Discussion: Is your life a story?

The importance of stories to humans cannot be overstated.  Well perhaps it can, but I’ve yet to see anybody succeed yet. 🙂  I’ve written about the importance of stories before.  My interest in the subject began when reading the novels Name of the Wind and A Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss.  It is clear that we learn from stories.  In fact it is often suggested that as a method of pedagogy that we try to create narratives, try to use storytelling to teach.  I’ve yet to find a way to do this with fluid dynamics, but when I think about how I retain knowledge best, it is certainly the ability to think in terms of stories, rather than a lose collection of facts.  When teaching, even if you don’t have a story to tell, trying to create a common thread through your lessons does help.

A former student, and now friend, would often start a conversation with people she was just meeting and getting to know with the question “Tell me the story of your life.”  I think it’s pretty easy to see our lives as a story.  I am not sure though that this is something we do when we are adolescents.  Perhaps we haven’t lived long enough, and it is unclear when this process begins, but at some point you will look at the past and forecast into the future and there will seem to be this story you are playing out.

But is this a good way of thinking about our lives?  Sometimes I think we do this because it seems more interesting, and even though I still think there is a lot of values to stories, perhaps we shouldn’t be seeing our own life as a story.

Some philosophical meat to think about here is are you the same person in the past as you are in the future?  Stories tend to follow a particular character who may change, but rarely as much as actual humans do.  Is your 20 year old self the same as your 60 year old self?  Maybe at best we are a series of shorter stories instead of one long story.  Our desire for continuity and cause and effect perhaps extends the narrative for longer than it perhaps should.

More importantly when we think our life in terms of a story do we then sometimes predict the ending?  Do we limit ourselves by having expectations based on this narrative we have about our lives?  In a recent podcast I listened too, they profiled a family who had a story of their life.  They were beekeepers, and when tragedy struck and it all came to an end, they could see themselves any other way.  What they had been doing for 40 years was who they were.  Their house decorated with bees.  How do you change the story when life takes an unexpected turn?  It can be very difficult to find happiness or contentedness when expectations do not match the reality of your situation.  This podcast also did another episode where they talked about changing your story and how doing that can help us move on.  We might find inspiration in others who have changed the story of their lives, we may also become limited by others who assume that we can’t change our story.  Perhaps we have no choice but to see our lives as a story, and if we are going to do that, perhaps we just need to learn how to better hijack that process to write those new chapters that can take the story into a different direction.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject?  Do you think of your life as a story?  Do you think it’s good or bad that you do?  Have you had to change your story unexpectedly?  Was it difficult?

There is a nice discussion on the topic on another podcast I listen to if you are interested in thinking about this subject more.

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I’m Expecting

Well if you thought the last post was about abortion or birth control, then you’ll think this one is about me being pregnant.  Life is strange. 🙂

In my last post about how we make plans and goals I mentioned that one of the things we have to decide about our goals may have to be how realistic they actually are and this relates to expectations.  Lowering our expectations may make it easier to achieve our goals, but we may not then know how far we could have gone, while having expectations too high may leave one with feelings of disappointment.  Of course, as I also mentioned before, there may be other variables that we cannot predict that might lead one to not meet our goals, but very often we internalize our failures and can chastise ourselves for setting our sights too high.

My thinking about expectations was once again inspired by a podcast I listen to called Invisibilia on NPR.  In one episode titled “How to Become Batman” we hear the story of Daniel Kish who had both of his eyes remove due to a disease at 13 months, but can “see”.  He uses echolocation by making clicking noises.  As a result, he is able to ride his back in traffic, hike, cook, walk around and has an amazing ability to know the distances objects are from him through

his echolocation technique.  In his story he tells us about a kid from elementary school who joined his school from a school for the blind, and unlike Daniel this kid was helpless and had to be led around everywhere.  Daniel had developed his echolocation technique early and was already quite independent at a young age.  Daniel believes that one of the reasons that blind people can’t see is because nobody expects the too.  That if we raised our expectations that many blind children could develop this echolocation technique.  Daniel teaches children whose parents are interested but he says it’s a challenge because as Daniel says it takes a lot of trial and error and can get, well, bloody.  The point is that higher expectations are the best path to reaching higher heights.  Students who have high expectations for their students generally get students who do perform at a higher level, even if they don’t meet those expectations.  If you try to get an A in a class, you will generally do better in that class than any student who comes into the class just hoping they pass.  People often talk about self-fulfilling prophecies and this is a large part is how astrology works and how people come to validate the predictions of psychics is because once an idea is planted we often want it to become true and it does.  Students who say to me “they can’t do science” generally perform poorly.

