The Enlightened Caveman


Rice Cereal is Murder
August 18, 2011, 4:03 pm
Filed under: Enlightened Living, Parenting

This article about how rice cereal may lead to childhood obesity came across my radar today.  Even though it’s a few months old, I couldn’t resist using it as an example of how we really have to maintain a skeptical point of view in our modern society.  The experts really are so often full of shit, and the fear industry (aka, the media) is all too happy to peddle their inanity.  Here’s a quote to get us warmed up…

Doctor Alan Greene says that because white rice cereal is the number one source of calories from solid foods in a baby’s first year he believes it conditions children to prefer sugary processed foods.

Makes sense, right?  Or does it…

First of all, I think it’s safe to say that most babies do the rice cereal thing at some point.  So, if rice cereal is the culprit, then why aren’t more kids obese?  Sure, lots are, and the number is getting bigger every year, but we’re talking about causation here.  If you have 100 babies who eat rice cereal and rice cereal leads to childhood obesity, then somewhere close to 100 should turn out to be obese.  The reality today is that more like 20 would end up being obese.  According to the CDC,

The prevalence of obesity among children aged 6 to 11 years increased from 6.5% in 1980 to 19.6% in 2008.

Beyond the logical disconnect between what they say may be happening and what actually is happening is the underlying premise that a kid’s preference for one thing or the other impacts whether he or she becomes obese.  This is the part that steams me to no end.  WHO’S IN CHARGE AROUND HERE????  I could give a shit what my kid prefers as far as food is concerned.  I’m the boss.  Or rather, my wife is the boss when it comes to nutrition.  Kids are like dogs – they eat what you give them.  If you see a fat dog, there is only one reason – his owner feeds him too much or he is fed crap.  Same with kids.  So whether the rice cereal causes babies to prefer sugary processed foods is completely irrelevant if you’re on your game as a parent.  Feed them healthy food and obesity will never threaten.

Lastly, I’d just like to point out that Lewis and Clark bribed hostile indian tribes with sugar cubes as they traveled through dangerous territories in their search for the waterway to the west coast.  I’m guessing the indians didn’t have rice cereal, but lo and behold, they developed a quick preference for sugary (er uh, sugar) foods.  My point is that you can deprive a baby of sugary, processed foods as long as you want, but the moment that first hit of birthday cake crosses those lips, junior will be hooked.  The question from there is what will you do about it?

Will you let junior decide what junior eats?  Or will you tower over him as he cowers in your shadow and say, “I’m in charge.  You eat what I give you or you starve.”  From my perspective, the childhood obesity situation is simply due to the fact that most parents are more interested in being their kid’s best buddy than they are in raising healthy, well adjusted children.

(And lest I forget the standard counter-argument about food these days – that poor people can’t afford to eat healthy foods – let me just point out that they can definitely afford to eat less of unhealthy foods.)



Advice For New College Grads
June 25, 2006, 4:16 am
Filed under: Culture and Society, Parenting

I have a keen interest in what young people in this country are up to – mainly because you are a window into the future – and right now, as I peer through that window, I can’t help but be alarmed.  It goes without saying that most teens and young adults are not interested in heavy topics like politics and philosophy.  That doesn’t concern me since it has pretty much always been so, at least in prosperous western countries.  What does concern me is the generally unrealistic worldview that held by so many American youth – the idea that good things just happen and that when they don’t, it’s someone else’s fault.

It is an endless source of humor for my friends that I watch more MTV than anyone I know over 30. Lately, I’ve been watching, “The Hills” and some of those “Super Sweet 16” shows.  I’m blown away at the fantasy world that these people live in.  Yes, I know that MTV doesn’t offer a very diverse study of how young people think, but I also know that TV is a prime shaper of attitudes about life and how to live it.  From those shows and my own occasional interactions with young people, I think have a pretty good idea of where many (if not most) of you are coming from.  That said, I’d like to offer a few pieces of advice to counter what goes for cool these days.

1.  The amount of happiness you experience in life is inversely proportional to how much frustration you experience, and frustration is all about unmet expectations.  In other words, if you expect things to turn out a certain way and they don’t, you’ll end up frustrated.  And if this happens enough, you’ll end up unhappy.  Therefore, it is essential that you learn to set your expectations about life realistically.  Whenever you find yourself dissatisfied with a particular circumstance, ask yourself what you expected.  Then ask yourself why you expected what you did.  You’ll usually find that were not aware of the following reality of our world.

2.  The good things in life take work – that goes for everything from careers to relationships.  Though you will always see examples of people who have it all and did seemingly nothing to get it, be mindful that these are the exceptions not the rule.  So, adhering to point number one, be careful not to expect that getting to the good life will be easy.

3.  Rethink what you really want.  Most young people want to be rich.  That’s fine.  I do, too.  But the real question is why.  Do you want to be rich because it impresses people?  If so, getting rich will never make you happy – there will always be someone else to impress.  Do you want to be rich so you won’t have to work?  Again, this is a bad idea.  Work, in itself, is a glorious thing…provided you’re working on things that you’re passionate about.  To wish for a life without work is to wish for boredom, which is the root of many ills in life.  The best reason to want to be rich is to obtain what I call the option – the have a life consumed with “want-to-dos” versus “have-to-dos.”  Like I said, this doesn’t mean you won’t work.  It just means you’ll decide what you work on, as well as when and how you’ll do it.  But beyond riches, the ultimate goal in this life is meaningful relationships.  As Bertrand Russell, the early 20th century British philosopher put it – the good life is a life inspired by love and guided by knowledge.  Corny as it may sound, pursue love doggedly in this life, and if you do it right (more on that in a moment), yours will be a happy life.

4.  When it comes to careers, be aware that the world today is vastly different than it was when your parents started working.  Gone are the days of working for the same company for your entire career.  As the current bestseller tells us, the world is indeed flat.  That means you have limitless opportunities to get to the option.  However, coming out of school, it is highly unlikely that you have the skills to make it happen right away.  So you need a game plan.

