Archive for the ‘Learning’ Category

It seems to be that all the most mature people I know have something in common: their parents treated them like adults even as children. (Exact details vary, and the changes show in the person, but this general theme holds.) This sort of trust is hard, no doubt. The world can be a dangerous place, though probably not as dangerous as the nightly news would have you think, and children are, well, children after all. However, a big part of growing up is making mistakes, and maybe getting hurt. The important thing to remember, though, is that these mistakes are typically more frightening then they are damaging.

Take the recently posted (and very controversial) story of Lenore Skenazy, who left her 9-year old son at Bloomingdale’s (in Manhattan) with a bus/subway map, twenty bucks, and a few quarters in case he needed to call home. People have been calling for her head, or at least for child abuse charges, but for nothing. Her son made it back fine, proud of himself and better prepared for life. I’ve made a similar trip before a bunch of times, and it is significantly less difficult then most things we ask young children to do. If you remember a few numbers and follow signs (both very useful things to teach children, especially in New York), it’s a piece of cake. From what I can gather in the story, here are a few key take-away lessons.

Prepare your child. Lenore didn’t just dump her child in the middle of nowhere. She gave him a reference point, a map, and more then enough cash to make the trip. I’m sure, as well, that she’s taught him a million little lessons on subway and bus navigation while they’ve traveled around New York. So he wasn’t really doing anything new, he was just doing it independently.

Realize you can’t always prepare your child. The world is simple too novel a place to account for every possibility. (Fun fact: linguists suggest that most sentences you ever utter are unique to your experience, and will probably not be uttered again.) At some point, you have to trust that, even if your children reach a point where they don’t know exactly what to do, they’ll be able to fake their way through it. After all, you probably do the same thing every day (who taught you how to deal with that customer service rep?).

You can’t always protect your child. As stated in the article, “The statistics show that [child abduction] is an incredibly rare event, and you can’t protect people from very rare events. It would be like trying to create a shield against being struck by lightning.” In fact, I would argue that being overly protective of children does more harm than good. It’s impossible to protect your children from everything, and odds are if someone really wants to hurt your child, they can and will. Instead, if something happens to your child, you should hope that they are independent enough to take car of themselves. Take little Ashlie Chumley, one of several amazing your children I’ve heard (but not very much) about recently.

Last year, 11-year-old Ashlie Chumley of Houston was abducted from the hallway of her church. Having seen Escape School on television a year earlier, she escaped from her abductor by waiting until his car slowed down, and then jumping out. She found her way back to the church by running more than a mile in the dark, following the glow of a steeple on a church that she remembered was next to her own. Within 45 minutes, she was back with her family.

True, it would be a traumatic experience for a child. Odds are, though, that law enforcement couldn’t have helped, at least not immediately. Instead, she got herself home, and is safely with family.

You don’t always need to protect your children. My favorite line in Lenore’s column is this:

I trusted him to ask a stranger. And then I even trusted that stranger not to think, “Gee, I was about to catch my train home, but now I think I’ll abduct this adorable child instead.”

Most important of all, recognize that being too protective is harmful to your child. Your child is not you, is not a pet, and sooner or later your child will be an independent person. Without letting them learn how to be that, you’re hurting their chances at being successful. So join Lenore’s new Free Range Kids movement, and give your kids the sort of childhood you probably remember having.

“Here’s your MetroCard, kid. Go.”


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Yesterday, I spoke about the importance of getting started when you want change. However, another common problem is establishing new habits. I’ve always been told it takes three weeks to transition from an old habit to a new one. Once established, it’s easy to keep going, but first you have to make it through three weeks, during which your natural behaviors will still be wrong. If you’re going to succeed, odds are you need something to keep you in line.

Of course, there is positive reinforcement. It’s probably worth it’s own post eventually. I’m suspicious of it, though. Too often, I’ve tried to use positive reinforcement and ended up failing at my goal, but still finding an excuse to reward myself. No, for stubborn people me, it has to be negative reinforcement.

There are a few things to keep in mind about negative reinforcement for it to be effective.

