Wednesday, October 31, 2007

How Specialists Destroy Their Lives

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Our age is being forcibly reminded that knowledge is no substitute for wisdom. Far and away the most important thing in human life is living it.
- Frank R. Barry, 08/18/2004

Yeah? So? No one's going to argue against living life.

To really get a sense of what Mr. Barry intends in this quote we must look to the first sentence in order to make sense of the second.

"Knowledge is no substitute for wisdom." In this case, knowledge is what we learn from other sources, either by reading and listening or by somehow experiencing someone else's life vicariously. In this sense, knowledge is not what we learn from our own experience.

An old saying, which I have taken the liberty to modify, suggests that wisdom comes from experience and experience comes from making a lot of mistakes. The wisest among us have made the most mistakes and learned from them, enough that they feel comfortable--sometimes even committed--to sharing their experience and what they learned from it with others so that they do not need to make the same mistakes.

The trouble is that most people don't want to listen to someone else's bad experiences, unless they're looking for a new place to get their car fixed or for a new dentist or doctor. Advice is worth what you pay for it, another saying goes. This is a good saying only to some extent. Some advice comes from wisdom based on experience. (Other originates from rumour and fraudulent internet messages.) People who pay attention to the good advice may have an easier time of their lives by knowing the advice and at least considering it, perhaps even following it.

Life isn't long enough to make all the mistakes ourselves. We have to learn some from others. However, the mistakes we make ourselves are the best lessons, if we learn from them and avoid making the same ones again. How we deal with our own mistakes determines how we live our life thereafter.

One of the biggest mistakes many people make in their lives is to restrict their activities to their jobs, their families and their immediate interests (sometimes even only one of those). Simply reading any article in the daily newspaper concerning a particular subject over a long period of time can add a great deal to a person's knowledge. I studied China for a decade that way. That experience has served me well in my dealings with Chinese and my understanding of why China does what it does in the ensuing years.

We tend to expect doctors to study all aspects of medicine so much that they can answer any question. Many do. But medical research today becomes public so frequently that staying up is almost impossible. Divorce and family breakups are much higher among medical professionals than in the general population because researchers and doctors spend so much time learning about the subject of their specialty that they neglect many others things in life, often including their spouses and children.

We expect lawyers to know every law, even though it's a challenge to stay up with legal precedents and changes in laws in their own area of speciality. Many lawyers spend much of their "free" time schmoozing with others in their network, including both colleagues and potential new clients. They may know nothing about fixing a car, planting and tending a garden, the feeling of hiking a nearby trail, how to play basketball enough to teach their own kids or even how to play many of the games they give their children as gifts.

The rest of us don't care. We want a lawyer to know everything when the time comes for us to engage one. We care nothing if their marriages, their families, their lives are in tatters. When these tragedies happen, the lawyers themselves have no idea what to do about them, how to cope or even how they could have done some things differently if they had known what was important other than law.

The Frank Barry quote suggests that we get a broad range of experiences of life so that we gain wisdom for ourselves. Knowledge alone may be great for the job, but it won't substitute for living a full life. When money or the quest for it is the most important thing in life, much is lost from the experiencing of a full life. Money quests are terribly restrictive.

Imagine someone standing over your grave after you die. Will that person say "He was a good engineer, didn't know diddly about anything else, but he knew how to build bridges" or will that person say "He lived a full and joyful life and was happy to share it with others"?

In case you have missed out on much of life and wonder if it's too late to change, it isn't. A life can be changed as simply and as quickly as making a decision. Perseverance and willpower at sticking to the transition to the new life is important, but it can begin today if you want.

You are the biggest obstacle in the way toward change. So if you want to change your life, get yourself out of your own way. And start soon.

Bill Allin
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a book about how to teach children the important things about life before they make severe mistakes and ruin their own lives. The book provides the methods and the lessons.
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Monday, October 29, 2007

What It Takes To Be Great, To Be Remembered

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Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.
- Robert F. Kennedy

The biggest steps in life are often taken by the smallest people. Or by people others mistakenly assumed were small.

Napoleon, Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan come to mind. I believe that Alexander the Great was a tad on the small size as well. Joan of Arc never made it out of her adolescence.

These people risked their lives in battle and were able to rally many to their causes. In a sense, all failed ultimately, even Genghis Khan who was losing control of his troops in his latter years (some said he was insane).

Yet of all the people who have gone before us in history, almost all are nameless to us. Only a few names can be recognized by people around the world.

We all want to be recognized in our lifetimes for our achievements. And most of us want to be remembered positively after we die for our deeds and our successes. Yet how many warriors who lived before your own time can you name? Given the chance, I'll bet you could name more famous scientists than warriors. Newton. Einstein. Copernicus. Others of you could name stars of science from the great Islamic period, or from India or China. Names of philosophers will trip off the tongues of many.

