What I Have Learned so Far: Life Lessons, Part II

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Here is a second round of ideas about the process of living accumulated in a lifetime of observation and action — success, error, and reflection. My profession allowed me access to the thoughts and stumbles, ascensions and tumbles of thousands of folks. Some of my learning is crafted into the bits below. I published an essay on January 8 with the same title, labeled Part I. Perhaps there will be a third set after a while. Here goes the second one:

  • “Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.” Einstein most often gets credit for saying so, but the real author is William Bruce Cameron. So much for justice.
  • “Buddies don’t count,” as my friend John Kain says. He meant we should not keep score or expect perfect equity in any relationship. Close attention to a balance sheet will make us (and our soon-to-be former friend) miserable.
  • Know thyself” is inscribed at the Temple of Apollo. I never met anyone who understood himself completely, myself included. Self-awareness is a “more or less” commodity. We consume too much time preoccupied with what others think of us, analyzing why they did what they did, said what they said. One might more profitably endeavor to know oneself and do good in the world.
  • The ability to start over is essential. I counseled people who made dramatic career changes (from powerhouse attorney to clergyman, for example). I had to evaluate patients afresh to see if I was missing something or misunderstanding their makeup. We must occasionally wipe clean the mirror of our thinking and let ourselves be shocked or enlightened by our unphotoshopped image. As Max Weber suggested, whether we wish to or not, our lives will be influenced by how much truth about ourselves and the world we can bear.
  • To understand yourself you need to know your roots. Our ancestors survived, chose mates, and produced children. We inherited their genes and therefore possess the same urges. These forebears also had to detect who was like them and might be friendly, and who was different and might be dangerous. Fruit enabled survival, so we were handed their love of sweets. The creation of tools further enhanced the chance of staying alive. The ability to form cooperative groups helped, as well. Since they didn’t live long, the genes they delivered to us gave us instincts that worked for what we now think of as the first half of life.
  • A troubling aspect of evolution is that it enabled survival, not happiness. Happiness became the bi-product of human actions only if the emotion helped make sure the kids were born, survived, and thrived. The joy produced by love, for instance, bonded families and increased the likelihood the children would come to generate offspring of their own in time.

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  • We tend to think in terms of before and after: before and after school, before and after you left home; a first job, the death of someone you loved, a first sexual encounter, etc.
  • We don’t need permission from very many people. Asking “to be allowed” means you will hear “no” more than the guy who doesn’t. Such requests make you the hostage of waiters, your children, and people you will never meet again. Often it is OK to just do what you want. No one will stop or question you. The world, within limits, tends to adjust. A wonderful sense of liberation awaits.
  • We need to evaluate our default (automatic) tendencies. Some of us take action, others wait. Some routinely approach, others reflexively avoid. Our strengths can also be our weaknesses when applied to the wrong situations. Best to apply as needed, rather than by default.
  • Personality disorders cause us to rerun mistakes, like an old episode of a poor TV show. One is well-advised to recognize flawed life strategies — recurring behavior patterns contributing to our disappointments. We otherwise risk familiar and fruitless searches for the wrong people; too many or too few chances taken and, either ignoring tomorrow for pleasure today or focusing so much on tomorrow we miss the glory and opportunity offered by the new sunrise.
  • “In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king.” Within a group of unremarkable people, you can stand out without being extraordinary. Becoming a big fish in a small pond is easy because the pond is tiny, with little competition, and the other fish are not so fine as you are.
  • There are fewer small ponds these days. Over our history, especially when villages and small towns predominated, we could achieve high status without difficulty. Now we must compete with people all over the globe.
  • The only thing you control is what you do, what you think. The attempt to change other adults is a fool’s errand unless they want to be altered, like an article of clothing needing to be resized. Remember the old psychotherapy joke:

Question: How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: One, but the light bulb must want to be changed.