  • Immediacy. If you’ve ever tried to train an animal (and behavior modification of yourself is no different) you know that delivering a punishment late is worse then not doing it at all. You need a way to punish yourself (a metaphorical rolled up news paper) that is quick and easy.
  • Pain. No two ways about this, it needs to hurt. The entire point of negative reinforcement is to alter your life’s reward system; continue your bad behavior (which probably feels good) and get a dose of pain, or make change (which also probably feels good) and avoid the punishment. I prefer actual physical pain (a rubber band snap to the wrist, in fact, which hurts a lot after a while), but it could be psychological pain as well. Think curse jar (bad language).
  • Novelty. If you have plans to change a behavior, then you probably already feel bad about it. Maybe you already punish yourself in little ways. Whatever method of negative reinforcement you choose though, it needs to be new and unusual, or else it will just blend in. If you want yourself to behave differently, you need to drastically alter the rules you play by. Your punishment should be something new, and should be used only for this behavior.
  • Consistency. A system like this doesn’t work if it isn’t applied all the time. Shock a rat if he touches a wall, and he will learn to not touch the wall. Shock him only occasionally, or with a different wall each time, and he will go insane. You probably wont go insane, but you certainly wont make much progress either.
  • Exposure. This is largely optional, but I think it can help if your method for punishing yourself is a little public. Not only will a desire not to explain (why you’re thwacking yourself with a rubber band) make you more diligent, but it’s likely to get people asking about (and then helping police you on) your goal.
  • Goal. The most important thing is not to lose sight of your goal. While you are punishing yourself for backsliding, your reward is progress. Don’t let yourself get accustomed to the punishment. Not only should you use the pain of punishment as a deterrent, but use it as a way to track your progress.

Keeping these things in mind, it’s pretty easy to create a system that will help you learn your new habit. Whether it’s a curse jar, a rubber band around the wrist, or some other way to punish yourself, negative reinforcement can be a valuable tool for creating real change in your life.

(As an aside, psychologists make a distinction between “negative reinforcement” and “punishment”. The latter is administered in response to a bad behavior to cause discomfort; the former is a negative condition created before a behavior occurs to encourage avoiding that behavior. Technically, the methods I mentioned are punishments. The rat’s electrocuted wall, however, is negative reinforcement [it’s a continuing condition which encourages the rat to learn a new behavior, ie. not touching the wall]. Consider true negative reinforcement an option as well. Want to make yourself watch less TV? Odds are you can’t electrify your couch, but you could force yourself to ride an exercise bike while you watch TV. That way, you win either way.)

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This is a another guest post from Quinn Maclaren. Quinn is a freelance writer, was published in The Oasis Journal, and is currently building content for a site of her own (Ed – Coup De Quill is live). (By the way, if you have an idea for a guest post and would like the exposure, please contact me, I would love to hear from you.)

It seems I talk to more and more people of all ages who, like me, feel they are missing out on something in life. We do not find satisfaction on the job. And at home, more and more of our free time is spent in front of the television. We retire at night with no real physical fatigue, but a weariness of mind that seems to prevent the introspection needed to determine what is wrong, or what should be done. Most of us have little energy for job changes, so we change the channel and hope for a better day tomorrow. We are waiting for something to happen to us instead of making something happen for ourselves.

Our society rewards multi-tasking and communication at the speed of email and fax. We are rewarded for quick fixes and little thought is given to whether we produce lasting results. We are taught that we must keep up with our neighbors and peers, and we buy bigger houses and cars, and take more elaborate vacations. But most of us, if we are honest, hear a small voice inside asking what we are doing with our lives, a voice urging us to live differently. Maybe your small voice, like mine, seems to get louder and harder to ignore each day.

My search for answers led me to George Leonard’s book Mastery: the Keys to Success and Long-term Fulfillment. This book was originally published in the early 1990’s, but this is not old news. If anything, the questions he attempts to help us answer have only grown more insistent, more urgent, in the intervening years. Drawing on Zen philosophy and his own practice of the martial art aikido, he shows us why we do not find fulfillment in the way we currently live, and how the process of mastery can help us attain a higher degree of excellence in all that we practice in our daily lives.

Leonard begins by identifying the three personality types that make mastery impossible. (I am a ‘dabbler,’ one who practices a new hobby or art until it becomes difficult, then drops it.) He then offers five keys to mastery, and explains each in detail, drawing on many aspects of his life and the lives of others for examples to support his theories. He knows all the ways we will throw obstacles up, and explains how to best circumvent them. The Zen philosophy underlying his process introduces the beauty and serenity to be found in daily tasks when ‘practice’ is seen not as something we do once in awhile, but rather is how we live every day.

I began my quest for mastery as a writer today while writing this post. Where will you begin?

