One of those involves the way that Gladwell defines success. Well, no, it's not the way he defines success--because he never actually defines it--it's the underlying assumption that in our society everyone already knows what success is, and therefore it's not even open for debate.

But I think it should be open for debate.

There were several points in the book where I became uncomfortable. One point was in the chapter, "The Trouble with Geniuses, Part 2", where he was comparing the way wealthy parents raise their children to that of poor parents. He referred to a study conducted by sociologist Annette Lareau on a group of third graders. She found there were only two identifiable parenting styles: one which was employed by the wealthy parents and the other by the poor parents. The wealthy parents were deeply involved in their children's lives, shuttling them to and from lessons and practices, asking questions about their playmates and school, scheduling an endless array of activities, and constantly processing and talking things through with their kids. The poor parents, on the other hand, took a laissez-faire approach to child rearing. There were no scheduled practices. Instead, the kids were sent outdoors to play with the other kids in the neighborhood. There was no advocating for the needs of their children at school, and generally the kids were simply left to fend for themselves.

Lareau called the strategy of the wealthy parents "concerted cultivation" and the strategy of the poor parents "natural growth." The "concerted cultivation" strategy created youngsters who knew how to take initiative and act on behalf of their own needs and interests. They knew how to "gain advantage". The "natural growth" strategy created youngsters who were"often better behaved, less whiny, more creative in making use of their own time, and had a well-developed sense of independence" but they also had "an emerging sense of distance, distrust, and constraint." [The words and phrases in quotation marks in this paragraph are Lareau's words, not Gladwell's.]

It's clear to me that the children of the wealthy parents were being shaped for success in our society, and the poor children simply weren't. But this gets me to the heart of the matter. Gladwell notes, "Lareau stresses that one style isn't morally better than the other." Morally better, no. But scratch out that word--morally--and you can be sure almost everyone will think that one of those styles is heck of a lot better--generally--than the other, and I think you know which one.

Why is it better? Because that style of parenting churns out youth indoctrinated into the western model of success. These kids have learned how to push their way to the top, they know how to work the system, they can get what they want. It's a system based on self-absorption and self-promotion and I believe frankly that it's unhealthy, not only for individuals, but also for the planet.

What initially caused me to think there might be a problem with our definition of success was my reading last year of Amy Chua's book World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability (see my earlier post "Infiltration and Naturalization, Part 1"). When outsiders strode into a country--outsiders who shared our Western model of success--and it was a country that didn't share that model, the outsiders were able to essentially snatch control of that country's markets and resources. As I said in my earlier post, outsiders are like invasive weed seeds--entering an ecosystem that has never had the opportunity to evolve a line of defense against it. "They ride in with their wads of cash, and what human ecosystem has yet evolved a defense against that?"

An undeveloped country develops through "natural growth" in the same way that poor children develop through "natural growth". It seems to me that a philosophy of "concerted cultivation" only begins to happen when people, countries, or the corporations that spring from them, lose their connection with the land and a more natural way of being. When you are connected to the land and you are living small (i.e. living within the confines of your own ecosystem, and living sustainably) there is no need for extreme self-promotion, expansion, extraction, growth, profits and transactions. There is no need for manic doing. People who have lost their connection with the land become those who are likely to exploit the land, particularly on foreign soils, where they don't have to see the damage they do.

Amy Chua found that when market-dominant minorities were driven out of a country, that country often collapsed economically. The citizens who remained usually didn't possess the business skills and financial acumen to keep the country going. What occurred to me was that this was not a failing of the native people; it simply demonstrates a very core difference in cultural values. Business skills, financial acumen--those are skills valuable to people who have no connection with the land. They don't possess the land in their hearts or their souls, so they seek through transacting and exploiting to possess the earth physically. Indigenous people, however, still at least to some extent are part of the land, inseparable from it. Capitalism has little appeal to them. There is not much motivation to become materialists, brilliant entrepreneurs, leaders of industry. They still remember how to live in harmony with the earth.

