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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Self-Control Can Be Contagious

Frog knows about self-control
Here's a  topic about which I know almost nothing from personal experience: self-control.

A short story, readers, if I may. Once upon a 1970s school fair, there was a young girl in a potato sack race. This young girl hopped her way towards the finish line in her burlap sack. She was feeling pretty good. She was feeling all right. She was doing fine. Until other hoppers started passing her. Until all the other hoppers had hopped on by. The little girl was near the finish line, but everyone else had crossed it. What did she do? Did she double-down and hop her way over the line to show her grit? Did she think to herself, "I am of the growth mindset and even though I won't win this race, I will do my very best anyway, so that I can improve my time?" Or did she quit?

Readers, she quat.

Look, I already admitted I know almost nothing about self-control. Also known as Willpower. Or Strength of Character.

Which is why I'm turning you over to the experts. Frog and Toad, for one. Or two. As Frog tells Toad in "Cookies," a chapter in Frog and Toad Together (Newberry Honor, by Arnold Lobel, published 1971,) regarding a batch of same, "Will power is trying hard not to do something you really want to do." Like trying not to eat the cookies.

Personally, I think the flip side of Frog's definition is also true. Willpower is also trying hard to do something you really don't want, or are afraid, to do-- but don't take it from me. I am too busy eating chocolate-covered almonds to think it through thoroughly.

Luckily, others have. Around about the time Frog was speaking, maybe a few years earlier, a psychologist at Stanford named Walter Mischel did an experiment with kids and marshmallows. You've probably heard about this. He took 4-year-olds one at a time into a small room, and sat them at a table. Then he gave them a marshmallow. He told them they could eat that marshmallow, BUT that if they waited until he came back, they could have TWO marshmallows to eat. Then he left the room and watched them behind a two way mirror.  This is a clip of the experiment, but it's a little hard to tell if it's the original participants, or participants in a repeat experiment. When did color film make it to psych labs? Anyone?

So do you want the good news or the bad news?

The bad news is, if you were one of those kids who ate the marshmallow before Mischel returned, you were doomed. That's right. Mischel followed up on these subjects later in life and discovered that the ones who had enough willpower or self-control to wait for that second marshmallow tended to reap the metaphorical second marshmallows throughout life. They were more successful, in other words, than the poor cuties who gave in to temptation. Those kids, I am sorry to say, were much more likely to use drugs and do poorly in school, and basically lump along, than the ones who delayed their gratification.

Mischel's studies of the marshmallow effect have yielded a whole field of research on self-control. Also known as willpower. Or Strength of Character. What they've proven, over and over and over again is, according to Heidi Grant Halvorson, PhD, is that self-control is a better predictor of success than academic achievement or IQ tests.

So was that the bad news or the good news? Depends on how you feel about marshmallows. Or, in my case, about chocolate covered almonds. (Not good news.)

Here's some definite good news. Self-control is like a muscle. Like a muscle, it gets weak from underuse, it can fatigue from overuse, but you can work it and build it and bulk it up with practice.

So, how can you build your self-control? There are, thank goodness, many ways to build it up. Today I'm focusing on one. Or one-ish.

Remember goal contagion? Triggers? Things to get you motivated? Goal contagion works to develop willpower, too. Apparently, just watching someone do something you'd like to do can get you going. That's why motivational posters and photos of people or things that remind you of your goals can truly help motivate you. People picking up habits you want to pick up can also inspire you.

Another short story.  A few weeks ago, a full-grown woman with a penchant for chocolate-covered almonds and an expanding waist that I know, visited her friend at her friend's bucolic vacation spot in the mountains. Her friend, a woman with outstanding self-control, who doesn't even eat chocolate, had begun a running regime. This woman, I mean, talk about willpower. I mean, not only did she hold out for that second marshmallow at four, she held out for quadruple-or nothing when the psychologist came back into the room. Life has been upward ever since.