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  • Most selfish people don’t experience much guilt. Those who fear their own selfishness tend to overstate the danger. Even then a self-sacrificing person must care for his own needs. Please recall the airline safety instructions:

If the oxygen mask comes down and you are traveling with someone who is dependent on you, put the mask on yourself first. (Otherwise you’d be of little help to your companion or child).

  • Many folks don’t buy into the belief their choices are as genetically determined as they are. Example:

Maybe you say, “I dress the way I do to look nice.” Well, an evolutionary scholar would tell you ancestors who made a good appearance were more likely to have their choice of healthy, faithful mates and thereby ensure they would create fit offspring. That tendency is “built-in,” so we incline toward concern about appearances well after our biological clocks stop.

  • The average 16th-century man had less information to process in his short lifetime than can be found in a single, daily edition of The New York Times. We must narrow our focus or drown in a sea of real news, fake news, and drivel. Too many of us attend to things of no lasting value.
  • Change can be unsettling. The effort to keep our world exactly as it is, however, can lead us to reduce the size of our lives, resist unfamiliar experiences, and fail to incorporate new people in our circle. Flexibility is a key to life satisfaction. Change is an opportunity to reinvent oneself.
  • Don’t expect sincere apologies any time soon. In 1942 West Coast Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated to internment camps by the federal government, which alleged potential disloyalty during the ongoing war. World War II ended in 1945. Not until 1988 did the USA formally apologize, citing the real reasons for this disgraceful act against a group which included 62% U.S. citizens:

Race prejudice, war hysteria, and the failure of political leadership.

  • Inaction, stillness, and patience are powerful tools. Passive-resistance has been a major and successful method of changing the world, one practiced by Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Here is a modest illustration of how passivity can work for you:

When my wife and I bought our current home, we dealt directly with the owner. He proposed a price. I was silent. As the seconds passed he lowered the number a few times. The man assumed my failure to respond meant he’d not reached a figure acceptable to us. The truth was, however, he went below what we were prepared to pay.

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  • If you chase people they are inclined to flee. Stop chasing and they may turn toward you or even walk in your direction. Consider this with respect to your romantic life.
  • I had the pleasure of a friendship with a Japanese businessman residing in the USA. His favorite teacher advised him to choose a career that was his second love, not the thing he loved best. Why?

If you do what you love best as your vocation you will discover it becomes a thing you must do, not an activity you choose to do. You may kill the thing you love.

  • Luck is most often defined by happy accidents and near misses: finding a dollar on the street, winning the lottery, that sort of thing. A bigger scale exists. My wife’s maternal grandmother was an indentured servant in Poland. She served on a farm before indoor plumbing was common. When using the outhouse in wintertime she jumped from one cow patty to another to keep her bare feet warm.

In my mother-in-law’s childhood, she and her young friends picked up lumps of coal that fell off passing freight trains to help heat their homes. I can remember washboards and clothes lines in my youth, a day of few washing machines and dryers. In graduate school we used mechanical calculators to compute research results until giant computers became available. The point?

Be grateful for what you have.

  • Think about random events for a moment. The most unlikely event in your life is that you exist at all. Had my grandparents not left Europe at the beginning of the 20th-century, I could have been murdered by the Nazis some time later. Moreover, for each of us to exist as the unique person we are, every ancestor had to meet and procreate with just the mate with whom they did. Had only one made a different choice or perhaps had intercourse on another day, we wouldn’t be here. Others would.
  • I worked for a quirky psychiatrist at a now defunct psychiatric institution. MJ was enormously bright and also quite full of himself. One day he asked me to sub for him at a meeting. I reported back the criticism I heard aimed at him. He was unperturbed. MJ’s only comment was, “A big tree casts a long shadow.” In other words, MJ viewed himself as a big, imposing tree and therefore believed some people were going to take shots at him, be jealous, etc. I thought to myself, “You really are full of yourself.” A second later I realized he was right:

If you are going to do anything significant in life and hold opinions not universally agreed upon, you need to let the bullets bounce off. There will be bullets.

