Failure Friday: More on the Irony of Optimism

Do you remember the Monty Python sketch about the “argument clinic?” The Pythons always had a bit of a punch-line challenge and they liked to end a sketch by throwing in something random like, in this case, having Michael Palin walk into a room where Terry Jones is offering “getting hit on the head lessons.”

So yesterday I was browsing the archives of a blog called The Golden Echo, and I came across a post tagged “Failure Friday.” As I have an interest in failure, I thought I would like to steal, er, offer an homage to the Failure Friday tag. I wondered, however, if I could come up with enough failure material for a recurring feature.

Fate intervened, for today I was reading Stat (of course I read medical blogs) and I stumbled upon an article by Sara Whitlock with the title “One Reason Young People Don’t Go Into Science? We Don’t Fail Well.” Whitlock’s thesis is that repeated failure is “the fundamental underpinning of scientific resilience.”

(It is, undoubtedly, the fundamental underpinning of resilience in the arts as well. By the time anyone is making a career as an artist, dancer, musician, actor or writer he has gone through more than his fair share of rejection and failure.)

Westerners in general, and Americans particularly, face a lot of social pressure to be above average. We’re consumers of books on “success,” and we are judgmental of those who do not achieve it. Success means standing out, showing a talent that you have above and beyond others. Talent is thought to be innate, part of an individual’s makeup.

A number of studies have found that Asian cultures take a different approach. For example a 2001 study had Canadian and Japanese students take a so-called creativity test. It did not test anything, but the experimenters gave the subjects feedback on how well they had performed then they watched their reactions. When they were told they were successful, Canadians worked longer. With the Japanese it was completely the opposite. They worked harder if they failed.

One big East/West divide, according to Richard Nisbett, author of The Geography of Thought, is that Westerners are focused on building and shoring up our individual identities. In the East it is different:

Some linguistic facts illustrate the social-psychological gap between East and West. In Chinese there is no word for “individualism.” The closest one can come is the word for “selfishness.” The Chinese character jên— benevolence— means two men. In Japanese, the word “I”— meaning the trans-situational, unconditional, generalized self with all its attributes, goals, abilities, and preferences— is not often used in conversation. Instead, Japanese has many words for “I,” depending on audience and context.

We believe each person has a consistent self that remains stable regardless of the context. This self can be either “creative” or “not so creative.” The Canadian therefore takes the feedback on the creativity test as information on how creative a person he is. If it turns out he is not “creative” he will want to move on to what he is good at, leave creativity to “creatives,” and try to develop his core competency. The Japanese subjects do not take the test as a measure of their inherent qualities, rather as a challenge at which they can improve.

Nisbett concluded, “Westerners are likely to get very good at a few things they start out doing well to begin with. Easterners seem more likely to become Jacks and Jills of all trades.”

We might try science, but if we don’t stand out fairly quickly we move on to try to find out where we do excel. This makes us less resilient in the face of failure. Whitlock cites a 2011 study that examined resiliency in disadvantaged students in a number of countries and concluded that non-US students were more resilient than we are. Is there a moral to this story?

Maybe we need to sign up for more getting hit on the head lessons.




Quote of the Day: What is Your Name and Why Do You Care?

According to the Creek author Joy Harjo, the foundation of good protocol in Indigenous territory is self-identification… Secwepemc scholar Natalie Clark reframes Harjo’s protocol as a question: “who are you and why do you care?” I take this question and the responsibility of naming myself as a serious and ongoing process: the question of the name is not one that can be definitively answered at any one given time. Because they erupt out of the space between subjects, identities and motives are in a constant state of flux: they move slowly overtop a mantle of bodily presence. It’s like plate tectonics, a scientific theory that took what appeared to be ineradicably stationary (the ground under our feet), and illuminated the enduring amble of continental drift. Like the land beneath us, our identities drift, following the currents of new relationships and communities, but the ground remains the same. It is a freeing realization to recognize that identity is in motion (however slowly), but it doesn’t release us from the responsibility of self-assessment or the obligation to probe our own privileges and motives—in fact, it highlights that identifying ourselves should be a persistent practice, one that we regularly revisit in our work and community engagement.-David Gaertner, “Narrative Tectonics: A Settler Scholar in Indigenous Studies,” Novel Alliances

Is Your Online Self Different from your Offline Self? Which Offline Self?

An article by Lauren Gardner in yesterday’s Inflectionist reflects on the difference between how we present ourselves in the semi-anonymous world of the internet and how we present ourselves offline. Gardner argues that humanity would be well-served if we were able to better integrate these two versions of self. We need to let our “online and offline personas merge,” she says.

The erasure of personal boundaries that the online world offers can be greatly beneficial in our offline interactions; it opens us up, encourages us to mingle with all walks of life, and proves to be a great learning experience. If we felt as comfortable being honest with people offline as we do online, we would see a great shift in our personal connections. Sometimes boundaries get in the way of truly understanding, appreciating and empathizing with someone.