The almond-eater had been sporadically adding a bit of jogging to her workout for months with no real progress. Are you surprised? I am not. Lack of willpower. Also known as Strength of Character. However, the almond-eater did have the goal of running, no matter how pitiful her attempts might have been, to date. So when she got to the bucolic mountain retreat, her friend, let's call her Jane, urged her to run with her. The almond-eater--alright, it's me, for God's sake--I-- resisted at first. Fear. Jane had been running for a while now, and I had not. There were mountains. It was hot. I declined, and so my first day, Jane set off for her run without me. She persisted, however. The next day, when Jane urged me to join, I agreed. Feeling dubious, I set out on the mountainous route Jane chose. And do you know what? While it is true that Jane had to maintain a continuous conversational patter to distract me, and to literally take me by the wrist and urge me on at a couple of key hills, I, the almond-eater, did indeed succeed in running more than fifty yards at a time. The next day we went out again, and I ran further. And the next day.

Since then, I, the almond-eater, have continued to run, much longer than I've run since I developed shin splints in college. So that the other day, when I went out to run, I set myself the goal of running all the way to a particular fence, and instead of stopping short of the fence, as I have been wont to do since the burlap potato sack race days, I did. (Yes, that was me, the quitter in the burlap sack.) Now, running has become a habit (maybe), and when I hit a rough spot, I picture my running friend Jane just a couple of steps ahead of me, taking my wrist, and urging me on.

Goal contagion in action. And the reason why I say I know *almost* nothing about willpower, also known as self-control. Inch by inch, etc.

The End.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Highly Effective To The End

Ferriss and Covey. They are both bald.
Stephen Covey died July 16th.  I read it first on Facebook. A friend posted the news on my wall. I felt a pang of sadness and Googled the news. A brief article on CNN reported that he'd died, at 79, due to complications following a dreadful bike accident a few months ago. Must have been a difficult few months for him and his family. He died, the report said, surrounded by his wife, children, and grandchildren, as he'd always wanted.

Of course he did, I thought. Of course he managed to die the way he wanted to. He was Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. His Habit #2 is Start With the End in Mind. Literally, as I explained in this post. His last moments had to be successful. And they were.

This made me feel good.

I wondered what I could say about him besides, "Thank you for increasing my blog's page hits every time I mention you.  I've enjoyed poking fun at you, but I've also admired your willingness to put principles and values at the center of what you do."

But what else could I say? Then a friend of mine sent me Frank Bruni's article from yesterday's NYTimes. Frank Bruni, I recall, used to be a food critic. Now he's an op-ed pundit, which means that now, instead of food, he critiques whatever he wants. Fine. Bruni responds to an article in the Sunday Travel section about Tim Ferriss and the fancy clothes he takes when he travels, and the way he gets around rules to make life sweeter for him. Tim Ferriss, for those who live under a rock, is a lifestyle guru. His books, the 4-Hour Body and the 4-Hour Work Week, the latter with a subtitle about getting rich, have sold millions.

I am proud to say I've read none of them. However, I have read whatever the New Yorker has written about him, and I did see that Travel spread. As did Frank Bruni. And it pissed him off. Bruni pinpointed for outrage two travel tactics Ferriss adopts. The first: putting a starter pistol in his luggage, if he's going to have to check it, because any kind of gun in a suitcase will attract attention to it--and the airline will never lose it. (Don't do this on international travel or they'll try to lock you up with your suitcase--book possibility: the 4-Hour Interrogation). The second: instead of paying for airport parking, just let your car rack up parking tickets on the street. You'll pay less for the tickets than for the garage.

Okay, I'll admit it. I liked the jacket Ferriss was wearing, and until I realized who the article was about, I thought maybe I could afford one like it. I'll also admit that I thought the starter pistol in the suitcase was an audacious, but kind of funny, idea. Frank Bruni, however, set me straight, fulminating that sure, go ahead and cause concern and mayhem behind the scenes at the airport, as long as it benefits you. He says, "Don’t pay for airport parking, he [Ferriss] advised in The Times, if the accrued tickets from leaving your car on the street won’t be as expensive. Sure, you’re unlawfully hogging a space someone else might make legal use of; maybe you’re thwarting street sweepers, too. Not your problem. A conscience is for chumps." 

Readers, I was chastened. I was sorry I'd been amused. And I agree with Frank Bruni that Ferriss, guru of the year, has made millions off of the principle of getting the most for yourself, damn the consequences to others.