The first thing to realize is that the 9-5 grind and the option are almost totally incompatible.  What I mean is that you may have to work the grind for a while as you’re getting yourself set up, but the goal should always be to abandon the grind as soon as you can get what you need financially without it.  Don’t fall into the trap of taking the first corporate job that falls out of the sky simply because you’ll be making real money for the first time.  Many a listless and unsatisfied middle-ager was created by starting in corporate America with grand dreams only to be trapped by financial responsibilities that precluded the ability to take a risk when the time was right.  It’s so easy to get sucked in, start spending more than you make, and then be shackled to the corporate ladder forever more.  Be responsible with your money right now (more on that later).

Am I saying that you shouldn’t take a job in corporate America?  Not at all.  I’m saying that you should be wise about it.  For one thing, never work for a company unless you understand very clearly how the company makes money, and make sure the company makes money (as in, makes a profit).  This may seem strange to say, but there are so many companies out there that are built around the idea that, with the right amount of investment, one day they’ll turn a corner and start making boatloads of cash.  Some do, but most don’t.  Wait until later in your career to spend time in organizations that are not yet profitable.  You first need to learn how profitable businesses operate.  Then, your skills are not based on a dream, but are based upon a reality.  Very important.

You then need to be mindful of the opportunities for advancement in your chosen company.  If they can’t tell you where you can go if you kick ass, walk away.  And when there is opportunity for advancement, do your homework on whether or not you’d benefit from advancing.  The way to tell if a prospective job is worth doing is to do Monster.com (and other career site) searches on your boss’ job title.  Are there lots of those jobs available?  If so, do they pay well?  If not, why not?  It may be a good thing.  It may be that you could learn a job that is in high demand.  If so, that’s great – dig in.  Also look at the skills required to do the jobs that are listed.  Will you be learning those skills in your new job?  If not, think twice.

The bottom line is that your objective in taking a job out of college is to prepare yourself to get a better one as soon as you can – either within the same company or elsewhere.  If you’re not constantly thinking about this, then you’ll find yourself working in the same place years from now, with little to show for it.  Of course, I know that the perfect job isn’t just out there waiting for you to choose it.  You may have to suck up a shitty job until you can find what you want.  The stark and unpleasant reality of being young and inexperienced is that work, for you, is likely to be less than pleasant.  The good news is that most of your contemporaries will bitch and moan about it, rather than planning their next move.  This gives the forward thinker the leg up.  Be willing to pay your dues, but only in pursuit of your dreams and not the dreams of your boss or some faceless corporation.

5.  Time is to be spent and invested wisely.  This is the most precious of resources, and the good news is that you get lots of it for nothing when you start out.  A standard problem with young people is the desire to live in the moment.  This is nothing new.  However, the key to getting to the good life is balancing how much time you spend on the moment and how much time you spend on the future, and it is truly a balance.  He who spends all his time thinking about today is doomed when tomorrow comes around.  Conversely, he who spends all his time worrying about tomorrow misses life entirely.  Here’s a good rule of thumb.  Assuming you sleep 8 hours a night, you have 16 hours left.  Spend 12 on the future and 4 on today – roughly a 3 to 1 ratio.  Presumably, your job counts as time spent on the future (at least it should).  If you work 8-10 hours a day, you still need to spend a few hours on the future.  That leaves a solid chunk of time to just play, and you need that.

Time invested in the future could be anything from working out (your health is your future), reading (gaining knowledge for the future), engaging in artistic endeavors (your emotional outlets are tied to your mental health and sometimes to your financial future), and working on projects of all types.  Your “in the moment” time is your release.  Party.  Have fun.  Socialize.  It’s okay to spend time doing things that seemingly have no long-term value, for many of them often end up having long-term value after all.  For example, I have always been a social kind of person.  I like to go out get my swerve on as much as anyone, and through that I’ve met all of the people with whom I have close relationships today (family excluded, of course).  Furthermore, I’ve learned a lot about my fellow man by interacting on a regular basis, which leads me to the next point.

6.  Focus on your people skills.  I once held a job as a consultant in a company that only hired Ivy Leaguers.  I was the exception, mainly because I talked my way into the job.  Anyhow, while my colleagues were all very intelligent and very committed to their work, most of them were socially inept.  They had spent so much time nose down in the school books that they hadn’t developed their social skills.  What became obvious in very short order was that I was far and away better at my job than they were – not because I knew more (I didn’t) or was smarter (I wasn’t), but because business is conducted between human beings, and I am better at dealing with humans than eggheads from Harvard.  The point is that social education is every bit as important as scholarly education.  Try to understand what motivates people and why.  That means ask questions and learn to listen.  Be interested in people because you can learn something from anyone, and I mean anyone.  Be mindful of how people perceive you – you’ll often learn that your impression of yourself is distinctly different from how others see you.  This doesn’t mean you become a jellyfish conformist.  It just means that you become aware of what’s going on in the minds of other people.  This skill, above all others, I would say has led to whatever success I have achieved in life.  And, get this, it’s the most fun one to develop.  Also – a little axiom to carry around with you is this – expect more from yourself and less from other people.  Trust me on that.

7.  As for money, the most important thing I can tell you is to learn to say no to your desires.  Avoid debt at all costs, and if you’re like most young people and you already have some, set a course to get rid of it as fast as possible.  The good life is simply impossible when you’re carrying financial debt.  Of course, there are things like mortgages that most everyone carries.  However, if your philosophy is to avoid debt as much as possible, you’ll go far.  For example, it is common to get a new job and immediately run out and buy a nice new car.  Resist that.  Buy a car that is a few years old and doesn’t cost a fortune.  Your instincts toward impressing your contemporaries coupled with the lures of easy credit will tempt you in the other direction.  Always remember that nothing is more impressive than being able to do what you want, when you want, for as long as you want.  You’re not there yet, and buying an expensive car is a good way to ensure that you’ll never get there.  Why?  Because it’s all about money out versus money in.

You want to maximize your income and minimize your expenses.  This is the part about saying no to yourself.  Your expenses will go up and up if you can’t say no to that new outfit or that cool vacation.  The idea is that you are a little company unto yourself.  You want to make a profit right away, and then you want to increase your profits until such time that your profits allow you to eliminate your job all together.  For more on this, I highly recommend reading, Rich Dad, Poor Dad.  It’s a virtual road map to financial independence.