By the same token, the formality that the offline world offers can be greatly beneficial to our online interactions. If we communicated in the online world half as gracefully as we do in the offline world, we would see how effective eloquent communication is in getting our points across.

Before we can merge our online self with an offline self, though, we have a bit of merging to do to create a single offline persona. In the offline world your parent persona is much different than your hanging-out-with-friends persona. Your job interview persona is different from your evening-with-your-lover persona. Your interacting-with-a-shop-clerk persona is different from your coffee-hour-in-church persona.

Maybe there are times when it would make life better if we were as nurturing to our bosses as to our children, or as affectionate with our shop clerks as with our lovers or as formal with our families as with the high status we are work hard to impress. For the most part, presenting different personas for different people in different places is simply what we do.

Is one of these personas the real you? Are all of them aspects of you or are none of them really you?

How Hard Do You Have to Work to Get Angry Over Flowers?

I remember a video in which Stephen Fry shares some of his life’s wisdom. One of his pieces of advice is never to read comments on articles in blogs or on news sites. I have to say I tend to agree with him. You can read a story and feel inspired or curious or happy or intellectually stimulated but when you scroll past the end of the text you are brought to earth with a decisive thud. You are almost guaranteed to find someone insulting the writer in personal terms or pontificating in a bitter way about politics and what is wrong with the world.

I went looking for the Stephen Fry clip I remembered, but didn’t find it. I did come across an article on Bit-101 that quotes Fry as saying:

And similarly as long as you don’t lower your eyes when reading a blog, as long as you don’t go down to the comment section where the trolls lurk, where the viciousness is because that’s… I mean there really is just suppurating, boiling seas of acid where if you just so much as dip a toe you’ve lost your limbs you know, just vileness abounding. Again, there is this resentment, “I will be heard and not only will I be heard I will offend.” “I will tear.” “I will lacerate.” “I will wound.” “I want the sensibilities of anyone who disagrees with me to be bruised beyond mending.” That kind of attitude is very strong on the net and for all that we can be advocates for the glory and the democracy that exists online we must be aware too that that dark side of humanity that just needs to be heard…

Perhaps the first commenter was engaging in a bit of participatory performance art. For he said:

sorry but i can hardly be bothered to read or listen to this guy

like most mentally ill people fry is narcissistic and actually rather boring. he craps on about apple most of the time and as far as i’m concerned deserves to be ignored

So we know that the anonymity of the internet sometimes causes people to forget that article writers are human and entitled to the same kind of courtesy as the people you meet face to face.

I was surprised, however, to see the familiar “what is wrong with the world” tone appear in the comments of a feel-good article in the local paper. Good Karma: Smithtown Man Wins $3 Million Lotto Jackpot After Buying Flowers for his Wife.

Perhaps I should have expected the comments to devolve into a discussion of bad marriages and traditional gender roles, but I did not.

Does this kind of article really need open comments anyway?

The other day I reflected on Oscar Wilde’s aphorism “give a man a mask and he’ll tell you the truth.” I concluded that it was both entirely true and entirely untrue. (The other day I did an interview for All Indie Magazine. After re-reading my answers I wished I had been a bit less literal and a bit more Wildean. I said, ” I tend to talk about serious things using humor and sometimes humorous things in seriousness.”  I should have left the word “sometimes” out of it. Less literal but a much better phrase.)

I would suggest that we have, in the internet era, a grand test of Wilde’s thesis. The internet demonstrates exactly how people interact when disguised and veiled. People seem to enjoy the freedom of being unknown while all the while they long to be known. They scream to be heard, and shout things they would never say if it could be connected to their day to day identities. The content of many of those anonymous screams when you get right down to it is “love me.” Listen to my views, consider me, notice me. Don’t walk by and treat me as if I do not exist, as if I am expendable. I matter.

My forthcoming novel Identity Theft (see the end of this article to learn more about it) deals with this malady of modern life. Each of the main characters feels disconnected and isolated. Two of them turn to the internet to find a sense of connection. I mentioned in my All Indie Magazine interview that most of the characters in Identity Theft use names that are different from those they were born with. Interestingly, I realized on re-reading this observation that the only exception is Ethan, the character who decides to take on an entirely different identity online. I could go into a lot of deep reflection on what this is meant to represent, but I don’t really know. It is one of those things that is there for the reader to ponder if she wants to.

Ethan and Candi, the fan he decides to write to in the guise of his rock star boss, interact in a unique way. They are both masked and unmasked by their internet flirtation. Ethan, playing the part of a rock star, gets to be the person he has always wanted to be. Candi is able to pursue a fantasy she would never be bold enough to go after “in real life.”

Thus there are parts of each of them that are only revealed because of the mask. Yet it is not fair to say that using these masks they are revealing “the truth.” While things that are normally concealed are revealed, things that ought to be revealed must be concealed.