  • In his Politics, Aristotle writes about those who “proceed on the supposition that they should either preserve or increase without limit their holdings of money. The cause of this condition is that they are serious about living, but not about living well.”
  • Aristotle was born over 2400 years ago. Lucky for us, some of the best advice has been around for a while.

The first image is called Study for Inner Improvement by Helen Almeida, dating from 1977. The next one is Even if Happiness Forgets You Occasionally, Never Forget It Completely, a year 2000 work of Hasson Massoudy, followed by an Untitled 1993 painting of Albert Oehlen. Finally comes Evening Magic created in 2000 by Eyvind Earle. All are sourced from Wikiart.org.

What We Wish for Our Children: On the Pursuit of Happiness

It is perhaps inevitable that we hand the family flag to our children, sometimes even before they are born, hoping that the little ones will wave it for all to see and admire. We want them to be something special. We want them to cure cancer, make money, be gorgeous, become famous, produce equally singular grandchildren — all of that and more. Somehow — in there somewhere — we think happiness is to be found and will be theirs. That notion is implied, not stated. It assumes that all those achievements and acquisitions will automatically lead to that blessed state of well-being, or at least not diminish their chances of getting there.

As we, the parents, get older though, I think that our hopes and dreams for our kids sometimes change. Perhaps it is, in part, because we have now had many chances to see our offspring hurt — to see them really unhappy. Broken hearts, dashed prospects, defeats on the field of play that we call life. Perhaps we begin to wonder if ACHIEVEMENT is worth the cost, if luck is just possibly more important than talent, if physical beauty is as crucial as we used to think it was. Perhaps we come to realize that no one can “have it all” and that choices have to be made in any life about which baskets will hold our eggs, those fragile parts of us that can be so easily cracked.

Philip Larkin’s poem Born Yesterday gets to the heart of this matter. Written in 1954, it was dedicated to little Sally Amis, the new child of his friends Hilary and Kingsley Amis. He first talks about those things that others are likely to wish for her: things like perfect love and beauty, worthy enough for certain, but not especially likely. And, indeed, he hopes that she can have those things. But then he changes course, knowing that she probably won’t be that lucky.

Larkin suggests that she could do worse than be ordinary. He implies that the qualities that make one different from others — he calls these qualities “uncustomary” — can complicate your life, even if they are remarkable or special, including great talent or beauty. His birthday wish for her is therefore a bit shocking: “In fact, may you be dull –/If that is what a skilled,/Vigilant, flexible,/Unemphasised, enthralled/Catching of happiness is called.”

To me, what he is getting at here is that the ultimate gift for any of us is to have a kind of openness to life, the capacity to experience each day with the wonderment of a child who was, as the title suggests, Born Yesterday. The idea is to discover (or rediscover) that wide-eyed watchfulness that just about all newborns have, that makes the world enthralling. Happiness, in this context, is something to be “caught” almost randomly, not achieved or the result of hard work, but a matter of attitude toward the world and the ability to see it afresh and let the passing moments dazzle you.

If he is right, then most of us and most of our children don’t have to be great heroes or heroines, athletes or leaders, Nobel Prize winners or creative geniuses or supermodels. Happiness might just be in reach, if only one can stretch out one’s arm to catch it.


Here is the poem:

Tightly-folded bud,
I have wished you something
None of the others would:
Not the usual stuff
About being beautiful,
Or running off a spring
Of innocence and love –
They will all wish you that,
And should it prove possible,
Well, you’re a lucky girl.

But if it shouldn’t, then
May you be ordinary;
Have, like other women,
An average of talents:
Not ugly, not good-looking,
Nothing uncustomary
To pull you off your balance,
That, unworkable itself,
Stops all the rest from working.
In fact, may you be dull –
If that is what a skilled,
Vigilant, flexible,
Unemphasised, enthralled
Catching of happiness is called.

The photos are of my children when they were small: Jorie and Carly Stein, respectively.

Of Teachers, Tests, and the Luck of the Draw(ing)

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As the old saying goes, “It’s better to be lucky than good.”

But sometimes, being good helps a little in determining whether you get lucky.