These people all took great risks, not just to test their scientific hypotheses or philosophical treatises, but sometimes to make their results public. Copernicus only made his discoveries public just before he died because he was afraid of being fired and excommunicated by the church, his employer. Newton was imprisoned and almost snuffed for his discoveries, or he would have been if he had not recanted his "erroneous" statements of discovery. The falling apple was the least of Newton's worries.

Even scientists of today take great risks when making their discoveries public. Remember the outrage that faced the two scientists in the early 1990s who announced their discovery of cold fusion to the media before it was printed in a scientific journal and reviewed by their peers? They found it hard to get work anywhere that didn't require them to ask customers if they wanted "fries with that?" Now a cold fusion production facility is nearing completion in Europe and another is planned for the US. The two scientists, however, never recovered their reputations.

Greatness comes with risks. If it were easy, everyone would want to be famous for their greatness, then very little would ever be considered great again.

Greatness, the condition that allows people to be remembered for their deeds long after their deaths, is not for the faint of heart. Those who would be remembered for generations must be willing to take great risks of failing, or of being failed by others who have something to lose by the deeds or something to gained by criticizing the great deeds of others.

If you improve the life of one other person in your lifetime, your time here was well spent. If you improve the lives of many others, you deserve to be remembered, no matter in what form the improvement was made.

Bill Allin
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a book about how to teach children what they need to succeed, to thrive and to be remembered if they so choose.
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Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Difference Between Your Illusions And Reality

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How beautiful it would be to see man wrestle with his illusions and vanquish them.
- Naguib Mahfouz, Egyptian writer awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988 (1911-2006)

What a spectacle! There's nothing that some people like better than to watch someone destroy themselves. But is that what Mahfouz intended?

Indeed, is it even possible to wrestle with our own illusions without destroying ourselves?
Illusions are all we have to work with when we perceive the world. We believe what we see, hear, taste, touch and smell is the real thing. But it's never the same as someone else who experiences the exact same thing.

One of the closest possible human relationships is marriage. Yet as much as people share in a marriage and as close to sharing the same experiences and goals as people get, when they separate or divorce they seldom think that the relationship failed for the same reasons. Indeed, each usually believes that the other was responsible for the breakup. They don't even remember the same events that were such good experiences the same way.

If you want a real shock, sit a few friends down with you, individually, and ask them to candidly describe you, the kind of person you are, your likes and dislikes, what you are like as a friend, your attitudes toward the world around you. It would be extremely rare for any of them to be accurate or similar. What's more, none will be like your own impression of yourself.

We have not just an opinion about ourselves, but an illusion about who we are. No one else shares that illusion because no one else has or can experience the world around us the same way we have or do. Even the timing of experiences affects our impressions of reality. The same experience in early childhood is perceived much differently in adulthood.

When we go to sleep, we dream a kind of reality that we can't support as "real" when we are awake. Yet the truth is that no one is certain which is reality and which is mere illusion, the wakeful perceptions or the dreams. Our brains function differently when we dream than when we are awake. Even our own brain can't tell which is real to it and which is not. To our brain, both are real, just different realities.

Most of us convince ourselves that our waking experiences are the real ones, but that is what we have been taught since early childhood. ("It's only a dream. It's not real.")

Mahfouz meant that it would be beautiful if we were to tackle our misguided illusions and vanquish them. That is, the ones that are too far away from the reality that others perceive of us. In his way he is saying that he wants us all to deal with the realities of the world in the same way, as if we were each one component of a greater entity or reality.

Would that make us all followers, pets of a greater power that determines the fates of all of us? Some believe that to be true anyway. Others believe that free will is our blessing.

No matter which way we choose for our life, we choose our own illusions. If that is the case, it only makes sense to choose the ones that will serve us well over the long term, instead of the many harmful components that people choose for themselves for the short term.

And how long is the long term anyway? Some say it ends when we die. Others say that this life is but one small part of a continuum or that this life is an individual experience set that we will use when we rejoin the greater entity after death.

Choose your illusions wisely.

Bill Allin
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a book about guiding children to create safe and productive personal illusions for their lives so that they can be confident and competent adults.
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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Secret Of Super Human Love

Love is the condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.... Jealousy is a disease, love is a healthy condition. The immature mind often mistakes one for the other, or assumes that the greater the love the greater the jealousy.
- Robert Heinlein

I have found the paradox that if I love until it hurts, then there is no hurt, but only more love.
- Mother Teresa

Though Mother Teresa and Robert Heinlein may have been speaking of different kinds of love (though not necessarily), I believe these two quotations fit together well.

Love may be the most mysterious of emotions. All emotions are mysterious to us because we know so little about them. Imagine trying to explain to a non-homo sapiens sapiens (the double use of sapiens is correct, as neanderthalensis is also a homo sapiens) our emotion of fear, or melancholy, or joy. The word love, however, often requires the most space of any definition in an English dictionary.

