What schooling and culture does to our heads

All in all you’re just another brick in the wall.

The school system has conditioned us a certain way. Often this sort of criticism comes from people who did poorly in school. At best, it comes from self-made billionaires who weren’t academic or were dyslexic.

I never got anything other than the top possible grade in any state exam I sat (and I sat them in 2 countries). So while anyone could be open-minded on the issue, I feel my lack of a chip on the shoulder or any other incentive to diss formal education adds a little more credibility. What I have noticed is:

  • School doesn’t reward strengths as strongly as it punishes weaknesses. This makes us very aware of our weaknesses and gets us to associate weakness with pain. It tells us to direct our efforts towards our weaknesses, not our strengths. This is probably a bad thing because we can always pair up with someone who can compensate for our weaknesses. We cannot, however, make up for the chances we lost to further our strengths.
  • It asks us to follow instructions. Following instructions isn’t a skill rewarded in real life, unless you have just come from IKEA. Seriously though, maybe there was a time when one could get hired and be told what to do and paid well for it – but even I have missed that boat. Anybody currently in school is certainly not going to have that luxury.
  • It asks us to not make mistakes. While life appears to work on the mistake-learn-do better cycle, schools teach that mistakes are final failures and should be avoided at all costs. Rather than teaching people to pick themselves up and consider what they would do differently next time, school teaches people not to try. Fear of rejection, abandonment and judgement is everything within a school.
  • It teaches us to be compliant. What do I mean by that? You need to learn things you know you will never use in order to get a gold star on your homework. That’s compliance. That’s what employers want. This is a tough one to call as it is specific to a person. Compliance doesn’t necessarily encourage innovation, to put it politely, but it probably builds better teams. Further, if you aren’t a compliant agreeable person by nature, school probably isn’t going to make you so (unlike the previous points, this actually attacks a character trait).
  • It teaches us to revere authority. Authority is king in school. A teacher’s word is pretty much final. On the one hand, this translates pretty well onto how employers deal with their employees. On the other hand, it stops us from thinking outside the box. I can’t count the number of times I consciously remember debating something with kids – when I was a kid – and the final line coming from my opponent being: my mammy says so, so that’s the way it is. Schools only make this horrible addiction to certainty worse.

what society and schooling does to our brain

So now that we’ve been through this machine, how do we deal with it? How do we unlearn the nasty habits and build new and better ones?

  • Focus on our strengths. Screw the weaknesses. The rest of the world is there to constantly point at our weaknesses. We have to be the advocates for our strengths. I tend to be able to notice things from more angles that other people and be open minded. Hence, I am writing this.
  • Decide what we’re after. Yeah, sure, sounds easy. It’s so hard in reality. Different people have different values. Our values will determine what we want in life. Maybe you are one of the lucky ones and your values correspond exactly to what the values you learnt in school. It certainly pays to contemplate what our values are.

We have a very strong desire to be consistent. We hate being wrong, so it’s painful to deconstruct our values. It’s not just an ego thing – we are wired that way. It’s how the placebo effect works. Our brain will make up the difference between the physiological and the perceived through specific chemistry. This is the reason I love mindfulness so much: it helps to disconnect all those false pathways and expose what’s really going on.

Having an understanding of two cultures (the West and Russia), I have always been fascinated how people feel that the values of the place that they just happened to be born in are their very own personal deeply held values. I think one has to actually dig pretty deep to understand what they believe now and what they want to believe.

There’s a conundrum I’ve always struggled with. Ok, so you’ve stripped off the BS. You are ready to find out what you’re actually about. So you ask yourself the question: who am I?.. Only to hear silence in response – what does that mean?!

I think I have the answer to that.

It means you have finally become open-minded. You have finally recognised, on a visceral level, that your values aren’t imposed on you. It is what you make them. There isn’t a ready-made answer. We don’t all come with either an iOs or a Windows operating system. We decide what our own operating system is going to be. So if you are struggling to understand who you are: you are probably asking the wrong question. You are what you ask yourself to be. We are what we pretend to be. We are what we repeatedly do. That’s not me who said that, that K.Vonnegut and Aristotle. Choice is a really fundamental ability, a power even, that is often overlooked.

What’s it all for if…

I often say on my blog for secondary school students that it’s all about balance. I feel wishy washy about it when I say it, so I wanted to tell this story to explain.