The bottom line with money is that your lifestyle as a young person should not reflect how much money you make now.  It should reflect your desire to have vast riches later.  You can take comfort in knowing that your buddies driving BMWs with $500/month lease notes will be green with envy in a few years when you can buy a car and pay cash for it.  Living poor now to get rich before you’re forty is the new cool.  Trust me on that.

8.  Lastly, let’s talk about love.  As they say, here be dragons.  Love is wonderful – nothing feels better – but it is also extremely dangerous.  Your ancient animal mind is very tuned to love, and will urge you to pursue it all costs.  Fortunately, however, you have a rational mind that is capable of reigning in your animal mind.  Use it.  Think about what you want out of love – you want it to last, and you want it to make you better, not worse.  That means you are discerning about who you fall in love with.  They say that you don’t get to pick who you fall in love with.  I think that’s BS.  While it may be true that the feeling of love is largely outside of our control, it is also true that we are in control of whether we are in situations where love may emerge.

Think about it like this.  Every person you encounter could be a potential love relationship – some more likely than others.  When the possibility is more likely (as in, you meet someone around your age to whom you’re romantically attracted), your first order of business is determine if this is the kind of person to be in love with.  You’re putting people through a selection process.  Those who indicate that they may not be long-termers (as in, he or she has a history of cheating on boyfriends/girlfriends), then your best bet is to limit time spent with that person.  Similarly, if the person engages in dangerous, criminal, or unhealthy behaviors, best keep your distance.  The key is that you get to know people from a distance before you get intimate with them.  I know this is not en vogue these days, but trust me, it’s some of the best advice you’ll ever get.  And girls, that means you withhold sex (of any kind) until you have some feel for who you’re dealing with.  The good partners will stick around; the bad ones won’t.  This is old school stuff, but it’s the difference between getting into positive love relationships and negative love relationships that bring you down emotionally and hinder your quest for the good life.

(Just to preempt my critics – I say this to girls and not boys because girls, more often than not, have a tendency to equate sex with love, whereas boys generally have no problem detaching the two.  Like it or not, this is the reality of our species.)

So there you have it.  A short course on how to get what you want out of life.  The best thing is that you live in a country where anything is possible.  You just have to be smart enough to filter out the crap that is handed to you on MTV and then disciplined enough to work hard and say no to yourself when prudence requires it.



Children Learn What They Live
April 24, 2006, 4:12 am
Filed under: Culture and Society, Parenting

This poem was written in a gothic typeface on a piece of laminated crap board hanging by a big-looped brass chain in the hallway of my childhood home.  I must have read it a bazillion times growing up, but I recently stumbled on it and am amazed at how poignant it still is.

Of course, I’m older now and have a child of my own, so I can’t buy everything, especially in light of Judith Rich Harris’ latest book.  However, I thought someone might find it interesting.

Children Learn What They Live
By Dorothy Law Nolte, Ph.D.

If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.
If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.
If children live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive.
If children live with pity, they learn to feel sorry for themselves.
If children live with ridicule, they learn to feel shy.
If children live with jealousy, they learn to feel envy.
If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.
If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence.
If children live with tolerance, they learn patience.
If children live with praise, they learn appreciation.
If children live with acceptance, they learn to love.
If children live with approval, they learn to like themselves.
If children live with recognition, they learn it is good to have a goal.
If children live with sharing, they learn generosity.
If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness.
If children live with fairness, they learn justice.
If children live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect.
If children live with security, they learn to have faith in themselves and in those about them.
If children live with friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live.

The Harris modification would be thus –
And then, despite everything they’ve learned, if they get ostracized or are otherwise socially unsuccessful once they leave the home, it won’t matter much what was taught before then.



Book Review – No Two Alike
March 30, 2006, 4:17 am
Filed under: Books, Parenting

I finished Judith Rich Harris’ latest book, No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality, about a week ago, but it’s taken all this time to come to grips with how I feel about it.  That’s a good thing.  It means the book has had a significant impact on how I view human nature. But it’s also a bad thing because I’m still toiling with what to do about it.  First a little background.

It has been taken for granted pretty much forever that human personality is shaped primarily by the home environment – specifically by the actions or inactions of parents with regard to raising their children. Judith Rich Harris launched an all-out attack on that idea several years ago with her book, The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do. In it, she argues quite convincingly that the research simply does not lead to the generally accepted conclusion.  But, despite the subtitle of the book, she left it at that; she didn’t offer a substitute theory.  She has now remedied that problem, which is extremely impressive given her lack of formal credentials.

Judith Rich Harris is not a PhD psychologist.  Prior to The Nurture Assumption, she was a psychology textbook writer.  Over the years of assimilating all of the research on human personality, she began to suspect that the accepted wisdom in the psych community with respect to what shapes personality was wrong.  Home bound due to chronic illness, she began the tedious process of researching and putting together what would become The Nurture Assumption.  Along the way, she got friendly with Steven Pinker, which helped quite a bit, and she got crossways with a pile of other academics who had an interest in discrediting her, which probably helped even more.  So, to say she’s an outsider is an understatement.  To those who dislike her, she’s a hack wanna-be.  To me, she’s a hero.  The details of her out-thinking the ivory tower thinkers is nothing short of delicious.  Now to her latest offering.

No Two Alike is written as a mystery.  It starts by laying out the details of the case, by asking a big question.  How can identical twins reared in the same home turn out with completely different personalities?  They have the same genes, and they grow up in the same environment.  Same nature, same nurture, but still they’re different.  What could explain this?  She picks up where she left off in The Nurture Assumption – it can’t be the home environment, so what is it?

Her next task is to eliminate what she calls the red herrings in the case – the explanations that many believe are correct but aren’t.  I won’t go into all of them because, frankly, I had to work to get through them.  It’s not that they weren’t interesting; it’s just that I was dying to get to her theory. Had I written the book, I would have started with that.  But I understand why she did what she did.