Can you imagine what Stephen Covey would say about him? Upon what are Ferriss's principles centered? Luckily for us, there's an appendix at the back of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to help us. Covey lists about a dozen possible centers for your life--Friends, Spouse, Money, Family, Work--and the way these various centers can skew your values and therefore your behavior and your life.... A quick scan leads me to Self. If your self is your center, then your principles are centered on the need to justify anything that serves your best interest, and are "adapted to need." In other words, they are amorphous, flexible, and are therefore not really principles at all.

Covey's appendix continues with Church and Principles as other possible life centers. All of these possible principle-centers, according to Covey, lead us astray, except one. Principles. So even though he's a member of a church, Church is not the Covey-approved center for life. It's principles. Which is why, really, we can admire Covey, or hate him, but we can't say he's trying to shove his particular church, the Mormon one, into the center of our lives. He's aiming for something universal. This is the polar opposite of what Bruni describes as Ferriss's "epic narcissism."

As for Ferriss, I've already admitted I haven't read his books. I am responding to Frank Bruni's response to an article about him. Maybe Bruni is wrong about Tim. I doubt it, though. I am curious to see if, eventually, Tim Ferriss re-evaluates his life, and finds a principled Principle-center for it. In the meantime, I guess we've got Frank Bruni to help us. And he's not even bald yet. I wonder if he's read Stephen Covey? At least we've still got his book.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Find the Motive, Another Facet of Goal Pursuit
Do you see yourself as trying to be good or as getting better? Heidi Grant Halvorsen, PhD, wants to know.

Is this a trick question? You bet. If you see yourself pursuing goals to prove you're good--or great--at something, then you get the big red buzzer. You may indeed achieve your goals, but your life will be h-e-double toothpicks. As the polite like to say. Since I'm not that polite, I'll just say it. Wrong. Buzz. You have chosen the wrong motive and your life will be full of misery.

Perhaps I exaggerate.

Perhaps I do not.

Try it. Say, "I want to publish a book so everyone will say how talented I am."

Buzz! Wrong answer.

Say, "OMG! I got an A last test, but only a B+ this time--I must not be that smart. I think I'll develop an anxiety disorder, or perhaps an eating disorder."

Buzz! Wrong answer.

Just in case you didn't get the message in my previous posts, here it is. If you've been buzzed by the big red buzzer (and no, it's not that red Staples buzzer, it's more like the buzzer in Family Feud), then you're headed for trouble. Perhaps this sounds familiar. It is. HGH, PhD, is offering another way of looking at the mindset theory. If you're pursuing some goal to prove you're good enough, you're great enough, and people love you, then you're motivated by a fixed or entity mindset. This mindset's downside is that your self image becomes attached to having achieved --whatever--and therefore the risk of losing it threatens your sense of yourself as worthy.  If your motive is that you're going to show those bastards, then you're going to be too busy shoring up your self image to handle bumps and derailments in your path.

Bumps and derailments being the general rule in life, instead of the exception, it's much better to save those be good goals for straightforward things. I'm having a little trouble thinking of something straightforward. Which is the point. But the be good goal, the fixed mindset, works when you can just plug in numbers and check the math. Otherwise, you want to motivate yourself by the desire to improve. That way, the growth mindset way, also known as the incremental way, you can still feel good when a gigantic tree falls across the road, because you figure out how to deal with it. (Climb over it, go around it, chop it up and haul it away.) As HGH, PhD, says, "Whenever possible, try to turn your goals from being good to getting better....When your emphasis is on what there is to learn rather than what there is to prove, you will be a lot happier and will achieve a lot more."

So file away those SAT scores you remember from 30 years ago and roll up your sleeves. Why? Because people motivated by getting better/growth/incremental thinking

  • Don't give up when the going gets tough
  • Enjoy themselves more
  • Deal with depression and anxiety better

Now I think we've polished every facet of that particular theory to perfection. Look! I can see myself!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

What a Tangled Webinar We Weave....*

Sir Walter Scott lived here.
I'm still mad at myself. One of the bloggers I've been reading for a while recommended a webinar by someone he's been following for a while. Since the webinar was about increasing your blog's readership, I thought, what the hey-ho, I'll give it a try.

Now the business success gurus like Mr. Dale Carnegie came up with this idea that you've got to give something to get something. In retail, this is known as the loss-leader theory of success and it is straightforward. You offer some product free, or at a huge discount, to get people in the door of your shop--or shoppe, if you're sophisticated. Getting them in the door once, even if it means you don't earn top dollar off that customer the first time, builds loyalty, etc, etc, and makes it more likely they'll come back to your business next time they need something you sell, and they'll pay full price for it.