What our world suffers from right now is way too much doing. We've been way too busy, way too "productive" (i.e. destructive). Manic soccer practices are the precursor of manic gold mining, manic coal burning, manic rainforest-chopping-down, manic suck-every-drop-of-oil-out-of-the-ground. This is success??

It's only been in the past century that we've begun in earnest to move off the land (of course the roots of this go back to the industrial revolution and--before that--to our first city-states thousands of years ago). This exodus from the land which was once a trickle is now a torrent, and the implications are enormous. Over half the world's population now live in cities. It's an unprecedented situation. Our current ideas about success have been birthed in the urban landscape. This is not what we need. It leads to exploitation. What we need is to redefine success from a global perspective. We don't need to go back to the land, necessarily, but we need to take into account the land and its limits.

If we got back to living locally (in the cities as well as the countryside), and if we worked to create a steady-state economy, we could achieve a model of success that would be far less manic, much more satisfying for everybody, and sustainable. What we need is to work towards balance. Balance in the lives of our children, balance in our own lives, and balance in the world. To me, success is not success if it's exploitative. And most of what passes as success today rests on exploitative practices.

There's more I want to get to on this subject. Richard Louv's book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder would tie in very nicely here, but it will have to wait for another day.

Some Reflections on Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers

If you haven't had a chance to read Malcolm Gladwell's newest book Outliers: The Story of Success, get busy. It's number three on the NYT bestseller list, so I know a lot of you have already read it, but if you haven't I'll tell you it provides a lot of food for thought in a quick little package.

(My library only had the large print version--and I am getting near that age for reading glasses--so maybe that's why I seemed to fly right through it. Maybe I need to get all of my books in LARGE PRINT.)

There were a few interesting premises:

1. That invariably we need to devote at least 10,000 hours of practice to our area of interest in order to achieve mastery.

2. That no one achieves success in a vacuum and that many of the most successful people in society, while extremely talented to begin with, benefited from a lot of lucky breaks and fortuitous situations. Fortune smiled on them.

3. That we underestimate the effects of our cultural heritage, which can persist for many, many generations. He used the example of the feuding Scotch-Irish settlers in Appalachia (the Hatfields and McCoys and their ilk). He believes their tendency towards violence is a result of the "culture of honor" of their herding highland ancestors back in Ireland and Scotland. Herders, Gladwell points out, are always vulnerable to raiders, so they must fiercely defend what's theirs, unlike the settled farmers who didn't run the risk of having their entire livelihood snatched in the dead of night. The herder needed to show he was tough and prove that it wasn't worth the risk to provoke him. But, of course, there always were provocations and when there was, the herder (or Appalachian descendent) would often defend his honor to the death. Gladwell also cited recent studies that showed current subjects from Appalachia are far more twitchy and likely to take insult than people from other regions. So the vestiges of an old culture are still affecting behavior today.

Gladwell gives many other examples--the rise of a group of Jewish lawyers in New York, the superior math skills of the Chinese, the story of Gladwell's mother...all of them show what happens when you have a fortuitous mixing of chance, a positive cultural legacy, the right timing and determination. He also gives a number of tragic counter-examples.

Outliers provided me with food for thought concerning two different issues I've been grappling with in recent years. Those issues are: the importance of place in shaping culture (hence the reason I've been researching environmental determinism of late), and the way modern society defines success. I think each of these issues deserves its own post, so I will be working on those today.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Krikorian, Immigration and Racist Subtleties

Yesterday I talked about the subtle biases of each age and how we often can't identify them until we've evolved into a new paradigm. I mentioned the racism underlying Ellsworth Huntington's idea of environmental determinism early in the twentieth century and how glaringly obvious it is today.

My thought was to write a post that would compare the subtlety of Huntington's racism to the subtlety of Mark Krikorian's attitude toward immigrants. However, in looking back over Huntington's book I realize that most of his comments were anything but subtle. Sure, he didn't own his racism--he presented everything he said as the findings of scientific research by others (i.e., the "studies have shown" defense).