The ultimate truth may be that the self is too large, too fluid and contextual, to ever be revealed all at once. The best we can do is reveal parts of ourselves. The most we can do is catch glimpses of others.

I promised to tell you more about my novel here. I need your help to get it into print. I am running a Pubslush campaign to fund its creation. It has started out very strong and I am grateful to everyone who has contributed so far, but with 12 days to go there is still a long way to go. As of today it is 29% funded. The levels of support are modest and are essentially pre-orders of the book. A print book, for example, is $15. Please follow the link above and read more about the novel and how to order.

Give a Man a Mask and He’ll Tell You the Truth?

Oscar Wilde was always saying things that made you go hmmm.  Often they have the effect of making you say, “Oh yes, that is true. Wait. Is that true?”

One of his most famous aphorisms is the one quoted above. “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

This phrase seems to be both profoundly true and profoundly untrue.

There are things that people are willing to reveal only when they are able to remain anonymous. Sometimes you do not want the burden of having your particular idea attributed to your social identity. You will only reveal something when that identity is obscured and the statement won’t go down on your permanent record.

This is often the case with art. A playwright or novelist might be able to explore the negative emotions, vulnerabilities and flaws of fictional people while all the while expending enormous social energy to hide his own weakness from those who surround him in life.

So Wilde’s statement is true. Sometimes when you are hidden you are more revealed.

But only sometimes.

Intuitively we also understand that when you are hidden  you  are  hidden.

Our “persons,” our selves, are not neatly distinct from outside observers.

“…individuals’ personalities— yours and mine included— are not as stable as we think they are. We’re more influenced by those around us than we’d like to believe. Even our private sense of identity is highly context-dependent,” wrote Sam Sommers in Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World. “..We’re easily seduced by the notion of stable character. So much of who we are, how we think, and what we do is driven by the situations we’re in, yet we remain blissfully unaware of it.”

The question becomes is there actually a stable “truth” about the person behind the mask to reveal?

One of my favorite passages from Situations Matter was this one about self-help:

How, exactly , do we get acquainted with this core self? A trip to the local bookstore suggests that the answer has something to do with chicken soup. That, plus we’re supposed to ask ourselves questions like these suggested by Dr. Phil: “ What are the 10 most defining moments of your life?” “What are the 7 most critical choices you have made to put you on your current path?” “Who are the 5 most pivotal people in your world and how have they shaped you?” Dr. Phil’s questions share a common link. And I don’t just mean the use of arbitrary digits that I can only assume were once his fortune cookie lucky numbers. Their more important shared characteristic is the assumption that introspection produces reliable self-insight. These questions imply that looking inward provides some sort of direct channel to your internal preferences, deepest thoughts, and true motivations. It’s a nice idea, that you have an authentic self lurking within, waiting to be unveiled. But your answers to Dr. Phil’s questions— like your responses to the Twenty Statements Test— change across time and location. So which are the authentic ones?

Is my true identity the person you think I am, the credentials on my resume, my credit score, who I think I am today or who I thought I was a year ago? Was the vulnerable self who suffered once from unrequited love my true self? Is the frightened self who is stressed by calls from creditors my self? Is the peaceful, relaxed self who listens to music my true self? Do those negative emotions I will only reveal when I put on a mask represent my true self? Perhaps they are simply waves in a fluid being.

I spent a lot of time thinking about different aspects of identity when writing my latest novel Identity Theft. All of the characters struggle with some aspect of identity.  Please follow the link above to read more about it. I am taking orders for advanced copies through Pubslush to fund its production. I am pleased that in the first two days the project is already 21% funded. However, I need your help to push it over the top. Unless the project meets its goal, it will not be funded. You can be part of bringing this novel to life. When you go to the Pubslush page, you can read more about the novel’s characters and my inspiration for it. You will not need to make a payment today. In fact, because it is all or nothing, you only pay if the project reaches its target goal. In the event that it is successful, you will make your payment at the end of the campaign 17 days from now.

Vanishing Vanity

decayWe humans spend a lot of time building and reinforcing our public images. We buy clothes that serve as social costumes– I am a serious job candidate, I am a hipster, I am a biker, I am an artist… We chase after job titles, polish resumes and check our faces in the mirror.

Have you ever had that experience of looking in the mirror and finding your own face just a bit unfamiliar?

The other day I was searching for an image that would represent a loss of identity. I have decided to try self-publishing my second novel and I needed an image to serve as a working cover on the Pubslush site.  I found a fascinating set of ghostly images on The Public Domain Review.   These decayed daguerrotypes have slowly erased the people who were pictured in them. They are quite haunting.

decay2A pair of French artists, Bertrand Lanthiez and Chloé Curé, are creating the same effect in real time with an interactive installation project called We Are Narcisses.

portrait21The project uses water and a speaker to create a mirror that distorts the image of the viewer the longer he gazes at his image. The inspiration for the project was Narcissus, who gazed at his image at a pond and fell in love with it.  The artists want the viewer to look inward for a definition of self.