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Repaying Student Loans

For a college student without that many huge expenses, I am surprisingly concerned about money. One of my biggest problems is that I hate being in debt. (Ironically, I love lending people money; my friends are always good for the money, but in the meantime my lower bank balance is an incentive not to spend more.) As you might expect, my mounting student loans, small though they are, annoy me endlessly. I want to pay them off quickly, but I know thats not always the best option. After all, they do have a ridiculously low interest rate, relative to credit cards and other forms of credit, and about half of them aren’t actually accruing interest until 6 months after I graduate. Still, I’d like to attack them pretty aggressively when I graduate, as long as my financial situation allows it. But where to start?

Get Rich Slowly has a very interesting guest post on the subject that focuses a lot on consolidation. However, the author, SJean, starts with the most basic question you will probably need to ask yourself: What do I owe, and to whom? To answer this, he recommends speaking with your school’s financial aid department as well as checking with this site.

Once you know what you have to pay, it’s time to consider consolidation. In short, this means combining all your loans (in my case, I have several from each year of college) into a single loan. This can often get you a lower rate, especially if done during the 6-month grace period after graduation, as well as making it easier to manage your loans. When picking a lender to consolidate, SJean recommends looking for the following:

  • interest rate (will likely be the same for all lenders)
  • discounts for auto-payment
  • discounts for on-time payments
  • website and user interface for payments
  • ability to pay with credit card with no fee (to get cash back bonus, not to convert to credit card debt!)
  • ability to use Upromise rewards to pay back the loan (Sallie Mae)

These qualities make it easier and sometimes cheaper to pay back your loans. Which is good, because with the exception of some very rare circumstances, your loans are with you until you pay them off or die.

He goes on to cover some measures you can take if you cannot pay back your loans. Luckily, student loans are eligible for forbearance (delaying payments), but interest continues accruing and it negatively hurts your credit score. (You may also be able to defer payments or arrange a different payment plan with your creditor, but both require some luck and pretty special circumstances.)

Luckily, if you can pay back your loans early, there’s no harm in doing so. However, it’s often possible to save money by paying the minimum balances and investing extra money in a high yield account. You may also have other, higher interest debts you should pay down first. However, if you’re like me and want to pay them down quickly (who wants to still be paying for college when they are forty?) you usually can.

Aside from that, paying off student loans is pretty much like all loans. The debt snowball can still apply. You should still take the approach that works for you, balancing financial and psychological concerns. As for me, I’m still hoping to be able to ditch a lot of my loans when I graduate, but I’ll have to see where I am in three years. Good luck!

Read the full article here.

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Monday morning, and I think most of us could use a little inspiration to get us going.

Randy Pausch is an amazing person. If he had given this lecture just as a normal Last Lecture Series lecture, it would be impressive. Instead, this is the whole story:

Carnegie Mellon Professor Randy Pausch, who is dying from pancreatic cancer, gave his last lecture at the university Sept. 18, 2007, before a packed McConomy Auditorium.

He has to be one of the most upbeat lecturers I’ve heard, which is awesome. I wish I had a chance to take a class with this guy. Enjoy, and listen carefully.

If you can’t see the link on this page, you can watch it here, or see him reprise the lecture on Oprah.

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Sister Corita Kent was a nun at the Immaculate Heart Convent in Los Angeles, as well as a teacher in the art department at the Immaculate Heart College. She was part of the counter culture, which, considering that she was a nun, makes her pretty interesting on it’s own. However, she also left us this set of rules, intended for her art students, but useful for many of us.

  1. Find a place you trust and then try trusting it for a while.
  2. General duties of a student: pull everything out of your teacher, pull everything out of your fellow students.
  3. General duties of a teacher: pull everything out of your students.
  4. Consider everything an experiment.
  5. Be self-disciplined. This means finding someone wise or smart and choosing to follow them. To be disciplined is to follow in a good way. To be self-disciplined is to follow in a better way.
  6. Nothing is a mistake. There is no win and no fail. There is only make.
  7. The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all the time who eventually catch on to things.
  8. Don’t try to create and analyse at the same time. They’re different processes.
  9. Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.
  10. “We’re breaking all of the rules. Even our own rules. And how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for X quantities.” – John Cage.

Helpful hints: Always be around. Come or go to everything always. Go to classes. Read anything you can get your hands on. Look at movies carefully often. Save everything, it might come in handy later.

I’m particularly fond of 1, 4, 9, and the helpful hints at the end. If you’re an art student, artist, or just a creative person, they all seem pretty good.

(Also available, what looks like an original typed copy of the rules.)

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