Writing books that get read by academics is tough.  You’re dealing with a skeptical lot, to say the least.  That means you have to preemptively, if possible, eliminate all of their objections before you can make any headway.  Otherwise, they’ll abandon you right away.  They’ll say, “Oh, this philistine has missed the papers by such and such and the findings of so and so.  She’s clearly a hack.”  Like I said, I understand why she organized the content as she did – like it or not.  She left her critics with no choice but to at least consider her thesis, which is as follows.

Evolutionary psychology tells us that the mind is made up of modules that were designed by natural selection to enable humans to survive in their ancestral environment – you know, in caves and such. (Check out Steven Pinker’s, How The Mind Works, for a good foundation in this line of thinking.)  Far from a blank slate, the mind begins life with a set of genetically determined programs (or modules) that interact with the external environment to form what eventually becomes the mature human mind.  This mind will have full use of the senses – for interpreting and negotiating the physical world.  It will have language skills for communicating with other humans.  Harris contends that we also have three modules, in particular, that shape our personalities – the relationship system, the socialization system, and the status system, as she calls them.  The last, the status system, according to Harris, is the culprit in her mystery.  I’ll get to that in time.  I should first outline the three systems a bit.

The relationship system was natural selection’s way of making ours into a social species, which is widely believed to be the predominant reason why Homo sapiens survived while all other hominids became extinct.  Its goal, to use the term loosely, is to establish and maintain favorable relationships.  It works by providing us with the tools and motivation to acquire knowledge about other people and to share that knowledge with others.  In terms of tools, we have something akin to a mental Rolodex, where we store everything we know about everyone we either know or know of. We also have face-recognition module, a mind-reading mechanism (for inferring what others are thinking), and a relationship sociometer (for determining if we’re getting along well or not).  In terms of motivation, we have our old friends, our emotions – particularly, love, hatred, dependency, trust, aggressiveness, lust, and jealousy.  The manifestations of this system are infant attachment behaviors, making friends, dominance contests, courtship, trading favors, and gossiping.  The relationship system is online from minute one of our lives, and it stays online till we die or go nuts.  Also, its actions are largely available to our consciousness (that is, we know that we’re gathering and communicating information about people).

Next we have the socialization system.  This system is designed to get us to become members of one or many groups.   In terms of tools, this system works with a categorization module, which helps us sort people into categories based upon whatever attributes we discover using our relationship system.  Basketball players versus football players, for example.  Then we have a calculator of central tendencies.  This tool allows us to define our categories with what we can think of as stereotypes.  Basketball players are tall, for example.  Lastly, we have a social-acceptance sociometer, which is helps us to know if we’re fitting in or not.  In terms of emotions, we have hostility toward groups of which we are not a part, group pride or patriotism, and unhappiness at being rejected.  This system manifests itself in our tendencies to adopt the behaviors, language, accent, dress, and attitudes of our group mates, and in our tendencies to defend our group(s).  The socialization system comes online around age three, and it has done most of its work by the end of adolescence (although it stays with us to some degree probably forever).  Interestingly, this system operates largely below the level of consciousness, which means that we really aren’t aware of the influence that our interactions with and within groups have on our minds.

The last system, the big kahuna, is the status system.  This system is all about our being better than our rivals.  For tools, it also uses the mind reading mechanism that is used by the relationship system, but it also draws on an eye-gaze detector (to determine who is getting the most attention) and a sociometer that gives detailed, multi-dimensional information about status.  For motivation, this system gives us emotions such as ambition, envy, triumph, and conceit, as well as embarrassment, anger, or unhappiness at losing status.  We see the status system in action in our tendencies to match or measure ourselves against our peers, to compete in contests we might win, and to avoid contests we might lose.  According to Harris, this system is evident in three-year-olds, but other components of it develop slowly.  Changes in strategy, says she, are common during adolescence and are still possible in adulthood.  And though the eye-gaze system operates below the radar, the rest of the status system is pretty much available to our conscious minds.

So there you have it, the three systems.  Now before anyone concludes that I am expert at distilling hundreds of pages of material into three paragraphs, I should admit that I pulled all of this from a table Harris graciously provided toward the end of the book.  That said, this information alone was worth the price of admission.  I have long discussed the artifacts of the caveman mind, so it was a joy to have them placed into a more useful context.  But the point of the book is to say that the status system is responsible, more than anything else, for why two people who have the same genes and grow up in the same environment end up with completely different personalities.  It takes a while to unpack that thesis, so I’ll only hit the high points.  Read the book for the gory details.

It begins with such a thing as developmental noise.  This refers to the little changes that happen as the fertilized egg develops into a full human being.  Though two may have the same DNA, there are still little differences in how that DNA expresses itself in each individual.  That’s why parents and friends can almost always tell identical twins apart – and not just by sight.  Harris’ argument is that those little differences cause people to treat each individual a little differently.  Maybe not so much in the home, but definitely out in the world, where the socialization and status systems are on overdrive.

The key to all this is the notion that natural selection would not have bothered to build these complex systems for mediating our thoughts and actions in the home.  The home of our parents is not where we’ll form our mature bonds of friendship and love (the kind that leads to offspring), unless we’re weird.   That’s where Harris is coming from in The Nurture Assumption. Our home life while we’re growing up is simply a stepping stone to the real world where humans do what matters evolutionarily speaking.  So the modules that form our personalities do their thing away from home, when we’re with our peers.  That’s where it gets dicey.

You see, the socialization system drives us to be like the other members of whatever group we’re in or want to be in.  The status system does the reverse – it drives us to set ourselves apart.  The systems are essentially competing.  Now take hypothetical identical twins Jimmy and Johnny.  They’re already alike, which means fitting in is less an issue than standing out, so they end up adopting different strategies in their social environment.  Maybe little Jimmy comes off to kids in the playgroup as the rowdy, outgoing one.  So Johnny’s status system tells him to do something different.  He becomes the quiet, shy one.  Voila, over the years, you have two completely different personalities.  Mystery solved.  (I can oversimplify anything.)

