Beliefs I’ve grown out of

Continuing the discussion of ideologies that silently grow into our lives and take hold, I will admit to my own.

I was brought up in a culture where education was the centre piece of the altar. I think this is still the case for a lot of people. In theory, education is the answer to a lot of problems, but difficulties come to the fore when you realise that there is big difference between education and formal education. I suppose the difference is analogous to the difference between morality and organised religion. Even when you go to educate yourself, the authority-loving methods learnt during formal education betray us. It took me a long time to start reading books without looking for ready-made answers to life’s problems.

When I got a little older, I went on a major health kick, only to realise that humans did not evolve to be orthorexic with a regular HIIT exercise schedule. I rejoice at articles like this.

In my late twenties, my ideological difficulties centre around the subjects of family and meaningful work. Family has always been a confusing subject for me. I think that families are fascinatingly different. Second wave feminism was going strong as well when I was a child and I am sure it affected me. I was recently reading a memoir of a woman who lived in the Ukraine during the October Revolution. It seemed that nothing really mattered to her so long as she had her family. I also read a lot of essays by secondary school (high school) students and interestingly the film Juno is on the curriculum. Most students conclude that your friends are your real family, not your biological relatives – and not just from Juno, but in their personal essays as well. Is that just a sign of the times?

One thing I learnt is that it’s dangerous to become too focused on just one aspect of life, even if it is the most virtuous thing you can think of.

Anyway, I am more interested in hearing about ideologies that you lived through and debunked.

Inside a bilingual mind

My mother is in the throes of learning a foreign language – and I am doing my best to help. I am bilingual in English and Russian. There are definitely lots of people more talented at languages than I, but I am always surprised at how exceedingly rare people with near-perfect grammar and pronunciation in two languages actually are. Indeed, it is one of the things that stops me from wanting to learn another language – knowing how hard it is to get to proficiency.

In my attempt to help out with my mam’s progress, I found a lecture from this polyglot on the psychology of learning a language. He made a very interesting point:

in order to speak a different language you need to mentally switch wavelength and adopt a new persona. He argues that a language has a certain emotional state associated with it.

I don’t think it’s as literal as “happy vs sad”, but it’s more like a feeling you get when you speak a language. To be blunt about it, I imagine if I tried to speak Italian I would be more laid back and extroverted than if I tried to speak German. Indeed,

a few of my close friends remark that my mannerisms, tone and timbre all change when I switch between my two native languages. I had zero insight into this until I was told about it.

On reflection, I realised that a friend of mine who is fluent in German and English does something similar. He kind of seems to look at his shoes more when he speaks German – and seems generally less approachable.

what it's like to be bilingual

I also feel quite different when I am speaking English vs Russian. This is going to sound like I’ve lost the plot, but I can think of no better way to describe it.

In English, things are slick – like an iPhone. In Russian, things are deep and meaningful – like Dostoevsky.

I like to listen to podcasts. I realised that listening to a good podcast in Russian made me see the speaker as being intelligent, whereas a good podcast in English made me feel that the speaker is competent. The difference is subtle and so cliché! It gets worse. The Russian speaker always seems a little too direct – though not aggressive – and the English speaker seems a little sales-pitchy. I mean that’s just caricature-worthy  – but also true.

It looks like I am susceptible to the “national stereotype” biases even though I am well able to play for both sides and understand that these are just biases.

Much as I hate to admit it, I think I am also more polite when I speak English – and probably more tolerant. At the same time, I would also tend to oversimplify things more when speaking English.Perhaps having to speak English as a lingua franca has changed the world. The Financial Times has an interesting published an article portraying the ultimate beneficiaries of this arrangement as its victims here, arguing that China and Russia understand the USA and UK much better than they understand the rest of the world.

English is a language that doesn’t really allow for long sentences because there aren’t sufficiently complex noun and adjective endings, verb conjugations, etc to show what belongs where in a long sentence. For example, a typical German sentence is longer – because they do have the necessary grammatical framework.

In order to make sense in English, sentences have to be short and declarative – and by proxy, so do one’s thoughts.

All in all, there is definitely a persona-migration that happens in my head when I switch languages.

But that, as usual, got me thinking.

Adopting a persona to do any task at all is a thing. It’s not limited to languages. It’s a bit like having an implicit role model. It’s a dangerous game to play though.

On the one hand, it seems to make things easier. If one imagines themselves as a competent surgical trainee from Gray’s Anatomy, studying for medical finals get that little bit easier. However, isn’t this a departure from reality? I really like the point brought up in Steven Pressfield’s War of Artimagining yourself as a poet/artist/programmer/whatever – is only a vanity project. The point isn’t to define oneself as a poet/artist/programmer/whatever, the point is to make poems/art/code/whatever. Acting in a role, faking it until you make it is well and good, but travelling too far out into the world of alter-egos, be they Italian or surgical, should be done with a lot of insight.

