The Subtle Art of Giving a Care
The high price of low expectations and what we can learn from video-game designers.
Hello, inspired humans! Let’s jump right into today’s Stuff.
ONE FROM THE AGES
Aristotle on the importance of having standards that are earned:
“Dignity does not consist in possessing honors, but in deserving them.”
ONE FROM TODAY
Jonathan Haidt on the relationship between standards and mental health:
“Some constraint is good for us; absolute freedom is not. Durkheim, the sociologist who found that freedom from social ties is correlated with suicide also gave us the word “anomie” (normlessness). Anomie is the condition of a society in which there are no clear rules, norms, or standards of value. In an anomic society, people can do as they please; but without any clear standards or respected social institutions to enforce those standards, it is harder for people to find things they want to do. Anomie breeds feelings of rootlessness and anxiety and leads to an increase in amoral and antisocial behavior…
One of the best predictors of the health of an American neighborhood is the degree to which adults respond to the misdeeds of other people’s children. When community standards are enforced, there is constraint and cooperation. When everyone minds his own business and looks the other way, there is freedom and anomie.”
Source:The Happiness Hypothesis
ONE FROM US
There is a student-athlete - let’s call her Joy - who frustrated me to no end last year. Joy is quite athletic but she never turned in her school work and, consequently, was never eligible to play sports. Her effort with me in the weight room was about the same. I hit her with every motivational tactic in my arsenal but nothing seemed to work. In the end, I settled on my old fall back - hold her to high standards and remind her how much potential I see.
This year, however, Joy has been wonderful. I keep praising her work ethic and bringing it up to other teachers and coaches, but each one reacts with surprise. Their experience is more of the old Joy - low effort; bad attitude. So, I went to Joy last week to dig deeper.
“You know you’ve really done great this year. How is everything else? Are your other classes going alright?”
“I mean, I guess. I don’t really like school.”
“This year? Because of all the covid regulations?”
“No, I’ve never liked it.”
“Well, what do you like? What do you do when no one is telling you what to do?”
“I don’t know. Mostly just look at Tik Tok videos and Instagram.”
“Is there anything you like to make or anything interesting that you find yourself watching videos about?
“No, not really. Just famous people and stuff.”
“What about basketball? Do you love it? Can you see yourself wanting to coach when you’re older?
“Coach? Oh no! Basketball’s cool and all, but it’s getting old. Coaches are always so extra.
“So, what do you want to do when all this is over? High-school is a blip. Then you have your whole life - 50 years to work. Is there anything you could see yourself wanting to do or try?”
This question seemed to catch her off guard - as if she’d never considered wanting to be anything.
“No. Not really.”
Perhaps I just wasn’t the person to have this discussion. Perhaps my ramblings made more of an impression than she let on. But I came away feeling sad. I know that millions of high-schoolers are just like Joy. Raised on social media and reality television, their minds descend into a neverending feed of gossip and self-promotion. There is nothing in their world that is bigger than them - no apparent meaning. They feel aimless and angsty. But they aren’t motivated to do much about it. How do you even begin to help?
These issues go deep. Many students today have a large void in their development where exploration and discovery was supposed to be. Their natural sense of curiosity has been obstructed by the ever-present allure of screens. The result is that they have not cultivated a foundation for future interests. As occupational therapist, Victoria Prooday, explains:
“Using technology as a “Free babysitting service” is, in fact, not free at all. The payment is waiting for you just around the corner. We pay with our kids’ nervous systems, with their attention, and with their ability for delayed gratification. Compared to virtual reality, everyday life is boring.”
But just as significant, today, more and more kids grow up disconnected from a clear model of what it means to become an adult and, consequently, from any desire to become anything more. The heroes of today are almost exclusively celebrities - Kardashians, YouTubers, and the like. The rights of passage today are automatic. Keep showing up and you’ll graduate high-school. Turn 18 and we will call you an adult, even while your bills are paid and meals provided. There are routes to distinction, to be sure, but fewer formative challenges that everyone is expected to experience and fewer standards that everyone is expected to meet. This takes the pressure off, but it has a way of leaving one feeling hollow and uninspired.
Low expectations often have a similar effect on adults. A colleague of mine recently commented that after months of COVID-19-related confusion and criticism, school administrators didn’t care what was happening in each classroom. As long as teachers didn’t invite any more complaints, they’d be left alone. He speculated that this along with a number of other frustrating policies, had led to decreased student and teacher effort. As he said, “My job has never been easier, but I’ve never enjoyed it less. Jokes don’t land like they used to. Conversations are dull. Everyone is just trying to get through the year. I go home feeling dirty.”
Challenging work has a way of fostering greater connection, laughter, and zeal for living. When people have worked hard for something, they tend to care more and to be more bothered by those who would cheat the system. After reading an article I wrote for Quillette on lowered education standards, my father, the MD, PhD and late-blooming video-gamer, shared a fascinating insight. He identified a specific excerpt from near the end of my article, where I write:
"I have a radical idea. Assign grades based exclusively on academic performance—the quality of the writing, the accuracy of the math equation, the understanding of the historical themes. Grade everything for mastery, alone, and consider it a breach of ethics to do otherwise. Most students would work far harder, learn far more, and come to enjoy it. They’d invest enough to cultivate more rewarding interests and become better citizens. Some would not rise to the occasion and would be left behind. But that is already happening."
“It occurred to me… that your idea is precisely the approach that is applied by video game developers when they design games and award achievement trophies. On the video game websites (e.g., Reddit), players complain vehemently when other players find and utilize ways to "cheese" a game and "beat" the game without actually mastering the skills (for difficult games like Dark Souls, these "skills" are infinitely more difficult to acquire than the skills we currently teach in schools). One of the things I've seen over and over again in the Dark Souls online conversation is some new player complaining that the game is "too hard" and asking for an easy way to get through a difficult task. The answer is always resoundingly the same, so much so that it's become cliche: "Get good"
If video games, subject to relentless pressures from consumers, can employ such demanding standards (and in many cases, MUST employ them in order to maintain market share), then perhaps schools could meet them part way and demand at least a modicum of excellence.”
There is a sense today that standards are rigid and outdated. To some degree, this is warranted. Too many of the people who cling to standards push them in the wrong way (standardization) and do so out of a crotchety unwillingness to adapt. These are the teachers who would rather make a kid feel like crap for being born into this generation than help them transcend its traps. Still, this does not disqualify the importance of standards. Nothing has been worse for our culture than the dissolution of our shared standards. Nothing would do more for our kids and our communities than to clarify cultural ideals, set expectations, and enforce standards of excellence.
Many people, especially within education, believe they are being “nice” by lowering standards and making life easier on kids. But all this does is to keep them a more limited and fragile version of themselves. Strong expectations promote connection through mutual values and capacities. When standards are reduced, we see just the opposite.
Justin has moved a lot (again this week). He’s mentioned to me that the first thing he does anytime he moves somewhere new is to find a Crossfit gym. Justin and I have both written critiques of Crossfit, but we recognize how amazing they are at building culture. Their success is built on creating really clear standards and methods to measure development. The program follows a consistent set of mini-rites of passage that pull people together to celebrate each other and help everyone find new levels within them. At the end of the day, this is what life and community is all about.
Thank you for reading! Please share with anyone you think would find this interesting.
Also, if you are into rites of passage and transformative experiences, I just finished a fascinating, podcast that I highly recommend:
Overcoming the Comfort Crisis with Brett McKay and Michael Easter.
Life is too short to be normal,