In other types of business this give-to-get theory works more abstractly. Maybe you offer a free class, or take up a philanthropic cause and spend time you could be raking in the dough working on that cause, with a little advertising of your business on the side. Plus you're there, a representative of your business, doing this philanthropic work, and therefore your business becomes linked with charity, honor, and integrity, which might lure more people there. Give-to-get.

The abundance success gurus like Deepak Chopra also subscribe to this give-to-get theory. Waters are murkier here, but the idea is that once you start "giving" then you start "receiving." All of which is explained in metaphysical terms both flowing and vague, so that trying to understand them is like trying to get a clear picture of yourself reflected in the water.

What I mean by that analogy is that getting a clear picture of yourself reflected in water is nearly impossible. Even this stillest ponds have their water striders creating ripples. The image is always a little distorted. Distortion is good business for the mystical-spiritual-abundance theorists (Deepak Chopra, for example), because then things are open for interpretation. Like what exactly they mean by "abundance." Or "giving," or "receiving." Most of us choose to comprehend abundance as quantities of lucre. I'm just being honest. But the abundance gurus squirm out of that definition by saying it's much more--or less--or different--than material gain. It's an internal sense of abundance.

I have no problem with either actual, material abundance, or an internal sense of it. Don't get me wrong here--which I doubt you are, if you know me, or read me regularly.

What I do have a problem with is people who try to shimmy their way around the give-to-get thing by pretending they're actually giving something, when what they're actually doing is getting, getting, getting. There are a lot of people out there trying to succeed in a material way who've absorbed this gotta give to get thing. And they're all on the internet. Many of them have blogs. Lots of these blogs are about how to write, or how to write good blogs, or how to blog, and therefore how to write good blogs. Their blogs start out seeming interesting, but turn into repacking the same old stuff, and then turn into sales pitches for their ebooks, which turn into sales pitches for their talks. Because, let's be honest here, they all want to be rich and ingenious enough to give a TED talk, but have to settle for JrTEDxx. So they decide that they can follow the give-to-get rule of success by GIVING a webinar, and hopefully starting on the road to GETTING a TED talk.

Mostly, I avoid these people. However, readers, I got sucked into one last week. It was about how to develop your blog's readership, and I read about it on a blog by someone who blogs and writes ebooks about how to write.

I'm still mad at myself, because I wasted sixty whole minutes of my afternoon on this webinar. This webinar promised to teach me 7 Foolproof ways to increase my blog's readership. Forty-five minutes into this webinar, created by someone who looks like he could be my son and talks like every salesman you've ever avoided most assiduously, I had one (1) foolproof way to increase my blog's readership. Then I learned what I'd been realizing for the last 30 minutes, that for a certain (undisclosed until the last minute of the webinar) sum, I could sign up for a series of these webinars to learn the other 6 methods.

Now, I'm not saying that one tip was stupid. It was actually kind of interesting. It was an instruction to only present one idea per blog post, along with a graphic illustration of a way to format the blog post. However, it took all of (I'm being generous here) 5 minutes to present both the idea and the format. Meanwhile, it wasn't until that 46th moment that the creator of the webinar mentioned that this webinar and all his information was directed towards businesses and bloggers who want to sell something, and not to writers.

And then--and I have only myself to blame for this--I listened to the last fourteen minutes of this webinar.  Now, I justify this additional waste of fourteen of my life's precious minutes as research. Research into the sheer audacity of this webpreneur in diapers; research into the way many of these self-help success books are applied by up-and-coming would-be successes; research into the expanded sales pitch. Mostly, however, I wanted to know how much this brazen young man planned to charge for the other 6 Foolproof methods.

Perhaps I ought to hold off on revealing his price until my next blog post. After all, I've already given you a couple of tidbits of information. However, since I've already failed to apply the 1 Foolproof method of attracting readers that I learned at this webinar, I might as well give it up right here.


He was selling his other 6 points for $500. That's right. Another six hours of filler with a couple of pointers thrown in for $500.

Which just goes to show, there's no such thing as Foolproof. I am here to tell you that.

*"Oh, what a tangled web we weave...., etc" by Sir Walter Scott.