Krikorian's attitude toward immigrants is subtle, though, and harder to tease out. Like Huntington, he is trying to sound fair and unbiased. But what are we to make of a sentence like this one:

The possibility, then, is that immigrants will assimilate into this new people, forming, in the extreme case, not an ethnic subculture like so many others (which will fade in importance over time) but instead a separate national community, a Hispanic Volk, demanding recognition on par with Anglos.

(p. 19, The New Case Against Immigration)

A Hispanic Volk?? He's comparing the Hispanic community in the U.S. with Nazi Germany. Of all the analogies he could have made, why this one, you have to ask?

Which reminds me of something Srinivasan Pillay said in his post "Why Rational Thinking Is Not All It's Cracked Up To Be":

Another reason that I think that "surface rationality" is questionable is that we often make decisions based on how options are presented to us. This has been called the "framing effect".

Krikorian's use of the word Volk is a clever way to subtly frame the issue if you want to shape the perceptions of your readers. If Krikorian understands, like Srinivasan Pillay, that emotion underlies what seems to be rational thought, it would make sense that he would want to elicit a strong emotional reaction from his readers. If the readers fear that Hispanic immigrants are threatening to be the next Third Reich (however subconsciously that might register), that fear is going to make them more likely to take Krikorian's additional "rational" arguments as Truth.

In a future post I'll be looking more broadly at Krikorian's ideas about assimilation.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Magical versus Rational Thinking

I've been on a bit of a reading binge the past week, completing a total of six nonfiction books and having three more underway. Whenever I do this, interesting things begin to happen (like not getting anything else accomplished??)...ahem...like the way the juxtaposition of so many ideas and perspectives leads me to novel thoughts or insights. The topics may be wildly different, and yet my mind works in the background to synthesize what can be synthesized, always on the lookout for some grand unifying theory, I guess.

Here are the six books I read this week:

Woman Who Glows in the Dark: A Curandera Reveals Traditional Aztec Secrets of Physical and Spiritual Health, Elena Avila with Joy Parker

The Time Before History: 5 Million Years of Human Impact, Colin Tudge

Race: A History Beyond Black and White, Marc Aronsen

The Tribe of Tiger: Cats and Their Culture, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony, Robert B. Edgerton

Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell

The three other books I'm reading are:

The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language, Christine Kenneally

The New Case Against Immigration: Both Legal and Illegal, Mark Krikorian

Civilization and Climate, Ellsworth Huntington

Quite a mix, isn't it? In the next few days I hope to make several posts on the thoughts that have arisen as a result of absorbing this massive jumble of words. But today I want to focus on just one line of thought and that concerns magical and rational modes of thinking.

The Time Before History had me taking in the whole sweeping span of our evolution, so the events of the past few centuries (or even millennia) seemed to all be part of the same modern moment, just a blip in time.

Woman Who Glows in the Dark, and Sick Societies both made me realize magical thinking is not something far off in our past. European cultures believed in witchcraft in recent centuries (i.e. right now, modern times, if we take into account our long history) and many indigenous people still believe to varying extents in witchcraft.

Race, an excellent young-adult book by Marc Aronson (and by no means beneath an adult readership), traced the evolution of various forms of discrimination from ancient times up to our present-day racist notions.

Civilization and Climate was written in 1915 by Yale geographer Ellsworth Huntington. I'm reading it as part of my research into the subject of environmental determinism. Huntington was one of the biggest proponents in modern times of the idea that climate is a major determinant of human behavior. Environmental determinism eventually became passe because it was frequently used to further various racist agenda, and I didn't have to get very far into Civilization and Climate to see the glaring racial bias. Although Huntington was a scientist and was clearly trying to use a sound methodology that eliminated bias, the fact is he was a product of his times and his culture and was so totally immersed in the racist paradigms of his time that he couldn't begin to see his own biases. None of us can really comprehend the limits and biases of our own time and culture. We have to escape the paradigm before we can see it clearly.