But as I said, I am still toiling with what to make of all this.  I have no issues whatsoever with any of the aforementioned information.  It all makes very good sense to me, and like a good scholar, Harris backs it up with footnotes aplenty.  However, I think information for information’s sake is a waste.  I want to be able to put it to good use, and, in this case, as a parent, I have a vested interest in doing so.

I can accept that I play less of a role than I might like in shaping my son’s personality.  (I should note that Harris never makes the statement that parents don’t matter, though her critics will undoubtedly say she does.)  Furthermore, I can accept that what happens in peer-to-peer social situations is very powerful in establishing the various hues of long-term temperament and confidence.  But where do I leave off, and where do the outside-the-home social influences pick up?  To me, that is the question.

Harris explains that children learn their initial strategies for dealing with people at home, but they either keep them or abandon them based upon how well they work outside the home.  If the parents are immigrants, the children will quickly learn that fitting in entails learning to speak like American kids, and not like their parents.  Similarly, if kids are the stand-outs in their homes because they sing best, they may abandon singing all together when they find that their “talent” gets them nothing in terms of status within their peer groups.  Fair enough.

From that, one could conclude that the parents do play a very important role, which is understanding (and, to some extent, controlling) the outside-the-home social environment of their children.  This is perhaps an aspect of the situation that is particularly unappealing to immigrants who desperately want their children to maintain the culture of the home land.  If they insist on having Sanjay wear a turban to school, they should expect that his personality may be negatively impacted (that is, he’ll be less happy) by how much he’ll stand out in the group.  He won’t fit in, and isn’t likely that his headgear will earn him any status in the vicious contest for playground superiority.  So he may end up feeling inferior or feeling left out, which may persist into an introverted and not-so-confident personality.  But then again…

How much should we cater to the goals of our ancient genes?  Have I not said forever that many of our genetic drives do more harm than good?  Maybe the desperate need to fit in is one of those.  It certainly accounts for all manner of foolishness among young people in this country – pop music, mainstream fashion, and the interminably irritating use of the word ‘like’ come to mind right away. And status?  Well, we all know what a bitch that one is. It drives people to value the shallowest of activities and accomplishments and to unnecessarily beat the crap out of themselves when they don’t measure up.  So should we forget all about Harris’ interesting theory and go about our business as usual?

No, that won’t do either.  In the end, I think it comes down to happiness.  Fitting in makes us happy.  Being acknowledged as having high status makes us happy.  So, as is the case in so much of this enlightening the caveman endeavor, the key, I think, is to co-opt the ancient design for a modern aim.  Yes, I think parents should come to grips with how their actions toward their children will prepare them to interact with their childhood playmates.  That doesn’t mean they teach them to be lemmings, but it does mean that they carefully evaluate who their kids spend time with, paying special attention to their values and dispositions.  (Maybe this makes a case for private schools.)

On the flipside, in terms of status, I think it still makes sense to teach children to try to outpace their peers.  Competition and accountability do wonders for our species.  But, again, the parent’s role is to help guide the child’s choices in what he or she attempts to excel at.  The kids can (and should) pursue status, which brings happiness, but in endeavors that will serve them as adults.  Striving to be the kid who can shotgun the most beers before class is not one of those endeavors, though it somehow worked for me.  Aaanyway, there’s a lot to chew on here.

As you can see, I have only a vague feel for how Harris’ book should be applied to life as a parent today.  I’m sure as time goes on that my sense of it all will crystallize.  I’ll keep you posted.  For now, let’s just say that things aren’t as we always thought they were, and we should be thankful that a non-academic had the courage and wherewithal to bring it to our attention.  That’s a good start.



Relationship Is A Four Letter Word, Especially With Kids
January 10, 2006, 5:24 pm
Filed under: Enlightened Living, Parenting

Original Post (with comments)
That word is simple – work. Yes, we’ve heard it a million times, but that’s because it’s true far more often than it is not. Maybe people get confused by this because they think in snapshots instead of movies. If you take a snapshot of your romance or friendship or family relationship when things are going well, it’ll be hard to reconcile the idea that relationships are work with the picture you get. It’s the not-so-great times that drive the point home. A good example in my own life is raising my son.

I’ll admit this, even though I know some folks will shudder – I wasn’t particularly into my kid for at least the first fifteen or so months of his life. Now, don’t make too much of this. Of course, I loved him in the way that nature programmed me to love him – I would have gladly thrown myself in front of a bus for him, even when he was a cute little eating, shitting, sleeping, crying bag of fat. What I’m saying is that I didn’t get much out of the beginning of his life. Yes, I’m a selfish bastard – just like everyone. The point is that, despite the fact that the personal benefit balance did not seem to be tipped in my favor, I clocked in.

I changed my share of diapers, and I spent as much time with my son as my life would allow. It was hard, especially since he cried incessantly for the first three months of his life. Nevertheless, as I am a long-term thinker, I knew that the work would pay off, and it has, like nothing I could have ever imagined. What I have now is a 24-month old son who absolutely loves his daddy. Now I can’t get enough of him. Have I transitioned into the blissful part of relationships? Was it just a “pay your dues” and then reap the benefits situation? Yes and no. Things have changed, but they’re still tough.

One thing that Brian Tracy talks about in Something for Nothing (see my review) is the idea that we should place the people we care about most in the center of our lives. We should build our worlds around them, placing the highest priority on spending time with each and every one. In fact, Tracy said something that I had never heard and is perhaps one of the most prescient statements in the book – How does a child spell “love”? Answer: “T-I-M-E!” How right he is, but there’s a bit more to it.

In some ways, my relationship with my son is the simplest, most wonderful thing in my life. But, it’s still work. You see, just spending time with a child isn’t really enough. You have to actually interact with them. You have to engage them on their level, and that’s not easy if you’re used to multi-tasking and thinking about all manner of complex philosophical and occupational subjects. Even now, I think of my time with my son as work, but it’s truly a labor of love.
I so look forward to the time we have together, but I have to admit that I find myself watching the clock after a while, looking forward to when I’ll be “off-duty.” How crazy is that? Just when I think I’m a good dad, I take a glance at my watch and then cringe at what a loser I am. Then, I take a step back.