Now, you wouldn’t think that luck would be an important variable at M.I.T. But the human equation is almost always in play, even in that citadel of rationality and even on a physics test.

The year was 1965. The class was Physics 8.02, the second semester of freshman physics, a course required of all 900 new students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Barely 40 of these young people were women.

As the only National Merit Scholar from Stephen Tyng Mather High School on Chicago’s North Side, you’d have thought that a first year college physics test wouldn’t have presented a problem for Rich Adelstein. But then, you probably haven’t been to M.I.T. As Rich remembers it, the school was a brutal place for those who were not succeeding.

He was succeeding, but barely. He hoped to be on the Dean’s List for the term, but needed at least a C as a final grade in physics to get there. Unfortunately, he’d also begun to get the feeling that he wasn’t quite the scientist that some of his classmates were, but maybe more interested in things like history.

Yet science was what mattered at M.I.T; anything else and people didn’t give you the time of day — didn’t really respect you. These were the sort of kids who, just by a look, let you know that “I can do something really hard and you can’t.”

The culture of excellence, in other words, could be crushing as well as inspiring. The accomplishments of faculty members intimidated you into jaw-dropping awe. And Rich had already heard of suicides occurring at the school. Had the pressure to achieve at the highest level gotten to these students?

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An important test was coming up on Friday morning at 9 AM toward the end of the first year. Rich had done his best to study for it, but had the distinct impression that most everyone else was better prepared than he was. And, as he entered the large exam room, where 300 of his classmates would be tested, he felt a little like a man hanging on to a slippery ledge — just beginning to lose his grip.

Rich’s group was in a brightly lit armory, while the remaining 600 examinees were divided between two other locations, all enduring the same event at just the same moment. Sitting there nervously, he waited for the proctor to pass him the blue book on which he would write his answers, and then the test itself.

The first question had to do with “Coriolis forces,” named after the French scientist Gaspard-Gustave Coriolis. But it might as well have been in French, a language Rich didn’t know. He read it, he thought about it, and he knew that he had no idea how to get to the correct answer. “Oh, crap,” he thought to himself, while the anxiety thermometer inside of him started to climb from its already elevated state.

Second question. Again, no idea — just a feeling of being hopeless and helpless. Everyone else seemed to be working industriously, writing away. But Rich’s blue book was still blank and a state of panic-induced “brain-lock” was descending upon him. Rich had never — never ever — failed an exam. Would this be the first?

“I’ve got to get a grip on myself,” Rich thought. “I’m starting to come apart. I’ve got to calm down in order to have any chance of passing this.”

And then, an inspiration. “I’ll draw for a bit. That will calm me down.”

And so it was that our hero began to sketch a three-masted sailing ship, like the one at the top of the page.

Little by little, drawing was doing the job. Rich was “in the zone,” captured by the task he had set for himself, something he could do well and that began to soothe the whirlpool of feelings inside that made it hard to think.

Unfortunately, however, he had not accounted for everything.

“Times up! Hand in your blue books!” announced the proctor in charge. Rich had lost track of the clock. And all he had to show for an hour-long physics test was a picture of a ship.

Rich signed his name to the book and passed it on to the proctor. He didn’t want anyone to think that he’d simply blown-off the test and not even come to the exam room.

There was only one possible way to deal with this. In a state of disoriented numbness, like the survivor of a train wreck, he walked out of the armory in a fog of surreal devastation and went directly to his professor’s office, the man who taught his section of the course as his “recitation instructor.” One Nathaniel H. Frank.

Dr. Frank was then a man of about 60, until recently the head of the physics department, a person particularly respected for his leadership in revising high school physics curricula throughout the country. During World War II, he had worked at the M.I.T Radiation Laboratory. Indeed, it was in that place that radar was developed.

Frank was not just a well-known scientist, but someone who cared deeply about education. Himself a graduate of M.I.T, he was short and stocky; had a full head of wavy, graying hair; and wore glasses.

The academician had been teaching just about 40 years when he first encountered Richard P. Adelstein.