So, all of these various ideas came together in my mind and I had a new insight: magical thinking is the same thing as rational thinking. Until now, I've always seen magical thinking as irrational, the opposite of rational. Yet these books all pointed to something different. In my post Tracing the Rise of Ego and Materialism I shared my ideas about our human evolution. It's my belief that we've evolved from unconscious fusion with our environment (our earliest tribal, pre-literate days) to a conscious but separate state of being (the present time) and that we're on a trajectory which will eventually bring us back into fusion with the larger environment, only then it will be a conscious fusion.

Magical thinking and rational thinking both have emerged in the current blip of history. They both emerged now as a result of us becoming conscious, separating out of the matrix that birthed us, developing egos and a sense of Self and Other, of subject and object. I can't emphasize enough how recent this has all been. As we developed consciousness and language and a sense of separateness, we began to try to make sense of everything. Before we separated out there was no way to make sense of anything. We just were. If you're fused with everything else there are no points of reference, but become a separate dot of awareness and suddenly you can start comparing everything and trying to make sense of everything. On top of direct perception we added this drive to make meaning. Magical thinking is an attempt to make meaning, to attribute causes to effects, to theorize about the way all of these separate things interact. It's a very rational thing to do. These theories may not be accurate, but then again neither may quite a few of our scientific theories be accurate either. Our scientific theories suffer from the unconscious biases of the day--we theorize from the current state of our knowledge, but that state of knowledge will always be incomplete and therefore erroneous. I don't mean to imply that I think science is bunk--I believe we get closer and closer to the truth as we evolve and as science evolves. What I want to point out is that magical thinking and rational thinking are not separate phenomena. They are the same phenomenon. It's the phenomenon of humans playing with metaphor, playing with consciousness, trying to make meaning.

All of this is necessary if we're ever to reach our next phase of evolution. By making meaning of things, consciously, what we are really doing is internalizing (or re-internalizing) everything that's out there. We're using mind to bring all the parts of the matrix back together. We separated from it in order to become conscious and we'll use our consciousness to join back with it. Our search for meaning is our search for oneness.

I still want to delve into this a bit more, but this post is getting a bit long. For today, I'll just close with a link to an article on huffingtonpost.com by Srinivasan Pillay: "Why Rational Thinking Is Not All It's Cracked Up To Be". He hits on the idea , which I've been encountering more and more frequently, that we use rational thinking to come up with reasons for what are ultimately emotional or gut-level decisions. We think we are being unbiased and using the most neutral higher-level cognitive functions of our minds, but really we are driven by emotions. My way of interpreting this is that we have a direct perception of reality--what IS--and our way of experiencing direct perception is through feelings. We want to make sense of our direct perceptions, so we start to layer meaning on top of them. That the meanings may not end up being accurate is beside the point. We can go along for long stretches of time applying inaccurate meanings to phenomena, but eventually we seem to break through to a new paradigm that allows more accurate meaning to be attributed to our direct perceptions. Inaccurate meaning inevitably gives us feedback--and not happy feedback--so we evolve a new paradigm of meaning. What was the feedback from our magical thinking about race? What is the feedback we're getting from our magical thinking about a growth economy? What is the feedback we're getting from our magical thinking about limitless resources, or pollution?

Anyway, I could go on. When I get back to this subject I want to include a quote from Ellsworth Huntington's Civilization and Climate (published 1915)where he is trying to show how very unbiased he is, but it's clear to us how very, very biased he is, and compare it with a very similar quote in Mark Krikorian's book The New Case Against Immigration (published 2008). Krikorian certainly doesn't believe he has a bias against any particular type of immigrant (Latinos), but to me it just glares off the page.

P.S. Ellsworth Huntington's book Civilization and Climate is in the public domain and is available free in digitized form at InternetArchive.org.