I used to feel unbelievably guilty about this, but not any more. The fact is that raising my child is not unlike many of the other types of work I engage in – even though the good things outweigh the bad, the unpleasant or difficult parts are still there (That’s why it’s called work, right?), and they still have to be dealt with. I’m just fortunate that child-rearing gets more and more enjoyable as time goes on. The key is that the focus is on interacting with my son so that I can teach him how to be a well-adjusted little person.

How many people pay lip service to the idea that we have to spend time with our loved ones to keep the relationships producing that ever-important two-way flow of love? Maybe they think proximity equals spending time. This would explain the ever-present DVD players with screens aimed at the backseats of SUVs and mini-vans. Now, I’m not judging here – all kids are different, so who I am to say when the “mesmerizer” is or is not justified during travel times? But there’s no question that when the little ones are absorbed in a video, they are not interacting with anyone else in the vehicle. They’re locked onto Bob the Builder or Winnie the Pooh to the exclusion of all other stimuli, including the words of the folks in the front seats. This, to me, is not spending time. It’s sharing time, and in investment terms, the contributions are pretty much nil, which means the payoff is inevitably similar. Same thing with daycare, nannies, and on and on.

Of course, I understand that we all have to do what we have to do when it comes to raising our children. As the child of a single mother, I was in full-time daycare from week seven of my life. There was simply no other way, but when mom got home, it was all about me, and I knew it. This is what matters. Surprising as it may be, one of the best concepts about children that I ever heard came from Bill Clinton. It was somewhere around 1995, and Bill was in the midst of one of his classic “it’s about the chiiildren” speeches. He said, “More than anything else, every child needs to know that he or she is the center of someone’s universe, that there is nothing more important than him or her to that person.” Wise words, indeed. Now let’s place that idea right next to the idea that time interacting spells love to a child.

If kids interpret their importance in the minds of their parents or primary care-givers in terms of the amount of time they spend interacting with them, then the inescapable conclusion is that people who have children have an obligation to clock in. There’s no other way. If what you want is a great relationship with your kids, then it’s going to cost you. You’re going to have to suck it up and get down on their level for extended periods of time. The good news is that once they get to a certain age (18 months or so, for most), the rewards are intoxicating.

When my son wakes in the middle of the night and cries out for daddy and not mommy, I stagger to his room with the biggest smile on my face. Interestingly, it only happens when I’ve spent the whole day with him. If I’ve been traveling or have been too busy to spend more than a couple of hours with him, it’s all mommy. Simple things like that have a profound effect on how I plan my schedule. Mind you, it’s not a competition. I just know that mommy is his number one person, so any time I’m top of mind, I know I’m doing something right. My investments are paying off in the kind of love that I could never have dreamed of three years ago, but they are investments all the same.

In the final analysis, the conclusion is clear – relationships are like everything else – there is no free lunch. There is no something for nothing. So if your relationships (with your kids or otherwise) are not what you’d like them to be, it’s time to take stock. It’s time to honestly evaluate how much time you spend with them. More importantly, it’s time to evaluate how much time you could spend with them, but spend doing other things that maybe aren’t as much work. If you’re honest, you’ll find that you could be giving more.

Lest I come off as one who stands on the high ground shouting to my lessers, I’m no different. My life is a constant struggle to stay focused on what’s important, and like everyone else, I fail on a regular basis. But these are what I like to call personal best-practices – the things we know are right and strive to do at all times. What matters is that we recognize what we need to do – spend quality time with our loved ones – and we commit to sacrificing whatever we have to to do it. It’s work, but nothing is more worth it.



Book Review: Something for Nothing
January 9, 2006, 4:44 am
Filed under: Books, Culture and Society, Parenting

Whilst poking around the blogosphere in my jammies (I’m between work gigs at the moment.), I came across this review of a new book by Brian Tracy called, Something for Nothing: The All-Consuming Desire That Turns The American Dream Into A Social Nightmare.  While the author, Rebecca Hagelin, provides a nice overview, I think there’s more to be said.

For those who don’t know, I believe the first priority in any review is to provide readers with a read or don’t read recommendation.  Hagelin’s recommendation was a very enthusiastic read!, and mine is no different.  This is an excellent book.  In fact, as I was reading the first hundred pages of the book, I kept thinking that Tracy had somehow surreptitiously gained access to a dozen or more ideas that have been floating in my head for some time and corralled them into an excellent treatise on human nature, one fit for the masses.  There’s nothing like some good confirmation bias to get you into a book.  Anyhow, by the end of the book, I concluded that there are good things and bad things to say about this work.  First the good.

Tracy’s underlying premise is that all humans are hardwired to be lazy, greedy, ambitious, selfish, vain, ignorant, and impatient.  I agree completely.  In fact, were I in a more theoretical mindset, I would probably take on the task of connecting the dots between these attributes and our caveman heritage.  (It’d be pretty easy.)  But I’m about practicality these days, so I’ll stick to clarifying what this means.

To say that we’re all naturally lazy is not a criticism of our species; it’s a value-neutral statement of fact. Indeed, Tracy’s larger point is that what matters is how we translate these natural proclivities into the way we think and act in the world.  I, for example, am one seriously lazy bastard.  I absolutely abhor wasting time on fruitless activities, but this is a good thing.  My disdain for waste drives me to innovate, to get every ounce of productivity out of the time I spend doing what’s necessary in life.  I am, therefore, using my laziness in a positive way.  But not everyone does, and this is where the concept of something for nothing comes in.

Tracy argues that an environment that allows people to get what they want/need without actually doing anything for it breeds the worst of all possible responses to inherent human laziness – the drive to get something for nothing.  And, just to keep the human generalizations ball rolling, Tracy provides a list of the basic wants/needs of all humans.

All of us are motivated by an intense desire to achieve safety, security, comfort, leisure, love, respect, and fulfillment – in that order.  The key is that these needs are arranged in a hierarchy – we pursue the first ones until they are satisfied, and then we pursue the next ones until they are satisfied.  This is why humans for most of history have had little time for contemplation – the activities associated with finding survival and security consumed all moments.  But we are now living in a time when survival and security are pretty much a given for most people in the US.  And given may just be the operative word there.

