Ellen Says: “Keep Off The Grass”

I tested the OCR capabilities of the new HP scanner I got on clearance at Staples by scanning a favorite part of the book On Becoming An Artist by Ellen Langer:

Our world has been fashioned largely by people. People create the products we use, make the laws we follow, write the books we study in high school. Despite all of our efforts to perfect ourselves, the truth is that people have limited knowledge, mixed motivations, biases, and any number of other limitations. Many of us know this conceptually, even if we don’t think very often about how it affects our approach to the world. And so we experience our world, more often than not, as if it exists independent of human involvement. We take the things we use, the rules we follow, and the information we rely on as if they are true in some absolute sense, regardless of context or perspective. We have become oblivious to the part others play and have played in deciding much of what we take for granted. This is unfortunate, for by doing so, we give up new choices and lose the opportunity to take more control of our lives.

By creating an external world, then treating it as if it is independent of ourselves, we rob ourselves of our individuality and the opportunity to meet our needs. We can regain control, but only when we put people and context back into the equation. Compare a sign that warns you to “keep off the grass” with one that reads, “Ellen says keep off the grass.” The first demands obedience withour hesitation, whereas the second invites us to ask, “Who is Ellen and why does she want me to keep off the grass? Who does she think she is?” Too often, we follow rules as if they have an inherent logic that is reasonable across all contexts. We are taught to think inside the box. Then we are taught to think outside the box. What I want us to ask is, Who put the box there?

As far as I’m concerned, that summarizes about 90% of what is important in what is called “Postmodernism,” and it does it without anything written opaquely in French. Ellen Langer is a writer who writes in a seemingly unsophisticated style and ends up saying extremely important, deep things, which you’re liable to miss if you’re not careful. Highly recommended.

Oh, the scanner recognized everything perfectly except that it mistook a lowercase ‘L’ next to a period for an uppercase ‘L’. Nice.


It occurred to me tonight to wonder…

We don’t pay doctors to rate their patients on how healthy they are, praising the healthiest, and kicking out the sickest patients, in order to motivate patients to be healthy.

We don’t pay salespeople to rate their customers on how good they are at getting deals on services and merchandise, in order to motivate them to get good deals.

We don’t pay programmers or engineers to rate their clients on how well their requirements were fulfilled by the work of the programmers and engineers, and kick out the clients who did not successfully get their requirements fulfilled.

We don’t pay lawyers to rate their customers as to how well their lawsuits went, awarding distinctions to the winners and heaping ignominy on the losers.

We don’t pay *any professional* to rate their customers on how successfully the customers achieved the aims they are paying the professional to help them achieve, praising the customers who successfully achieved their aims, and shaming or rejecting the customers who do not achieve those aims.

Except teachers.

It’s a downright medieval* system, isn’t it? Just ludicrous! “I’m going to pay you to praise or blame me according to how well I achieve the aims I am paying you to help me achieve.” But we take it for granted in education, and if a teacher objects to it, doesn’t want to make it all about the grades, he’s considered some new age hippie freak who wants to dumb down the system for everyone.

Of course, for children in the K-12 system, they’re paying the teachers only very indirectly (via their parents and/or taxes) and have little say in anything that happens to them, so it’s a little less surprising in those cases; but it’s true even in colleges and universities.

I was talking tonight with my wife about how our twins’ kindergarten teacher, who’s one of the few teachers they will ever have who will not be required to grade them, doesn’t perceive the big differences we see in our kids’ abilities in different areas. To us one is really good at reading, the other’s really good at art, that kind of thing — but the teacher, in conferences, revealed that the kids don’t actually display those differences so much in class. In kindergarten, everyone is assumed to be capable of everything, and everyone does everything, in their own way, with or without some help here and there. Everybody learns everything.

We were regretful that it is not going to stay that way for much longer. The focus will turn from helping kids learn to sorting out the successes from the failures. If they’re lucky, they’ll happen to be good at being “successes” and manage to learn things anyway, for all the wrong reasons.

Still, I hope our society grows out of this someday.

* and not in a good way

Exploding Head a Side Effect of Aging

On reflection, the thing that most blows me away about finding out where my old classmate ended up is that someone my age, who started out (except for the billion dollar inheritance of course) in the same place as me, could possibly be a player on the global military and political stage. This is aging. First you start to notice that, say, a few pop stars are your age instead of older than you. Then they’re younger. Then most pop stars are younger than you. Then you find yourself in a job where you’re the oldest guy in your department by a few years. Then you move into a job where you’re older than your boss, and that makes you sit down and put your head in your hands.

I have not yet hit the age where the people who run the government are your age, or younger than you. That’s gonna be a tough one. The YouTube generation running the nation, communicating global strategies on their cellphones in txt msgs (omg do u want 2 nvade iraq??? ya u do? me 2 lets do it).

While you’re younger than a certain group of people (pop stars, professional people, politicians, whatever) you can imagine that you could end up as one of them, when you get to that age. 99.9% of us don’t end up as anything but ourselves, of course. And that’s fine, that’s as it should be. But seeing someone you were on the first grade playground with messing with the state of the world (and particularly messing with it in a way you’d never want it messed with) brings home in a forceful way that you’ve gotten to that same age without becoming anything more special than yourself.

Not that, as they said on Seinfeld, there’s anything wrong with that. Just being yourself is all you need to be. But there’s this whole mythology of Getting Somewhere In Life that clings to your brain and wriggles in anger when something points out that it has nothing to do with you.

And of course, the billionaire mercenary warlords and the pop stars and everybody else — they’ve just become themselves too. That’s just what, in rare cases, one’s “self” happens to look like.

A Problem With Hierarchy (CPT Trav)

A problem with hierarchy is that there’s no particular guarantee that the people at the top of the hierarchy, the “Deciders,” if you will, are the ones that could make intelligent decisions. In fact they usually can’t because it is the nature of hierarchy to isolate them from the day to day realities faced by the people on the bottom. Often they can make decisions which are intelligent relative to the limited portion of the hierarchy’s reality which is directly relevant, perceptible, and manipulable to the guys at the top — such as in the case of a politician, the machinery of elections, or in the case of a CEO, the machinery of looking good to the board and stockholders and thereby keeping his job (or prepping for a jump to a new job when the company tanks shortly after he’s unloaded his stock options, you know the drill).

There have been many attempts to remedy this problem — W. Edwards Deming’s work on management, so I understand, attempts to address this issue comprehensively, but because actually putting his ideas thoroughly into practice deeply challenges the social hierarchy built into the American corporation, rather than actually putting Deming’s work into practice most corporations have just sort of blathered about the word “quality” and moved on to the next management fad.

What I’ve been leading up to in all this is the fact that the only coherent ideas about how we could, or perhaps could have, brought peace to Iraq, were put together not by some political snake holed up in the Green Zone making up propaganda about how well the war is going, but by a 32 year old Army captain on the ground in Al Anbar province, who was recently killed by an IED there. He put together a little powerpoint presentation on what changes might actually make a difference in that area.

The Washington Wire blog at the Wall Street Journal Online tells the sad story and links to the presentation.

(Disclaimer — I have no idea whether Capt. “CPT Trav” Patriquin’s plan is a good one or not, or whether any plan can rescue Iraq at this point. But it’s a plan that’s obviously been made out of a real person’s real knowledge of other real people, a person who cares, most of all, about the well being of everyone involved. That matters.)