It took me a few days to figure out why I was so mad at Tim for telling me that he didn’t think people should try to deny their feelings of rage or jealousy (this discussion was motivated by the drama of earlier in the week). I feel excusing rage or jealousy as natural emotions is a cop out.
I watched a long while back Dan Gilbert’s TED talk on Happiness, and was struck by the idea that our brains authentically change in response to events or choices that we make that how we perceive the world shifts. (His focus was primarily on happiness, see the end of the post for a video of his talk.)
Since then, I’ve read a bunch on how perseverance matters more than “aptitude” for lots of things like math:
Life Sciences is a health-science magnet school with high aspirations but 700 students whose main attributes are being predominantly minority and low achieving. Blackwell split her kids into two groups for an eight-session workshop. The control group was taught study skills, and the others got study skills and a special module on how intelligence is not innate. These students took turns reading aloud an essay on how the brain grows new neurons when challenged. They saw slides of the brain and acted out skits. “Even as I was teaching these ideas,” Blackwell noted, “I would hear the students joking, calling one another ‘dummy’ or ‘stupid.’ ” After the module was concluded, Blackwell tracked her students’ grades to see if it had any effect.
It didn’t take long. The teachers—who hadn’t known which students had been assigned to which workshop—could pick out the students who had been taught that intelligence can be developed. They improved their study habits and grades. In a single semester, Blackwell reversed the students’ longtime trend of decreasing math grades.
The only difference between the control group and the test group were two lessons, a total of 50 minutes spent teaching not math but a single idea: that the brain is a muscle. Giving it a harder workout makes you smarter. That alone improved their math scores.
Or similarly, how Will Power can also be built through repeated practice:
In psychological studies, even something as simple as using your nondominant hand to brush your teeth for two weeks can increase willpower capacity. People who stick to an exercise program for two months report reducing their impulsive spending, junk food intake, alcohol use and smoking. They also study more, watch less television and do more housework. Other forms of willpower training, like money-management classes, work as well.
No one knows why willpower can grow with practice but it must reflect some biological change in the brain. Perhaps neurons in the frontal cortex, which is responsible for planning behavior, or in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is associated with cognitive control, use blood sugar more efficiently after repeated challenges. Or maybe one of the chemical messengers that neurons use to communicate with one another is produced in larger quantities after it has been used up repeatedly, thereby improving the brain’s willpower capacity.
Who we “are” is a highly flexible concept. Our default, factory-condition, state might be prone to anger or becoming easily jealous, but if we practice recognizing those feelings and thinking about them, learning to calm ourselves, we can become authentically calmer, less jealous, less reactionary people. I hate it when people say that I’m just a less jealous person that other people, because I haven’t always been a less jealous person. (Ask Tim what I was like when I was 19.) If change is possible, shouldn’t we expect people to strive for change? To strive to become their higher selves?
Tim’s argument was that denying that people are angry or jealous just makes people feel pointlessly ashamed for their natural feelings. I don’t advocate shaming people, but I do advocate a cultural expectation that people should work towards engaging with the real issues that cause their feelings (ex. Are your jealous because your partner doesn’t spend enough quality time with you? Then work on that issue instead of wasting energy just feeling jealous or yelling at people.), instead of being overwhelmed by their feelings.