Rich did the only thing he could think of doing. He told Dr. Frank that he had just come from the armory ordeal. Rich related his panic, his attempt to calm himself, and the fact that time had gotten away from him.

He did not want the scientist to think that he was trying to be disrespectful by drawing a boat; nor did he ask for or expect a second chance at the test. Rich simply hoped to make Dr. Frank understand that he took the course seriously, but, somehow what was left at the end of the hour was only a sketch.

“Well, don’t worry about it now,” the teacher said in reply. “Let’s just see what happens when we grade the exams.”

Then Frank gave the young man a grandfatherly smile. The kind of smile that an old man gives to a young man when he has seen many such students — earnest and terrified — all feeling as if the world is coming to an end; and, when he can tell which of them are sincere and which of them are just jerks.

“Let’s see what happens?” Rich thought to himself. “I know what is going to happen. I’m going to get a zero! This isn’t good. I took a physics test and I turned in a picture of a boat!”

But Rich kept all this to himself. Soon he was walking back to his Baker House dorm, and a room that now seemed like a cell on death row.

The weekend was miserable. Waiting is a terrible thing when you can see the ax that is soon to fall on your neck. Sleep was difficult, each daytime second gruesome. Monday and the end to the calamity, whatever it might be, couldn’t come soon enough.

Monday did arrive, finally. Perfect scores on tests were exceedingly uncommon at M.I.T. Indeed, exams were graded on a curve. As Rich sat in the classroom, he looked at the grade equivalents that the professor was putting on the black board. The highest scores fell short of perfect, but there were actually lots of poor scores that were still good enough to pass, with 30 being the lowest grade that permitted a D.

Below 30 and you failed.

In due time the blue books were handed out. Rich was beginning to be resigned to his fate. He would certainly fail with a zero, he thought to himself. But, at least, he’d be 30 points from a passing grade on the exam, not nearly as far from a D as he feared. If only he could have obtained a 30, however, the chance of getting a C as a final grade in the course might still have been within reach and allowed him to get on the Dean’s List.

He forced himself to look at his blue book.

Twenty-nine.

He rubbed his eyes.

It still said 29.

“There must be some error here,” he said to himself. And then, once again, the same recurring idea: “I just took a physics test and turned in a sail boat picture! This can’t possibly be right.”

When the class ended Rich made another death march to the office of Dr. Frank.

“Professor, I think there was some mistake on the grade I got. The blue book was marked with a 29.”

“Oh, no, young man, there was no mistake,” said Professor Frank while looking at Rich warmly.

“How can that be?” asked Rich.

“Well,” said the good doctor, “that was by far the best picture of a sail boat on any of the exams.”

And, in that moment, Rich felt the small breeze — the puff of air — that one feels when one of life’s little bullets whizzes past harmlessly, narrowly missing its mark.

One has “dodged a bullet,” as the saying goes.

Richard Adelstein, Faculty Mentor

Of course, it was not really “the best picture of a sail boat,” but the only such drawing that anyone turned in. This was simply the professor’s funny way of saying that there was no mistake here — of letting young Rich know that the world hadn’t ended, that the sun would rise tomorrow giving him another day to prove himself; that he understood that “things happen” even to the best of us.

He was a man, after all, who knew first hand what it was like to be a freshman at M.I.T.

And Rich did get a C for the course and did make the Dean’s List.

You should also know that this is a story that Rich, now himself a college professor at Wesleyan University, retells from time to time, when he sees a similarly lost student, terrified but earnest, worried that his whole future is about to go under water for the last time, and makes the same judgment that Dr. Frank did in 1965.

And in so doing, throws the young person a life buoy from the imaginary ship that almost sunk him, but ended up saving him 46 years ago; the ship commanded by Nathaniel H. Frank.

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If you’d like to read a rather different story about Rich Adelstein, please see: The Long Road to Becoming Rich.

