How to be a smarty-pants

albert-einstein-theoretical-physicist-and-philosopher-1680x1050It can no longer be denied that education needs to be rethought and reformed. The viral TED talk by Ken Robinson says it all really. On a more nuanced level, we need to consider how the education system can teach us to think in ways that are useful for the rest of our lives, not just get us into college, or graduate, or find a job.

I came across this little gem of an article by the BBC that addresses in detail this issue. It quotes an American academic, Robert Sternberg who had a low IQ at school and his teachers thought he wouldn’t amount to much, but thanks to a mentor who taught him new ways of thinking beyond abstract concepts, he’s now a professor at Cornell University.  According to Sternberg, “The tests we use – the SATs or A-levels in England – are very modest predictors of anything besides school grades…You see people who get very good grades, and then they suck at leadership. They are good technicians with no common sense, and no ethics. They get to be the president or vice-president of corporations and societies and they are massively incompetent.”

It sounds obvious that we should be taught from a young age how to think more effectively, but it’s not so easy to consider how exactly this should be done. Sternberg and others on his bandwagon are advocating for tweaking our thinking based on five insights:

1. Recognise your blind spots

As noted in the article, everybody suffers from some subconscious biases which distort our views and decision making. In fact, there are dozens of biases that we fall prey to. Luckily, the field of psychology is showing more and more evidence that we can be trained to spot them.

2. Be ready to eat humble pie

Sounds obvious, but we can become more effective thinkers if we can learn to deal with uncertainty and are open to changing our minds quickly based on new information and evidence. For this to occur, we have to be open to admitting we were wrong. Essentially, we should cultivate our ability to question the limits of our knowledge. As stated in the article, “On what assumptions are you basing your decision? How verifiable are they? What additional information should you hunt out to make a more balanced viewpoint?”

3. Argue with yourself – and don’t pull the punches

This strategy involves putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, seeing things from another perspective. Take the opposite view and argue against your convictions.

4. Imagine “what if…”

Sternberg would love it if the education system placed more emphasis on teaching how to think more practically and creatively. As stated in the article, “Even if we aren’t schooled through rote memorisation any more, many teachers still don’t necessarily train the kind of flexibility needed in most of real life.” One solution could be to re-imagine key events in history, framing it with ‘what if’. The purpose is to consider different outcomes and form hypotheses.

5. Don’t underestimate the checklist

It has been pointed out and backed up with solid evidence that a simple checklist can save lives in fields as diverse as medicine and aviation. Technology and skill just aren’t enough – consider the fallout of a surgeon neglecting to wash their hands before surgery, or a nurse forgetting to change a bandage.

As Sternberg concludes, “Intelligence isn’t a score on an IQ test – it’s the ability to figure what you want in life and finding ways to achieve that.” One day I hope that education can broaden its notion of intelligence. Imagine what a better place the world would be if people could be more self-aware and think effectively.

Time heals…love advice from the New York Times

140225101258-largeOn Valentine’s Day the venerable New York Times, ran a piece about how to handle heartbreak on this particularly charged day of the year. As a sensitive soul, and someone who quite often sucks at the messier aspects of life, I was interested in how these ‘experts’ have dealt with what is surely one of the most painful (and universal) emotional experiences a human can have in their lifetime. Some of the overarching themes include the healing power of baths, of escaping, of not escaping, of sugary food and crying. And of course, letting time, that great healer, work its magic.

Dan Savage, American media personality known for his no-nonsense advice, prescribes wallowing in the awfulness of it all for two weeks and then snapping out of it. Fake happiness to feel better and when your bruised heart has healed a little, go for the rebound. That’s what he did and he ended up marrying his.

Chilean writer Isabel Allende takes a tougher stance. She advocates eliminating the lover completely from one’s life, not even mentioning their name. When the door is completely closed, she then heals herself slowly with a combination of cuddling her dog, eating chocolate and taking long baths. In her own words, “I believe that everything changes in two years. A broken heart either kills you or heals within in two years. It’s usually the latter.”

Writer Dinaw Mengetsu is a fan of fleeing. Far, far away. The further the better, as that way, there won’t be all those reminders of your loved one to rub salt into your wound. However, it’s also a time for being alone and regrouping. As he says, “And if you have traveled far enough, you will know for certain that nothing and no one is coming to save you; this grief is yours alone to revel in.”

Writer Alexandra Fuller has advice for the ‘heartbruised’ (which is not as severe as heartbreak). Her tips are practical and specific: make a soundtrack that can both empower and let you wallow. Get outside and volunteer with animals. Stay the hell away from social media. Indulge in British dramas – because apparently the British have an aversion to portraying love, so it’s a safe option.

Comedian Chris Gethard (?!) tells a story about how he dealt with his latest heartbreak – an eventful trip to Brazil involving Rio nightclubs, celebrities, art, dodgy street food and reflection. As he puts it, “Which is a long way of saying: Take it easy on yourself, make a lot of mistakes, and go as far as you need to in order to see your situation with some clarity.”

Actress and writer Isabel Gillies knows what she’s talking about. I read her two memoirs – the first about her husband leaving her and their two young boys for his coworker (major scandal at snooty Oberlin College where they all worked), and the second which outlined her struggle to mend her broken heart and eventually remarry and become deliriously happy once again. Ever the optimist, Ms. Gillies thinks that having a broken heart is good because: “You find out what you are made of when you have a broken heart. If it happens early and often, all the better. You will unearth your grit, your ingenuity and resolve. As brutal and unrelenting as it is, if you are broken hearted, it means that you have loved and loved big.” She recommends physical exercise, baths, jelly donuts and gaining perspective via National Geographic. Finally, she states that: “While you might not be able to see clearly when you are heartbroken, something good is usually right around the corner, so the best idea is to keep rocking on.”

This next one is an interesting case. Helen Fisher is an anthropologist and relationship expert who has studied the physical aspects of love in the manner of a scientist and the emotional and mental aspects. She advocates treating it like an addiction which requires the removal of all reminders and triggers. No contact. Instead, get out and exercise. Do new things with new people. Play, meditate, smile, and above all, be patient. As the scientist in her says, “Time heals, because the activity gradually subsides in a brain region linked with attachment. In a study I did last year, 57 percent of singles said they recovered within three months of a breakup. We are built to love, and love again.”

Foodie Shayma Saadat tells a story of her move to Rome for work – she had ended a relationship before she moved, and recounts her first few days there which transformed from being lonely, depressed and heartbroken to momentarily happy as she hosted a dinner party with her new landlady, cooking favorite dishes and feeling connected with others through the joy of food. “That meal that began in heartbreak reminded me of all the good things in life,” she concludes.

Online dating guru Christian Rudder says dating is essentially a numbers game. “When your heart is broken — and I say when, not if, because it happens to all of us — take solace in the undilutable wonder of infinity. No matter how many people you’ve met, there is whole world of others still out there. The next number, it just might be your lucky one. All you have to do is keep going.” Not sure if I agree with this, but it does give a sense of that most precious thing in times of heartache – hope.

Tracy McMillian, who is considered a relationship expert in part to her own ample experience, has the last word. Her Zen advice goes against some of what the other commentators have said. Her view is that heartbreak is grief and grief doesn’t need distraction. Instead, it needs to be dealt with, not suppressed. This is done by staying in the present moment where lessons can be learned and moving on can be more authentic. “Yes, there will be moments of intense pain. But they will pass relatively quickly. Suffering is often caused more by the fear of what life will be without the relationship, or nostalgia for what has been lost — both essentially fantasies. Staying present also helps you learn what you need to learn — breakups always, always contain lessons — so when you are ready to move on, it can be to something better.”