Super Saturday: A Blog Post In Which I Over-Think My Tendency to Over-Think

This post was originally published on October 18, 2011. A month or so ago I told my father that traumatic brain injuries work out pretty well for perfectionists because I’d always have something to blame my mistakes on that had nothing to do with talent or intelligence. But now, I see that it actually makes being a perfectionist even worse. Now, I have one other thing about myself that is capable of causing a mistake. My parents tell me quite often that I’m over-thinking stuff.

I think far too much. Ask anyone who even knows the first thing about me, and they will all say the same thing. Thinking too much isn’t always a bad thing. I think it might be connected to my need to listen to jazz music while I study and my love for reading and my general ability to sometimes make good decisions. And all of those things are good.

But sometimes, it is a very bad thing. There are several reasons for this.

1) Thinking too much paralyzes. It keeps you from actually doing anything. Sometimes I get so caught up in the theoretical components of an activity, that I never actually do the activity. I am guilty of this in responsibilities as small as reading e-mails. I think about how great it would be if I set a little time apart each day to answer all my e-mails. And while I am thinking about this, my inbox piles up and my time disappears. But if I answered e-mails as they came in, I would have plenty of time for them.

2) Thinking too much leads to bad thoughts. When you think too much, it is impossible to think good thoughts all the time. Invariably, then, less than good thoughts creep their way into your mind. Often, I find myself thinking about how I am going to fail at something. And even more often than that, I find myself thinking about how I compare to other people. Spending time comparing myself to others is probably the biggest time-suck I engage in. It makes no sense. As I am thinking about how I measure up to other people, they are getting even farther ahead. Some people might argue that I shouldn’t think about it like that, but I do. And it is helpful to think that if I just did the work, I would stand a much better chance of measuring up. You can’t do anything standing still.

3) Thinking too much causes a decrease in self-confidence. If I listened to my head all the time, I would really hate myself. My apartment is rarely clean, my inbox rarely empty, my work rarely done, my dreams rarely achieved, and my relationships rarely deep. But what my head doesn’t tell me is that all of those things are within my ability to change. I just need to stop thinking and get up and do them.

What are you thinking about? How much you hate these questions? Leave a comment anyway. I would love to hear from you!

In Which Sparks Are Found

1. Judaism has a magnificent term–tikkun olam. It means “repair of the world.” It was humanized in a 16th century myth. In the myth, God sends light to the world in ten vessels. The vessels, too fragile to hold the light, break on their way to Earth. In order to get the light back, God creates humans. Humans, then, are charged with tikkun olam. They must repair the light of the world by finding these holy sparks.

2. There is a movement in psychology known as social constructivism. Its main tenet is that meaning is constructed rather than discovered. Meaning and truth are created through conversation and interaction. My identity is not so much a steadfast reality as much as a group of stories and characteristics that the people around me and I agree upon.

3. I’m beginning to wonder if the very act of language is intrinsically oppressive. The act of naming something sets it apart from other things. My frustration with words is that they are simplistic. When setting something down on paper, I cannot possibly fairly represent things the way they are in my head. Complex networks of ideas intersect in counter-intuitive ways. And I don’t think I am capable of explaining them.

4. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, the oft quoted Bible passage for weddings, reads:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

I believe all these things. What this passage fails to mention, however, is that love is the quickest way to get all of these other benefits. Love is patient and kind but it also demands patience and kindness. Impatience and meanness have no room in love. Love forces its opposites out. True love makes us better. It challenges us. One of the ways I know my parents love me is that they hold me accountable when I make a mistake. 

5. When I am safe in my room, I cannot, for the life of me, understand why I would ever do anything I don’t want to do.

The Kid Coming Through Technique

First, let me apologize for my unexplained absence. My life got away from me for a little bit, and then I went to NYC with Students for Education Reform . So life was a little hectic. But I am back now and with a vengeance!

So like I said, I spent my weekend in NYC, which was pretty cool. I had never been before. And the best part was that being in the city wasn’t even the cool part. The people were. But we will save them for another blog post.