The top photo is a Naval Ship of Brazil Taken by the Brazilian Navy, followed by an Image of the Dome at the M.I.T. Campus by Fcb981 (edited by Thermos); both sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The portrait of Dr. Nathaniel Frank comes from http://www.webmuseum.mit.edu/ The picture of Dr. Richard Adelstein that follows it is sourced from http://www.wesleyan.edu/ The final image is a Life Buoy, by Shirley, also from Wikimedia Commons.

Is There Such a Thing as Bad Luck?

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I once met a man called “Lucky.” My garage door had failed and he was the repair man. I saw the name on his jacket and asked him about it. He said that until about 10 years before, everything had worked out just right in his life, hence the nickname. But then the wheel of fortune turned and illness and death followed, including the death of his wife. “Lucky’s” luck had run out.

Shakespeare had a sense of such things. Thus, in Hamlet, following the deaths of Polonius and Ophelia, we read the words, “…When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.” More colloquial usage tells us that bad events come “in threes.” Same idea.

The other side of bad luck, is the good. Branch Rickey, the baseball executive, famously said,  “Luck is the residue of design.” Of course, he was talking about good luck and how careful planning and persistence helped create it, or made it look as if it had been created. And a woman of my acquaintance, someone who lost a parent early and a husband late, has only recently met the love of her life. Better to have good luck late than early, it would seem.

Still, if one reads Greek mythology, one finds Solon, a wise man, counseling that no one should consider himself (or be considered) happy, until the last possible moment of his life, because misfortune yet has time to occur. “Lucky” would agree.

Some believe that there is no such thing as luck: that you get what you deserve and you deserve what you get, a Karmic view of things. Churches of prosperity promote “right thinking and right living” in the belief that you will be rewarded in this life and the next for such action and the correct form of religious observance. And if we read the Book of Job, in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) we find a man who has all manner of bad fortune thanks to a friendly wager between the angel Lucifer and God.

Job had been a prosperous, religious, happy, and good man. But he is made to suffer all sorts of loss and pain so that his devotion to God might be tested. Three friends come to ask him what he could have done to deserve such misfortune. Surely, they tell him, he must have done something iniquitous. Clearly, they don’t believe in the notion of “bad luck.”

Many years ago a social psychologist name Melvin Lerner proposed something called “the Just World Hypothesis.” Lerner contended that when we observe misfortune occurring to another person, we prefer to believe that the individual has done something to deserve the negative events befalling him. But, if it is clear that he did nothing, then we will tend to devalue him personally, in effect saying, “well, maybe he didn’t do anything to cause his problems directly, but he isn’t a good guy, so, in a way, he deserves what has happened anyway.”

Lerner maintained that people do this sort of mental gymnastics unconsciously in order to fend off the notion that something bad might happen to them. “Terror Management Theory” has picked up where Lerner left off, looking at how we manage and try to mute the anxiety caused by our mortal state.

You say you don’t believe in luck? Well then, you must believe that all disease and all accidents “happen for a reason,” that the explosion of a volcano, for example, is guided by some divine hand. But when those illnesses, accidents, and misfortunes target the innocent, especially little children who are raped or tortured, you will be hard pressed to find a reason that is adequate. “Ah,” some say, “we, on earth, don’t understand God’s ways; but surely, this will be for the best in the end.” The conversation is never ending, and it is unlikely that either side will persuade the other.

Finally, there is the question of how to define when a thing is good luck or bad. According to another Greek myth, Cleobis and Biton were the two sons of Cydippe, who needed to attend a religious festival at some distance from her home. However, oxen to draw her cart were not available, and so these two good young men yoked themselves to the cart and got mom to the festival on time.

Their act of devotion to their mother won wide praise, but since they were exhausted, they soon needed to nap. Cydippe, who also had been praised for having raised such offspring, prayed that her sons would receive the best that any man could obtain. And, ironically, this wish was granted in the form of the their painless deaths as they slept, dying after having received great accolades at the pinnacle of their lives; now they would not have to suffer whatever else might come as they aged.

Good luck? You be the judge.

The photo of four colored dice above is the work of Diacritica, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.