I recall spending some time with a dear friend of mine. She is a hugely successful physician now in one of the world’s top universities. This is way back when we were about 19 – in the throes of medical student life.


My friend, let’s call her Angela, is a particularly classy lady. She grew up in one of the finest neighbourhoods in a nice Irish city, educated privately, fancy extracurricular activities, the whole thing. She’s a gunner though, that girl. Being wealthy doesn’t automatically make you soft, and she’s the perfect example of that.

We were probably the only 19 year olds in Marks & Spencer’s buying things like dark chocolate and fresh linguini while our college classmates were out drinking 2 for 1 cocktails or Dutch Gold and eating frozen pizza. We spent our afternoons watching Gray’s Anatomy, The Other Boleyn Girl, Marie Antoinette, Coco Before Chanel, Gilmore Girls… And studying (her way more than me). You get the gist.

I never judge people for indulging. It would never occur to me to begrudge someone their luxuries or criticise them for being wasteful. So when I remarked on the fact that she has expensive taste, she was relaxed about it and said: If you can’t eat properly, what’s it all for?

This throwaway remark got etched on my brain. What’s it all for if you can’t be with your family? What’s it all for if you can’t sit and meditate for 10 minutes? What’s it all for if you can’t enjoy yourself for even a little part of the day? I don’t think she meant it that existentially. The way I took it was more in the stoic philosophy sense: live every day like it’s your last. As a true medical student workaholic fanatic, who was ready to give up everything for success, I never thought that living each day like it’s your last is about more than just achieving. I think if you work really hard, weirdly, sometimes it is easy to lose respect for yourself in a certain way. You become your own slave, the executive of your dreams, but not the person who actually gets to live them. That’s what I mean by balance.

Sporadic rewards

There’s an interesting psychological phenomenon observed in dolphins. Dolphins a particularly high ratio of brain size to body size. As humans, we are behind them. Generally, intelligence correlates to this metric, hence the claim that dolphins could be more intelligent than humans.

meditation techniques and accessories

When a dolphin does a trick you like – you positively reinforce it by giving him a treat. Rinse and repeat. A bit of operant conditioning never hurt anybody. However, to be clever about it, the trainer then gives the dolphin a treat only when the dolphin jumps especially well – let’s say higher, through a hoop, whatever. The trainer creates an understanding in the dolphin’s head that he must not just jump but give it all he’s got. The way this works best is when the trainer only rewards the dolphin sporadically. The dolphin isn’t quite confident he will always get the reward. This creates the infamous gambling-like anticipation. Does this remind you of anything? I think it is quite reminiscent of how managers assign promotions.

Bain & Co summarised the conventional thoughts on behaviour modification here. They got the basics down, but they preach that behaviour are modified best when the rewards are likely, immediate and positive. I guess likely doesn’t mean certain. The science behind this relates to how dopamine is released in response to anticipation, not reward. If the reward is uncertain – that causes more dopamine, hence the effect.

In short, if you want someone to always give it their best, be a tad sporadic with your rewards.

The value of work

As someone who really gave it everything when it came to studying or working and not necessarily seeing it as having given me what I wanted, I ran the risk of learning helplessness. Somewhere within me there is a belief that work is a double edged sword. Work is only useful when the direction is right (no physics puns intended). In all honesty though, it really is a vector. I have seen so many people expending so much energy getting nowhere fast. Ray Dalio says that you should only work on the things you really want.


As a true millennial, I didn’t know what I wanted for a long time. Something is telling me that in another 5 years, looking back on this note, I will think: Ha, I though I knew, but I didn’t really. In any case, I have a better idea now than I did five years ago. I recognise what my priorities are. It’s family first and everything else after that.

The learnt helplessness comes in where you finally get the freedom to start again and work on what you really want, but you wonder – is there any point? What if I am wrong again? There’s also a feeling of being spent – having worked so hard in the past, you’re not sure you’ve got the energy anymore. Of course, these beliefs aren’t helpful and luckily they are entirely changeable. I guess I wouldn’t have even ever come close to being aware of them had it not been for mindfulness. The truth is that work is useful when it is in the right direction. Time is going to go by so I may as well put in the work and make a bet on what I believe in. There’s no certainty and no promises, but it is better to always have a direction and therefore a chance at a legacy. The spent thing is nonsense too – you only get stronger from exercising mental muscles through study and work. Past experiences can equally serve as references for one’s ability to succeed regardless of the complexity of the task. After all, there’s always a choice.