Heinlein says that love is a healthy condition, yet many people who feel they have been betrayed in love believe that love is a risky condition because it involves trust and trust can be betrayed. If you can't trust, then you can't love fully, so you can't offer the kind of commitment that most love partners seek in a relationship.

Jealousy is not a malformed version of love, as many believe. Beneath the surface mistrust of a jealous person lurks the dark secret belief that he or she is either not worthy of the love of the other person or that the other does not love them fully, completely, only. Jealousy is not so much a badly formed kind of love but rather is a form of self hate. A person who dislikes or hates themself is incapable of forming a healthy kind of love relationship with another.

Living with a person who dislikes themself and is jealous of another they purport to love will inevitably develop a sour, if not hateful, relationship.

Mother Teresa had the solution. She was under no misconceptions about humans and their love being perfect. She harboured no resentment toward those who could not return the level or kind of love she offered. She didn't forgive people their defects and limited kinds of love, she disregarded these completely.

The Mother cast all limitations aside and told us to love without reservation, without restriction, without bounds of any kind. She was so busy loving others that the fact they could not return it the same way was unimportant to her. She gave so much love without any hesitation that others could not help but love her in return. She was loved, to varying degrees, not by one, but by millions, people who would have done anything she asked of them. Indeed, many still do what she asked of them, years after her death.

Love has a most peculiar characteristic: the more you give it away, the more you get of it in return. It's impossible to become impoverished of love because you gave yours all away. You can only become rich with love by giving it.

True, some people will mistrust, some will betray, some will hold their own love in reserve. That will only matter to you if you love only one person. That doesn't mean that you should have sex with as many people as possible. Sex is entirely a separate issue from love. You may have sex with someone you love, but having sex with someone you don't love or about whom you have reservations is far less satisfying. The latter is more of a "sex for pleasure" thing, based on the "sex for reproduction" commandment of our hormones.

Love with restrictions or reservations is not the kind of healthy love spoken about by either Heinlein or Mother Teresa. A person who gives away true love freely to everyone is never without support when one of the recipients betrays their love and trust. There are always others to fill the void.

Giving anything away to excess is something most societies teach is wrong, even immoral. That condition has never applied to love, to the best of my knowledge and from my studies of many societies and religions.

Learning how to cast aside all inhibitions and self imposed limitations in order to love everyone freely, now that's a challenge. No one can teach that.

However, here's a hint. You have to love and respect yourself first before you can love and respect others freely. And you would be well advised to ignore the imperfections and faults of others you hope to give your love to. After all, you expect them to ignore or forgive yours.

Bill Allin
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a book about how to teach children the knowledge and skills of love and other topics that will allow them to grow into competent, confident and loving adults.
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Monday, October 08, 2007

Why We Need Opposition To Grow

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O wad some Power the giftie gie us / To see oursels as ithers see us! (Oh would some power the gift give us, to see ourselves as others see us.)
- Robert Burns, poet (1759-1796)

Quite apart from the shock some might get from seeing how much spelling of English words has changed from the time of Burns until now (despite the fact that he spells according to his Scottish accent), the wish expressed doesn’t apply to everyone.

Some people don’t want to know how others see them because they don’t care. They are, they believe, as close to perfection as they can get. Arrogant and self absorbed, maybe, but that’s how they are.

Some don’t want to know how others see them because they fear what they might learn about themselves. They tend to hide from that reality and pretend a different one.

Many people care very much how others see them. Not only do they assess their own worth according to the opinions others have about them, they feel crushed when they learn that someone doesn’t like them. Or when someone whose opinion differs from theirs defends their own as if no other opinion is important or relevant, they lose their sense of the value of their own opinion.

In a world where almost everyone cares more about themselves than they do about anyone else, it can be risky to depend on the opinions of others about us as true indicators of our self worth. By nature and definition, anyone who cares more about themselves than about anyone else will want to evaluate anyone else at a lower level them themselves. They will be incapable of evaluating others fairly.

It’s self destructive to pay attention to anyone’s opinion about ourselves if that person always puts themselves first.

We need at least to have some people think well of us in order to have them as friends and loved ones. As social beings who need both social contact with others of our own kind and touch from those we love and who love us, living a well balanced life requires some people to like us enough to provide for our needs as we would provide for theirs.

We need touch as much as we need shelter and clothing. Without it we turn to other forms of gratification, including seeking power and money, abuse of others who are weaker, buying what we like to excess, becoming workaholics and adopting addictions or thrill-seeking habits that border on addiction.

What a few others think of us is extremely important for the continuation of good relationships with them. But it’s not necessary that everyone like us. Burns wanted to know how others think of him, but he didn’t say that he would turn himself inside out if he didn’t like what they thought.