On Saturday night, a friend of mine graciously took me to Times Square. She had already been. If you have ever been to Times Square, then you know it’s kind of a one-time thing. You don’t really need to do it more than once unless you have a lot of money that you are just dying to spend on outrageously priced M&M trinkets.

As with most highly-populated places, there are about a billion street vendors milling about (that’s an estimate; there were probably more). They are trying to sell you all kinds of things – paintings, photographs, tickets, bags. But as I listened to them yell at the passers-by I realized that I was getting a great lesson in sales and marketing.

There was one interaction that was especially informative. I call it the “Kid Coming Through” technique – the KCTT. One vendor was selling pictures or something, and he wasn’t having much luck. Everyone was basically ignoring him, and he didn’t have a real good location on the street. He was up against a wall, both metaphorically and literally.

But he saw an opportunity. There was a young dad pushing his child through the crowd, and the vendor started yelling, “Hey, kid coming through” in order to clear the crowd for him. That is the KCTT. It’s that simple. Here’s a breakdown of how it works:

1. It draws attention to yourself. You have an excuse to yell louder than everyone else. And you can use it all you want. No one is going to reprimand you when you are yelling for the less fortunate.

2. You come out looking like a philanthropist. Even if you are doing it for purely self-motivated reasons, the objective reality is that you are actually doing something for someone else. And people respect that.

3. Friends are more likely to buy from you than strangers. The dad with the stroller is now your friend. It’s going to be harder for him to say no to you now.

The KCTT is cool, but I think it’s important to remember that it’s a lot cooler when it’s motivated by love.

Righting Texts

When friends get in a relationship, one of my favorite things to say to them is that they are in a “honeymoon phase.” That lovey dovey feeling? Not going to last forever. Those feelings aren’t “real” love. And I am completely qualified to say things like that. It’s true.  Because single 21-year-old males are easily the most qualified to make claims like that.

I’m in this class on the psychology of narrative this quarter. And I was reading an essay by Michael White today about the analogies psychologists use to explain human relationships and stories. For a long time, beginning with Freud, the only analogies used by psychologists were that of science – either machines or organisms. These analogies do a lot of things correctly, but they have a major short-coming: they pathologize any deviation from what is considered the norm. If there is a break down in a machine, it stops working. If there is a break down in an organism, it gets sick.

Ironically, as White points out, the biologic and machine analogies are static. A scientific system can only be one way. It does not allow for multiple truths. So when the “honeymoon phase” passes, the assumption is that the objective reality of the issue is that there was always some glaring problem in the relationship.

White thinks we can reject this position by using another analogy. If relationships are seen like a text, then the “honeymoon” phase and the phase after become competing texts. Neither is any more true or any more real than the other. Thus, White suggests, the couple can identify the text they like the most and why and construct a relationship that involves those things.

There is an idea floating around out there that genetics is much more intimately influenced by our choices than we ever thought. Some people think that genes that we activate during our life time are more likely to be passed on to our children. That’s incredible to me. And it seems impossible. That’s how I feel about changing stories, or “texts.” It feels impossible. It feels like someone telling us “Just change your story” is simplistic and overly reductive. And that’s true: it is overly reductive.

You can’t just wake up one morning and decide that you are never going to leave your honeymoon phase. You have to make a commitment to incorporating the story you want into the reality of day-to-day life. But it’s possible.

Your life is not a machine. One messed up thing does not ruin it. That wrong thing is just a story that doesn’t have an end yet. Write (right) it.

 

My Fisher King Wound

There is a Chinese story about fish. It begins with fish overhearing two fishermen talking about water. The fish decides to quest in order to find this mysterious substance. After many years he comes back to his fish friends who ask him if he found it. And he says “Yes, but you wouldn’t believe what I found.”