With the constant expansion of social entitlement programs, the possibility of getting something for nothing is less and less difficult.  If your choices are a painful minimum wage job or a free check at the beginning of every month, the human tendency for laziness says that you’ll choose the latter.  This is because of what Tracy calls the Expediency Factor (or E Factor) –

“People continually strive to get the things they want the fastest and easiest way possible, with little or no concern for the secondary consequences of their behaviors.”

Humans are expedient in their use of their natural tendencies to acquire the things they need and want.  But wait, wait, wait, you may be shouting.  This is all nonsense, you might say.  I’m not like that, you’ll bristle.  Okay, fine, you’re different, but not because you’re not wired this way.  You’re different because the tendency to ignore secondary consequences has been trained out of you at some point in your journey through life.   Maybe you had good parents who taught you that thinking short term is a recipe for disaster.  Or maybe you learned the hard way from making bad decisions.  Whatever the case, the fact is that had you not been taught otherwise, you would be a short-term thinker.  That’s the human animal.

And you might also take issue with Tracy’s list of human characteristics.  You might say, “I’m not lazy!!”  Bullshit, I’d say.  If I give you a choice between a handsaw and chainsaw to cut down abig tree, you’ll choose the chainsaw (unless you’re a luddite puss).  Same thing with greed.  As Tracy points out, when people are offered $100,000 or $95,000 to do the same job, all people choose $100,000.  The point is that our genes have been carefully crafted over the eons to make us into a species with these basic drives.  This does not mean that our behavior is always malevolent.

It is possible to channel these human tendencies into positive behaviors that are beneficial to ourselves and others.  Indeed, this appears to be Tracy’s mission – to help us recalibrate the way we approach life so as to take full advantage of our nature while simultaneously helping ourselves and the world around us.  This is why I really like this book.  He’s singing my tune, and I’m loving his rendition.  But all is not roses and sunshine in Something for Nothing.

Brian Tracy is a guru in the personal and business self-improvement world.  He’s been around for a long time doing seminars and writing books.  He’s traveled the world, and his insights are evidence of a very centered and humanitarian kind of guy.  Alas, even though he gets the big picture completely right, his solutions for the masses are a bit too idealistic for my taste.

The first four chapters of the book lay down the basics that I’ve described above.  He explains his claims as to human tendencies and human needs, and he goes into how character is the key to meeting our needs in positive ways.  All good stuff.  But then Tracy turns to the current situation in America.  He talks about the role of useless politicians in ushering in the era of something for nothing and the damage that mentality does to people who hold it and to society at large.  Again, all good stuff.  But then, our esteemed author strays into fantasy land.

First Tracy offers advice on how to avoid falling victim to the something for nothing disease.  He provides a pledge that you can take that entails promising to never take something for nothing and to never abide people or organizations that do.  I’m on board with committing to do never taking something for nothing, but the idea that we can simply turn our noses up to those who do is a mistake.

Yes, I get just as disgusted as the next guy when I see some welfare queen in line with food stamps buying prime rib as she chats on her cell phone.  I’m not looking to buddy up to her anyway.  But what about the workplace?  Tracy devotes a whole chapter to how to fix the workplace.  Were I to buy into the whole pledge, I’d have very few options in terms of employment.  (Assuming I were employed, of course.)   The fact is that most companies have plenty of folks who do almost nothing and collect paychecks.  This fact seems to elude Mr. Tracy.

Well, actually, he mentions it, but his solution is just to get rid of these people.  Oh yeah.  Sure.  And his solutions for government are much the same.  How do we stop the entitlement mentality?  Do away with programs that give something for nothing.  Genius.  How do we get rid of politicians who foment resentment of the rich to garner cash for their consituents?  You got it – replace them with statesmen who have a longer term and less selfish view of public policy.  Yes, that’s it!!  We’ll just get rid of the assholes, and when we do, all the people who are currently afflicted with the something for nothing disease will slowly begin to be productive.  Wow.  I found myself wondering how a guy who clearly has such a good feel for human nature could come up with so asinine a solution.

Let me just say that I wholeheartedly agree with the spirit of Tracy’s arguments.  There’s no question that eliminating the possibility of getting something for nothing will spur the vast majority of humans to start taking steps to meet their needs productively.  But I’m afraid we’re at a point where we simply can’t get there from here.  Ironically, Tracy explains why this is so.

The author says that studies have been done showing that fear of losing met needs is 2.5 times more powerful than the desire to meet them.  (I should point out that the book has no footnotes, so we believe at our peril.  However, my experience shows this to be basically true.)   If this is true, then we should expect it to be nearly impossible to do what Tracy wants done, especially in our sound-bite driven, biased-media world.

So what are we to make of this book?  It’s good because it explains in very clear terms what we’re about as human beings.  It’s also good because it reminds us that we are responsible for our lives, and that our success depends upon the decisions we make and the actions we take.  And it’s even good that it provides a lot of basic historical and economic information that lends credence to the overall thesis.  That’s enough to justify the cost of admission – by a long shot.  But I think we have to be wary of pie-in-the-sky solutions to problems like this.

If we’re really going to make progress – for ourselves and the world around us – we have to take the situation as it is and find ways to navigate through it.  Sure, there are changes we can make that can be very beneficial.  For example, if we all get serious about making the Fair Tax a reality, many of the problems in our society will dissolve before our eyes.  (He doesn’t mention it.)  But the larger point is that we have cards in our hand, cards that we have to play.  Tracy would have us discard until the cards come up all aces.  Unfortunately, the deck’s not that big.  In the end, there’s useful information in this book, but it’s up to us to figure out how to use it to get what we want out of life.  Tracy has given us a clear picture of the stage upon which we act.  We now have the task of writing the script.