Having high expectations has its downside however.  Having high expectations as a professor I think are good, but good pedagogy is also guiding the students towards a path that will reach those higher heights.  Without it, students can disengage quickly and not progress at all.  And of course feelings of disappointment, feelings that you did or will not meet the expectations of another can be a source of depression and anxiety.  How many times have we had high expectations in a movie only to be disappointed that it wasn’t all that good, whereas a movie we had low expectations for we are often pleased or pleasantly surprised when the movie is as good or better than we expected?  A good portion of our country feel that there is nothing we can do about criminals and so the best thing we can do is get a gun, in contrast to those who know that the murder rate can be smaller and that there is nothing wrong with having expectations that we as a society can reduce the rate of violent crime.  Given perhaps our propensity to focus on the negative, it is no small wonder that we often learn in life to lower our expectations or even develop apathy or pessimism as a way of avoiding grief, heartache, or anxiety.  Apathy in this case, to me, is an attempt to have no expectations, whereas pessimism is to always expect the negative outcome.  Personally I feel that apathy eventually leaves us to become emotionless, taking all the joy out of life at the expense just so we can avoid grief.  Pessimism, in my opinion, is almost worse because when the expectation is for things to be negative they generally are, and you are unlikely to ever be pleasantly surprise.  In fact many pessimistic people eventually turn into people that can find the bad in every good situation.  So while some can take it to extremes, there is at least a reason why we often lower our expectations in one situation or another.

So even though we know that higher expectations out of ourselves or others, lead to better results than lower expectations, why do we not always set our sights higher?  I have discussed before the conflict we all face between security and risk, and I believe this is part of that same conflict.  Lowering expectations can give us a better sense of security and in the end might would lead to on average more happiness.  High expectations on the other hand are a risk, but more often yield better results, even when we don’t meet those expectations.  Just recently I saw a very interesting short video shown below that asks the question, “Should we be pursuing happiness?”  Maybe happiness is overrated, maybe it’s not what really drives us.  In the video he talks about great scientists and artists who are ready to suffer for their work.  I have seen

myself some of the finest minds in my field spend little time with their spouse or children for the sake of discovering something new.  In the video Zizek talks about scientists who, even knowing they could die from radiation poisoning, still worked with radioactive materials because they set their sights on discovering something important.  Sometimes greatness comes at the expense of even their very lives.  I’m not saying we are all destined to be great, and I am not trying to imply that there isn’t value to happiness.  I think that some balance is part of good emotional health, and a clear mind, and we would likely be even more productive if we strove for a little more balance in life, but once again we see the value of risk and how it constantly pushes ourselves and society to become more.

So what is the answer to dealing with the disappointment of not meeting those expectations?  It seems that most advice, and indeed I had even trouble finding any positive quotations about expectations are to not have expectations or to lower them. My feeling is that if we are to maintain high expectations and avoid the pitfalls associated with them then it is a focus on the process.  To focus on where you’ve started and where you are now, as opposed to where you aren’t.  Try to remember that few people with lofty goals ever meet them, and very often getting close is still pretty amazing, because what you’ve learned along the way, not only a specific sense, but likely other important values like perseverance and courage will serve you well as you change directions or perhaps continue down the path you are on.  Likely there are plenty of things to be happy about and proud of even when you fall short.  In the end I feel there is more shame in stagnation over progress, unless you already in a utopia, but I haven’t met anybody like that before.  Happy New Year all!  Don’t be afraid of being bold with your resolutions.

Plan B

Don’t worry this one won’t be about abortion.  I was listening to an excellent podcast called The Hidden Brain recently and the subject was backup plans (episode 8).  It is worth listening to, but I’ll save you some time and summarize.  Basically the program discussed research that showed that people who have back up plans tend to not be as successful in their primary plan or “plan A”.  I have written blogs posts in the past that look at the value of taking risk versus staying safe, and so this subject caught my brain’s attention.  It seems to me that developing a backup plan is something that runs along the lines of playing it safe.  Yet by playing safe we might end up more likely not getting what we really want in life.  So what’s the right answer?  Is there a right answer?

First I began to wonder, why do we do we develop a primary goal to begin with?  The primary goal represents our own hopes and dreams and in theory represents what we really want out of life.  A primary goal should also lead us to a feeling of security while also maximizing our happiness.  At least that’s what we think.  It makes sense that without a backup plan our only choice would to be put ourselves entirely into making this goal work, persevere and never give up.  Having a plan B might make it difficult when things get hard.  With any goal that is hard to reach there are setbacks, frustrations, moments of doubt.  There is absolute value in being able to push through those times to reach one’s goal.