I found a version of this story in a book called He by the psychologist Robert Johnson. Johnson is a Jungian psychologist and his book is all about how the myth of the Holy Grail can be used to explain male psychology. He theorizes that every man is like the Fisher King. The Fisher King, according to Arthurian legend, suffers from a wound that cannot be healed except by drinking from the Grail. He is unable to drink from it, though. In such a condition, he must wait for an “idiot fool” to come and ask the question that will save him – “Whom does the Grail serve?” For Johnson, every man has a Fisher King wound. We all have something that is broken that we are seeking to fix.

I know that I have a Fisher King wound. Mine is a sense of inadequacy. I seek others’ approval. I want to feel loved and needed. And because I cling to this wound so hard, I make it impossible for others to love and need me.

A lot of traditions have a name for this wound. Christianity has the concept of original sin or of sin, more generally. Most of my struggles with sin come out of this wound, I think. For example, I struggle with pride because I think if I put on enough of a confident show, people will like me better.

I am often convinced that if I just searched harder for love, happiness, or God that I will find what I seek. But there is no searching. The fish does not need to search for water. He is in water. The answer comes when we approach it from the perspective of the idiot fool. If we ask, more than likely, we will see that the answer has been before us all along. We do not need to search for love/happiness/God; we are in it.

God is Gestaltian

There’s a psychological school, theory, or effect (depending on who you talk to) known as Gestalt psychology. Gestalt is a German term meaning “essence or shape of an entity’s complete form.” Pretty heavy stuff.

The basic Gestalt effect is best summarized by the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. There are a lot of different pictures and optical illusions that demonstrate the Gestalt effect. But here’s a relatively good one:

Instead of just seeing three Pacmen and three acute angles when looking at this picture, most people see a white triangle overlapping a black-outlined triangle and three black circles. That’s good ol’ Gestalt working hard.

The Gestalt effect, as a concept that was talked about, originated in the late 19th century. Until then, most people thought that if you studied a thing’s parts, you were studying that thing.

To the modern mind, ingrained with Gestaltian thinking, the idea that people didn’t consider the Gestalt effect seems absurd. I was pondering this absurdity when I remembered the words of Jesus in Matthew 18:20:

 For where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them.

And there it is. The truth of the Gestalt effect right there in the Bible. One person plus one person does not equal two people. It equals two people and God and a dynamic relationship.

5:1 Says that KIPP Journey has Relationships Figured Out

Two days ago, I wrote a post about visiting KIPP Journey in Columbus. In that time, it has become the most popular post on this site. Which is pretty cool. And it’s doubly cool because I didn’t even include everything that blew me away about the school.

In every classroom, there was a blue poster on the wall. All it said was “5:1.” As the day progressed, my peers and I routinely whispered about it. What did it mean? Why should a simple ratio have such a prominent place in the classroom?

We got our answer when we had the opportunity to sit down with Dustin Wood, the School Director and OU alum (Go Bobcats!).  He said 5:1 is a ratio that comes from psychologist, John Gottman’s study of marriages. Gottman found he could predict the success of marriages with 90% accuracy based on the ratio of the number of positive remarks said on a daily basis to the number of negative remarks said on a daily basis. If a relationship stayed around 5:1, it was probably going to succeed.

Wood and the teachers at KIPP Journey have started using the ratio as a way of ensuring the success of their students. When Wood does teacher evaluations, he records how many positive and negative remarks a teacher makes. The goal is to keep everyone above 5:1.

Observe any class at KIPP Journey, and it becomes exceedingly obvious that all of the teachers are constantly thinking about this ratio. They are like parents. They constantly hand out “I love you”s and terms of endearment and encouragement to their students. Even failures are repackaged as successes.

In one class, student had bell work. The teacher used two different students’ work as examples. One of them didn’t get full credit on the problem, though. But he had done something really great to deserve the first point, and so he was applauded for what he had done correctly instead of chastised for what he had done wrong.

I am convinced that interactions like these make all the difference.

I made a comment the other day that I wish the whole world was run like a KIPP school. The more I learn about the program, the more I am convinced that a wish like that could change everything. What if we made a conscious effort to follow the 5:1 ratio in everything we did? What would that look like?