What mindfulness teaches you

I had a really hard time trying to do mindfulness last night. It took me a good 30 minutes to even get into my first proper breath that I could focus on. This is unusual for me. At this point I’ve been a pretty decent meditator for about 1.5 years.

What was it? Procrastination. Why? Falling asleep and meditating is effort. It takes effort to not go down 10 million rabbit holes. Saying no is more difficult than it may initially seem. However, it is completely necessary. Focus is the mother of execution. The only way to execute is by focusing on one thing at a time. It’s unitasking. Even if it seems like you are multitasking: you are only ever doing one thing at any given time – just switching more often than you think. Multitasking is a form of hiding: if you fail, you had “so much going on.” Whereas if you are working on just one thing – you can’t really run and hide from it, it is staring you in the face.

The other thing that mindfulness teaches you is that it’s not how many times you fail, it’s all about getting back up on your feet. It doesn’t matter how many times your mind wanders. Every single time you bring it back – you got back up on your feet. The neural pathway that is responsible for bringing you back has just gotten that little bit stronger. It’s like a biceps curl for your focusing muscles.

Does it only do focus? No. It also gives breadth somehow. There’s a technique called noting. So when a memory comes in: you say memory. A plan, an idea, a fantasy, an itch, a dart of pain, a noise and so on. Identifying things helps to deal with them.

Once I was able to get past the initial wall of procrastination and actually went and did it, straight away – I got an amazing reward. I saw the sky as cloudy and then my mind just shifted to the other side of the clouds – where is was sunny and still. Maybe this was just a really small hypnagogic hallucination, but it gave me an insight. Cognitively, it is such an obvious thing: we all know that things have different meanings depending on what side you look at them. To really feel it, to really internalise the meaning of this is something much deeper.

Asking better questions

The American election is everywhere. I hate thinking about politics. It’s wrong to hate it because it is important. Whether you have an interest in politics or not, it has an interest in you. So it’s important to know what you think. This insanely funny cartoon is from The New Yorker:
“I had a dream that this election never ends and I never have to go back to worrying about my own problems.”

The kind of questions that seeing Clinton and Trump debating stimulates are all nasty. Who is lying? Who is lying more? How can we trust this person to be a president?
Asking these questions has me thinking in circles. A much better set of questions would be:
1. What future do we want for the world?
2. Who can help us achieve this future?
3. Do we have an election system that allows us to achieve this future?

The answer to the first question is muddled. The western world seems quite divided. With cracks in the EU and a painful election in the US, nobody is clear on what they want. The other two questions are simply worrying.

Doctors and social media

This post came out recommending things that doctors should and shouldn’t do on social media.

So the article sites these 5 things you should never post as a doctor on social media:
1. Inaccurate Medical Information
2. Anything that Violates Patient Confidentiality
3. Your Personal Information
4. Opinions on Controversial Issues
5. Complaints or Rants


Point 1 is universal. It has to do with due diligence and integrity, not with being a doctor. Point 2 – about patient confidentiality – is sacred. 100% agreed.

My questions is:
Must a doctor always continue to be a doctor on social media?

A doctor isn’t a public figure – with a few notable exceptions. Doctors don’t have a responsibility to treat every interaction with another human being (including virtual interactions) like they are consultations with a doctor. Anybody who perceives it that way is misguided. The same way you don’t expect a lawyer who sat down beside you in a coffee shop to give you bulletproof advice or a professional investor sat next to you on an airplane to tell you the next big stock – you shouldn’t expect a doctor to remain a doctor in non-medical situations.

The rules above are coming from a place of fear. While the above is probably meant as a recipe for an easier life, it seems to put constricting expectations on doctors that will ultimately harm them and their patients.

As it stands, doctors aren’t outspoken enough about problems they face. They are the last to complain, the last to go on strike, the last to give their opinions on how their own system could be improved. What if they talk about their problems? Is it going to get controversial? Hell, yeah!

A propagation of fearful attitudes called for by the author of the linked article couldn’t possibly alleviate the global healthcare problems that we are all facing. Yes, information should be accurate and useless rants are… useless. However, given the extent to which doctors like to follow rules verbatim, it seems that the above rules (“don’t speak unless spoken to”) wouldn’t serve them well in the long run.