The Pair Bond and the Chiiiildren.
March 22, 2005, 5:04 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, Enlightened Caveman Concept, Parenting, Politics

Original Post (with comments)
I went for a run today, a baby-jogger run (i.e. harder than your average hilly run, and sometimes complete with whining soundtrack). Coming off of the flu, a vacation, and a lot of travel for business, I found that the work part of the phrase work-out kept passing across my giant movie screen – it started hurting less than two miles in. Nevertheless, at one point, another runner turned onto the road I was running. Suddenly, my focus was no longer on the discomfort I was feeling with every stride.

Me to Thomas: “Ahh, aren’t we lucky? It looks like we now have a mark (drawn out to indicate the presence of a new word for his lexicon). Now we have someone we can try to chase down and pass. And if we’re successful, it will feel so good that we’ll forget how our fitness has deteriorated.”

Thomas: “Muh.”

Me: “Very good. Let’s get him.”

Alas, my running foe turned off again before I could pass him. (I was gaining, though.) This scenario reminded me of the usefulness of competitive instincts in physical conditioning. Though being competitive is a direct result of the quest for status, and it is often the cause of serious interpersonal problems in life, it isn’t always bad – it pushes me to work harder than I might otherwise. And, to expand the concept a bit, I think many of the caveman proclivities that I usually denigrate and recommend harnessing are actually useful in the right contexts. The pair bond, particularly where kids are concerned, may be another example.

Yesterday on Michael Medved’s radio show, the discussion was centered around an article in the Northwestern periodical, The Oregonian, entitled: “Single mom a sign Rose court grows with times.” Apparently, each year for the last 75 years, during the Rose Festival, a Portland senior has been chosen as the Queen of Rosaria. This year the Queen is Rosa Montoya, a single-mom with a 7-week old daughter. Not surprisingly, Medved was appalled that a girl in such a situation would be honored in such a way. I’m inclined to agree with him, but not for the reasons he gives.

Make no mistake, there’s some substantial liberal diversity/tolerance/devictimization sentiment behind this Rose Queen selection.

Chet Orloff, director emeritus at the Oregon Historical Society and a member of the festival’s centennial committee, thinks Montoya’s election is good for Portland.

“It’s a recognition of something that’s quite realistic,” he said. “Girls are having children in high school. Getting that out into the realm of something as traditional as the Rose Festival is healthy.”

Medved disagreed. He stated that getting pregnant as a single teen is sign of poor character, and that it should not be praised or promoted as anything other than that. In my view, that’s a bit overboard. Kids are kids, which means they often to do stupid things. They have time horizon problems, so it’s hard to think of them as bad people (Isn’t that what people who accuse others of having character problems are really saying?) when they get themselves into predicaments involving pregnancy. To me, the real test of character is what they do after they learn they are pregnant. Every situation is different, so I can’t say which course of action will be the right one. However, I think it’s safe to say that most all situations will offer a hard right and an easy wrong. Which is chosen says much more about the character of the teen than the fact that he or she is dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. But the character issue is not my main concern here. Given the liberal penchant for upending tradition, should we not entertain the notion that the pair bond is archaic and on its way out (or that it should be)?

Is the notion that a standard step along the path through life is getting hitched up to one person nothing more than our caveman machinery driving the bus? It’s hard to say. Evolutionary psychology would seem to suggest that the monogamous pair bond is unnatural. Though the best female strategy in ancestral times entailed selecting males who had good genes and who would make good fathers, there’s really nothing to suggest that females should have stayed with their childrens’ fathers forever. But…this is not the ancestral world.

We have tens of thousands of years of culture that has shaped the way these caveman (or cavewoman, in this case) tendencies translate into behavior. Our genes push us toward love because it promotes reproduction and caring for our offspring, but our culture pushes love towards long-term, monogamous (at least on paper) relationships. Like I said, it’s hard to say. Maybe it’s better to just ask if it makes sense.

Those who are distressed that single parents are not honored nearly enough would seem to be suggesting that two-parent families are no better. Here we see shades of the theme behind multiculturalism – things (cultures, lifestyles, etc.) should not be thought of as better or worse, just different. Are they right? I think not, but not for moral reasons. I think this is a practical matter.

An Urban Institute article entitled, “Poverty among Children Born Outside of Marriage,” says:

Children born outside of marriage are more likely to have a mother who did not graduate from high school than are children born to married parents. They are also less likely to live with a mother who works full-time year-round. While 44 percent of children born to married parents have a mother who is fully employed, this is true for only 26 percent of children born outside of marriage. Similarly, a third of the mothers of non-marital children do not work at all, compared with only a fifth of children born to married parents.

What we can take from this is that being a single parent is a huge financial risk. A shocking revelation, to be sure. Having been raised by a single-mom, I can personally attest to this – my mother worked two jobs well into my college years. In the end, it seems like the usefulness of the pair bond in modern society revolves around the issue of children. If two individuals have no intention of having children, it seems hard to say that long-term monogamy is anything more than a persistent cultural relic. But, the moment kids come into the picture, it becomes a pragmatic extension of the natural propensity to provide for offspring. In that context, genetic love in the hands of monogamous cultural norms is a good thing, a better thing.

Notice I’ve never said the couple should be heterosexual. As the primary component of this equation, at least in my mind, is financial, I don’t think the sex of the parents is relevant here. What is relevant is the probable consequence of having a child out of wedlock. On that, there are mountains of statistics that make it quite clear that kids do better in life when they have married parents. It’s one thing to honor someone for overcoming hardship – one hopes this is what’s really behind Rosa’s selection as Rose Queen – but it’s something different altogether to honor someone just because she’s a single mom. If anything, the difficulties of being a single mom should be in the spotlight. Rosa should not be congratulated for raising a child on her own. If she must be foisted upon her peers, it should be as an object lesson in what not to do.

We can’t (and shouldn’t even consider) ridding ourselves of the caveman need for love, especially where children are concerned. Therefore, given that our culture has discovered that long-term, monogamous pair bonds are the best arrangements for harnessing love where children are concerned, we find ourselves in another situation where the caveman mind in the modern world isn’t a problem at all. Sometimes, I guess, enlightenment means nothing more than knowing that the old way is still the right way.