If our plan A is what will make us the happiest and the safest, why do we then come up with a plan B?  I often council my students to have backup plans when applying for graduate school, like picking a few schools with perhaps lower standards so that if they don’t get in to their top choices they will still have a graduate program to get into.  There is a lot about having a backup plan that seems prudent, and this, to me, is simply because we can’t know the future.  We don’t know all the variables.  A student with a 4.0 GPA may still not get into the graduate school of their choice, because it is unknown how many positions they will have open, whether they might opt for a student they know better because he/she came from their program, whether there aren’t other extracurricular experiences that might make one candidate more desirable than another than just GPA, or perhaps a student’s interests simply don’t match up with a professor who has a graduate student position available.  Now if a student could afford to put their life on hold, and didn’t have to worry about money, it might be a worthwhile tactic to keep applying to the same school you want each year until you get in.  The higher the risk of a primary goal, the more perseverance will likely pay off provided you actually have the skill.  The reality is that seldom do we have the ability to always stick with something long enough when we are in need of resources to be able to survive.  In addition to that an inability to understand all the variables that can lead us to success, we may also overestimate our own ability.  As a professor I have certainly come across many of these students also.  Having a backup plan is crucial when a primary plan is even less probably in achieving because the person has overestimated their own ability.  Of course it could also be that my ability to estimate somebody else’s ability may be incorrect as well.  Either way, I think there is an equal amount of positive arguments that could be made for having a backup plan.

I tried to think about whether I am person who makes backup plans or not.  I think that, in general I do not, although I would say part of the reason for that is that I am not sure I have had very specific primary goals.  I wanted to be a meteorologist and become a professor.  I guess I added some specificity to that over time, but I never really said, I have to live in a big city, or in a particular area, I have always tried to be realistic beforehand in what the uncertainties are, and so even though I never had a backup plan, I never set my sights particularly high.  Of course this one possible solution to living life by only having a plan A, and that is to make sure plan A isn’t really that hard to achieve.  This could also be seen to be a questionable strategy as having lowered expectations can also have its pitfalls and is something I would like to follow this post discussing in greater detail.
One study that was discussed in the podcast was one that found that students whose parents paid for their tuition did on average worse than students whose money came from other sources such as student loans or their own pockets.  This study concluded that the reason was simply that students whose parents paid for tuition weren’t as driven because they had nothing to lose, and the security of their parents in case school didn’t work out.  As a college professor I have certainly seen this ring through.  While there are some students who work so much to put themselves through school and thus as a result end up doing poorly because they have too little time to study, in general the students who perform better are ones who either pay for tuition themselves or who take loans out and know they will have to pay it back.  However I was one of those students whose parents paid my tuition.  My family was not wealthy and while the cost of tuition in Canada compared to the U.S. was less and I lived at home, my parents had put a little money away each month since my birth and that came to enough to put me through 4 years of college.  Unlike the results of the study,  I did fairly well at school, I felt the exact opposite of a lackadaisical attitude precisely because my parents were putting my through college.  It was not my money I was using.  I don’t really want to waste my own money either, but in the end it’s my money and I can live with it if I end up wasting some, but to waste somebody else’s hard earned money that they put away and did without many of the creature comforts themselves to give me brighter future…well this increased my sense of responsibility to do well in school.  I suppose I did have the security of staying at home until I figured out what I wanted to do with my life, I really had no backup plan but being a meteorologist and then eventually becoming a professor.  Regardless it doesn’t seem like in all cases having a safety net is necessarily counter to achieving what we want in life.  When I look at my own life, I know my parents taught me the value of money, even if it wasn’t my own, and more importantly I loved and respected them and would never want to disappoint them by doing poorly in school and throwing away their money. Maybe it’s because I knew that they didn’t have much money to spare that made me respect the fact that they were paying my tuition more.

I am not sure I can conclude anything concrete from all this as I am still in the exploration phase of this idea, but it seems to me that in the end maybe whether we have just a plan A, or both a plan A and plan B isn’t the most important thing.  Maybe what matters most are the values we are raised with.  One can still achieve a plan A, even with a plan B provided we recognize that plan A simply doesn’t get achieved without putting our full effort forward.  Maybe our default to a plan B is simply because we really didn’t want plan A enough.  I know plenty of students whose plan A was given to them by their parents and has very little to do with their own plans for themselves.

Are you the type of person who makes a plan B or do you usually just make a plan A?   I am interested in learning how your plans have worked out, so please feel free to leave a comment.

Expectations

First you waited, then I waited
I might be waiting a long time,
I hate long waits
But there is something worse
That’s having expectations
Expecting is like having fun,
Without even doing anything,
But what else can you expect with love?
Just be happy in the moment?
It sounds good on paper,
I’m not going to lie to you,
In fact I tried it and it’s true,
Love is so much better,
When you’re focusing on the moment,
You can really…get to know love that way,
In fact it’s so good you want it to stay,
And to never ever go away,
Somewhere deep inside though,
We know. Nothing. Is. Permanent.
 
But sticky problems have solutions,
Every good heist needs an inside man,
“Our designs are top notch,
You won’t find them anywhere else,
They almost seem made for you”
Says my fortune teller inside me,
Maybe that’s what psychics are,
People who enjoy building dreams so much,
That they want to do it for others,
The drama queen in all of us,
The irony of it all is,
I don’t believe in psychics,
The moment is all that matters,
If you care about the future,
But the right way is so hard,
And the wrong path has better scenery,
There are so many things to look at,
You won’t notice falling off the cliff,
Well at least until you land.
 
That’s not a good moment,
But then again…what else did you expect?