What happens to the kids who did well in school

Following on from my recent thoughts of what schooling does to our brain, I wanted to reflect on what happened to my friends who showed themselves to be remarkably intelligent in school. I have a circle of friends made up of people with IQs at least over 140 (sounds rough, I know, but thankfully it’s not limited to that). Seriously though, it’s interesting to reflect what had happened to my most intelligent friends over the 10 years that have passed since leaving school.They all did incredibly well in their exams. They all come from different countries and backgrounds: some come from well off families, which cannot be said of others.

I have observed a few different paths:

  • Join the biggest fanciest company I can find. Think Goldman, McKinsey, Google – and I don’t mean the HR department of those companies. Everybody left after a year. Why? I’ve gathered my people couldn’t tolerate the lethal combination of short-sightedness and narcissism that’s characteristic of middle management in these companies. It will take years and years of repetitive boring back breaking work – measured by the hour, not by output, before you actually get to make any interesting decisions.
  • Join the company that will take me with least resistance. We’re talking about less fancy firms – the big four, European investment banks, non-backbreaking medical jobs in fancy universities/hospitals or intense jobs in less famous ones. Interestingly, this has an almost 100% retention rate. I think these people are risk averse and comply with expectations set by their culture. They are capable of doing the same thing over and over and are able to see the greater context. They believe their labour now will lead to massive payoffs later – kind of the way it did 50 years ago. They often talk about how this job they have now gives them experience. Experience for what? I used to think there was some kind of substance behind this statement. However, now I think of it as a way of saying: what I am doing now isn’t a waste of time no matter how you look at it. A few of these people have even dipped their toes into entrepreneurship or trading – but they don’t seem to have any faith in their ability to succeed unless they are under the wing of a big company.
  • Do a Ph.D./advanced degree in the fanciest place that will take me and proceed the academic route. Think Oxford, Cambridge, Stanford. Here, I’ve observed a 50/50 completion/dropout rate. Those that dropped out went with start ups – with varying degrees of success. Those that continued the academic route are exceptional scientists. One is lazy af. He’s there for the good life. The other is the most industrious person I have ever come near. Madonna ain’t got nothing on her. This girl, let’s call her Anna, has gone after every degree, exam, medal and trinket she could. She is also unhealthily thin – to the point of bone brittleness – and always has been. I’ve wondered about her: what motivates her? Is it the pure validation and vanity of medals and awards? Is it that she is simply playing to her strengths? I don’t think she is: she went into medicine after doing a science degree. This was no backdoor entry: I mean a first class honours top of the class from a university everybody knows. She didn’t want to do medicine when she was 18. My own view is that she would have much interest in patients – she’s not mad into vulnerabilities and feelings. In fact, she first got into law – and switched to science on a whim.She did mention money though. I recall a conversation between the two of us and a veteran academic before either of us were in college. Her questions revolved around trends. Clearly, she had no direction. I think what drove her is neither validation nor a thought out plan. It was the desire for safety and certainty: law and medicine will always provide you with a reasonably paying job; a trend will always bring you in the right direction. This is another example of a situation where directionlessness has played havoc with a person. Is she happy now? I have no idea. I know that the guy who pursued academics because it ticks the box of having a job and brings in some income is indeed happy. What Anna lacks in direction, this guy lacks in ambition. Both are doing pretty well for themselves on paper though.
  • Doing something odd. I know a guy who started a science degree in a mediocre college, dropped out, started the same science degree in a very fancy college and went into finance after graduating. It’s not exactly a untrod path. The black swan who has managed to make billions in his twenties dropped out of an Ivy League college and was one of the founders of a tech start up. A number of friends have gone through a variety of things: medicine, startups and management consulting. All of these people tend to have excellent relationships with their parents: nothing promised, no regrets. There is an understanding there that the child doesn’t owe their parents the obligation of following a certain path past a certain point. The point seems to be after graduating and making some kind of money. These people tend to have a higher risk tolerance and put less value on conventional markers of success.
what happens to intelligent kids after they leave school
A black swan

Of note, none of them have children of their own at this point. Many of them have travelled a lot and even permanently immigrated, mostly to the United States.

All in all, I think all these superbly intelligent people have fallen into different categories driven by what they value most. In terms of their values the most important spectrum seems to be their appetite for risk. Is there success here? It all depends on how you define it. They are all doing well financially. They are all reasonably happy, it seems. There’s no one size fits all recipe for success here. They only one I can suggest is play to your strengths and go all in.

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.