Oct 08

“The Marshmallow Test”: What’s the Real Lesson?

 Whether you eat the marshmallow at age 5 isn’t your destiny. Self-control can be taught. Pamela Druckerman, New York Times, about The Marshmallow Test

In advance of the publication of psychologist Walter Mischel‘s The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control, the above journalist explained his central theme: We can overcome our childhood tendencies to go for the quick marshmallow (or alternative treat) rather than wait and get two.

In the legendary experiments that continue today but started back in the 1960’s, “(t)he children who succeed turn their backs on the cookie, push it away, pretend it’s something nonedible like a piece of wood, or invent a song. Instead of staring down the cookie, they transform it into something with less of a throbbing pull on them.” Adults (and other kids) can learn this type of self-control too.

It’s all in the way our brains work, of course. In brief, the prefrontal cortex has to be called more into play.

It’s also in the making of if-then (or prior contingency) plans. How this applies to kids is explained by Mischel (Education Week):

…(W)ith practice, the desired action becomes triggered automatically when the ‘if’ cue occurs: If I have an assignment to complete, then I will turn off my text messages until I am done; if the dessert tray arrives then I will order the fruit salad; if I get angry then I will take a deep breath and count backward from 10 before I act; if I get teased at school, then I will pretend I don’t hear and walk away; if I am about to start daydreaming then I will look right at the teacher and pay attention. It’s simple but effective, and with practice can become routine.

As Stephen Colbert declared in this headline that preceded his recent interview with the author of The Marshmallow Test, “Walter Mischel says the key to success is the patience to delay gratification. Oh…I want some delayed gratification now!”

Jul 24

“American Savage”: Outspoken Advice-Giver Dan Savage

Dan Savage, the outspoken author of American Savage, is a gay guy with a musical theater degree who for 20 years has been penning a popular sex-advice column, “Savage Love,” and for five years a related podcast.

Other accomplishments:

American Savage

His new book is called American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Love, Sex, and Politics. Publishers Weekly states, “America’s most in-your-face sex columnist and gay-rights activist comes out swinging in these pugnacious, hilarious essays. Savage…proffers more unvarnished and often sacrilegious bedroom and relationship advice…”

Interviews Related to American Savage

A Publishers Weekly interviewer queries Savage about a bit of “unconventional” advice he gives on the issue of marital infidelity. Savage’s reply is consistent with his personal and general view that being “monogamish” (somewhat open to having other partners at times) is a valid choice:

It’s going to happen, so why not do it right? I’m not condoning serial adulterers who are abusing their partners or putting them at risk. But there are times when cheating can save a marriage—for example, when one spouse is seriously disabled and the other, to stay sane, gets his or her needs met elsewhere, discreetly. Or maybe it’s a terrific marriage except for very divergent needs for sex. It overemphasizes the importance of sex to say that, if a marriage is working in every area but sex, a spouse must divorce first and cheat second. There are times when people should cheat first and divorce not at all.

To the question, “Why do you think you get so many calls from straight guys asking about sex with women?,” interviewer Elizabeth Denton, Time Out, gets this from Savage:

Straight boys feel like, as a gay man, you have this secret inside scope on what girls are doing and thinking. I’m like someone who’s never been to London but could draw you a map of the Tube. I’ve never seen a clitoris up close, but I can tell you exactly where to find it.

Advice-giving is likely to have its pitfalls, and here’s one piece he’d take back, he tells Benoit Denizet-Lewis, The Good Men Project: “I once told a woman who didn’t like her husband, or wouldn’t leave him, to encourage her husband to take up drinking and driving. You really don’t want to suggest that someone take up drinking and driving in print. It’s a sure way to get several million angry letters.”

Denizet-Lewis also found out that Savage’s own go-to for receiving advice was his mom, who died in 2008. In an unrelated question about the last time he “really cried,” the answer? When she died.

And the book dedication goes to his male parent: “For my father, who lives in a red state, watches Fox News, and votes Republican — but loves me and mine just the same.”

The thing he’s most proud of in his life is his nuclear family, he tells Denizet-Lewis. “I know that sounds so Rick Santorum–y, but I’m most proud of my little family that exists despite the odds.” The adopted son of Savage and his partner is now 15.

Publishers Weekly, reviewing American Savage: “Savage is that rarity, a liberal—verging on radical—who defends his positions with steel-trap logic and scornful humor laced with profanity and stripped of politically correct cant. But in his own way he’s a champion of ‘family values,’ which emerge in warm domestic scenes with his husband and son, in moving reflections on his mother’s death, and in his common-sense understanding of sexual fulfillment as an anchor for stable relationships. Underneath Savage’s scabrous, bomb-throwing exterior beats the heart of a softie.”

Jan 27

Perfectionism, Oppression, and Faith: Anne Lamott

The highly popular book by Anne LamottBird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, addresses the issue of perfectionism so well that she has helped both writers and non-writers the world over lower our unreasonable expectations of ourselves. And she does this with these three little words: “Shitty first drafts.”

Lamott states that just about all writers, even the very successful, first have to face a “shitty first draft” before it becomes something better through the process of revision. Usually there’s a second, a third, a fourth draft, and so on—whatever it takes until you feel ready to put it out there.

But if you’re not aware of this and you in fact imagine that everyone else is capable of whipping off a highly polished, i.e., “perfect,” specimen right from the get-go, you’ll probably agonize over taking the necessary first steps of your project—and probably never get anywhere. Lamott’s words:

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.

Perfectionism. Except for that “ism” part, you might think it would be a good thing—I mean, come on, it’s perfection. But, as Anne Lamott points out, there’s something oppressive involved.

In addition to writing this applies to many other things we try to accomplish in life—maybe those pesky New Year’s goals, for example. Could be an addiction you’re trying to kick. Lamott herself is in long-term recovery from drug and alcohol abuse. As heard in 12-step programs, it’s all about “Progress, not perfection.”

Lamott’s interpretation of the origins of perfectionism:

 I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.

For Lamott, a big part of getting beyond perfectionism involves her faith. Not to worry—she conveys even her spiritual beliefs with her usual humorous irreverence. Nonfiction books she’s written on this topic include Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (2000), Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (2006), and Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith (2007).