The opinions of some people about us--indeed of most people--simply don’t matter. Nor should they. We have no need to live our lives to please any more than a few others, those who matter most to us.

There are times when we may need others to oppose us and make critical statements about our work. An artist, for example, does work of little value if everyone likes it. If everyone likes a work, that means that all or almost all care little about it but want to spare the feelings of the author of the work. The artist needs some opposition in order to grow, opposition against which to build something new, to expand horizons, to climb higher, to become more skilled.

Without that opposition, the artist may believe that he has reached his peak and go downhill from there. He lacks incentive to better his work without opposition.

That much applies to every one of us who greatly respects ourselves. If everyone likes us, then no one cares much about us. An example would be the roadies or groupies that follow rock groups or fan clubs of movie stars. Their affections evaporate with the first or second major failure of their idols.

To have a clear sense of self worth and a good idea of our strengths and weaknesses, we need to have others who will tell us straight what they think about our work. And sometimes about ourselves. It may be harsh, but it’s necessary.

No one climbs a mountain if it’s coated with cotton balls and kitten fluff.

Bill Allin
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today’s Epidemic Social Problems, a book about how to teach children what they need to know about themselves and how they can grow strong and healthy in a balanced way to become competent and confident adults.
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Sunday, October 07, 2007

What If It All Came Crashing Down?

The real measure of our wealth is how much we'd be worth if we lost all our money.
- John Henry Jowett, preacher (1864-1923)

Imagine it!

Donald Trump, poor. He’d just be an annoying boor. No, no, he’s that already. I meant a poor, annoying…..No, everyone would just ignore him.

Bill Gates, poor. Once the world’s richest man, Bill has been giving away billions of dollars to charities over the past few years, not the least huge sums for AIDS research and literacy projects (through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation). He’s an entrepreneur, someone who scooped great ideas from other people and turned them into a worldwide empire. Bill would make out alright because he knows how to manage people, to make them feel good about being successful working for projects he operates.

In 1929, with the crash of the stock markets and the beginning of the Great Depression, so many paper-wealthy men went broke overnight that many of them jumped out of windows in their top floor offices on Wall Street. That’s a statement not about their not wanting to be poor, but about the value they placed on their own lives without a great deal of money to throw around.

I see hordes of people in North American cities (my home continent, so those are the people I see in person and on television) creating lives for themselves based on the values preached to them by industries. The descriptive word I can’t escape from to attach to their lives is pretension. They are the people they believe they are. They live the lives that industry wants them to live, holding the values and beliefs that industry teaches them by various means. They have none of their own.

They have no idea of their basic human worth, other than as they compare themselves to others according to their financial net worth and their ostentatious possessions.

Poor people, on the other hand, seem to have a clear grasp of who they are in real terms. They know they are at the bottom of the heap socially as well as financially. Many of them use their position to their advantage, accepting social assistance from governments who collect tax money from the rich. Others, especially those on whom poverty has come to stay due to misfortune, health problems or physical/intellectual limitations, see their lives as one continual climb out of the pit that life has thrown them into.

Perhaps the people who have the clearest idea of who they are and the value they have to the world are the homeless, especially those who have been homeless for several years. They form friendships, bonds and working relationships based on what they can offer to others and what they can get from others.

The homeless are valued as people, among themselves, more than any other social group because all they have to offer anyone else is themselves. They value each other and who they are in relation to the others in their lives. To the homeless, a smile has a value beyond anything a rich person could imagine.

True, some can’t survive in that atmosphere. They turn to drugs and alcohol, paid for by robbing others and from begging. That’s a form of self destruction, a long, slow death wish fulfilled by their own choice. They can’t make it, even among the community of the homeless, because they don’t believe they have anything of value to offer to others. The best some can do is to offer drugs or drink to others like them, giving themselves the same sense of self worth as the rich.

Imagining ourselves as suddenly without any source of income and sustenance is an exercise that each of us should indulge ourselves in once in a while. It can help us to be humble about who we are and appreciative of what we have. Most importantly, it can help us to calculate who in our lives loves us for ourselves and not for what we have or can give to them.

It could happen, that kind of life altering tragedy. A power outage that lasts for several weeks could cause us to turn to our baser instincts in our drive to survive. A pandemic disease of the type that medical science keeps warning us about, one that kills millions of people in a short period of time, could change everything we know about our civilization.

Staying in touch with reality, not the kind that industry wants us to believe but the kind we could use in case of some dire emergency, should be on the agenda of each one of us once in a while.

It tells us who we really are, what we stand for and who would stand with us if the world we know shattered.

Bill Allin
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today’s Epidemic Social Problems, a book about how to teach the fundamentals and basic skills of life to children so that they can cope with any emergency they face as adults.
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