Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Feel-Good Almost-Wisdom

A couple of days ago, a friend of mine shared the following picture on Facebook.

 photo yourvoicecommands_zpsb6038b9d.jpg

Not too long ago, I'd have absolutely loved it.  I still kind of like it, but I have to admit that my thoughts about it are really rather mixed.  On one hand, I do believe that the words that we say, and the things that we think, do affect the way that we live our lives—and by extension, they also have some power to affect the way that people treat us (largely because of the way that our thoughts and words cause us to behave) and the things that happen to us as a result.  And I believe that it's not at all a bad idea to encourage ourselves to achieve our goals, or to believe (and reinforce the belief) that we are capable of achieving these goals.  As it was put in one of my favourite movies, "If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything."

That said, I have a couple of issues with this picture.

First of all, there's the way that intellect is conflated with IQ.  They're not the same thing.  IQ, or Intelligence Quotient, is simply one's score on any number of tests designed to measure one's intelligence—tests that are often heavily dependent on cultural expectations and that put a disproportionate amount of emphasis on mathematical and spatial abilities.  Intelligence is so much more than this.  It encompasses many aspects of cognitive ability—not just mathematical or spatial intelligence, but linguistic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and kinesthetic intelligence as well.  IQ tests don't typically assess the creativity or problem-solving abilities of the person taking them, and people with learning disabilities (which are not in themselves indications of low intelligence) are frequently at a disadvantage when taking an IQ test.  Overall, IQ tests are not a particularly reliable means of determining how intelligent a person is, and to say that IQ and intelligence itself are the same thing seriously undermines the point that the person who put this picture together apparently meant to make.

(Lest you think that my obvious dislike of IQ tests is because of a history of low scores, I should assure you that it isn't; in fact, the lowest I've ever scored is 118, and that was on a particularly bad day.  My scores are normally in the 130-140 range, which I understand is not terribly high, but a bit above average nonetheless.)

I also find it rather disturbing that the creator of this picture states that good things inevitably follow these affirmations.  This is a feel-good message on the surface, but this kind of thinking tends to place a lot of blame on people for whom things have not satisfactorily worked out.  You can think all the good things that you want, and act in as positive a way as it's possible for you to act, and things will still go wrong from time to time.  That's life.  And blaming people for bad luck, saying that it wouldn't have happened if only they'd thought positively enough, is just not cool.  It's not particularly enlightened, either.

As for the way it dismisses the concept of trying—this also isn't a great idea.  "I'm trying" isn't inherently a block or a means of holding oneself back.  It's not pessimistic or a premature admission of defeat.  At its best, "I'm trying" means "I'm doing, and I admit that it's difficult, but I'm doing this anyway because I believe that I can."  At its worst, it means "I'm in trouble here, and I could really use some help."  Either way, it means that effort is being put towards a goal, and that should never be de-valued the way that it is here.  Success is not always a given, and it's not self-defeating to acknowledge that when you're having a particularly difficult time with what you're doing.

And I particularly take issue with the idea that "I'm a skeptic" inherently keeps people from learning.  Because I am a skeptic.  That's how I learn.  I am always questioning things—perhaps especially my strongest beliefs and the information that I'm most inclined to think of as the truest truth, regardless of whether it actually is.  If I were to abandon my skepticism, it would have to entail an abandonment of independent thought and an acceptance of whatever I'm told.  That's not learning, that's gullibility.  For me, at least, skepticism is not a complete refusal to believe anything—it means that before I'll believe it, although I may consider accepting an idea, I need to see convincing proof of its validity.  The fact that I require proof does not prevent me from learning.  And although I'm technically a member of the Millennial generation (albeit one of its older members), and many of us were encouraged to think of ourselves as special little snowflakes who are entirely unique, I hardly think that I'm the only person who learns this way.

As much as the creator of this picture gets wrong, though, I do believe that it's a good idea to watch out for our own negative attitudes and beliefs and consider that we may be tripping ourselves up when we're having a particularly difficult time with a task or a goal.  To the best of my knowledge, I've never met anyone who hasn't ever made a mistake.  Human beings, it seems, are phenomenally good at undermining ourselves, especially when we believe, deep down, that we don't deserve to have something good.  But that doesn't mean that we're the only thing that's holding us back.  It certainly doesn't mean that we need to be told that we're not being positive enough.  Thinking and saying and doing positive things—that's incredibly helpful.  Even more, I think, when people we trust are encouraging us and reinforcing the positivity that we're trying to feel and to project.

But as powerful as this can be, it's only part of the puzzle.  I often wish that sometimes more people who are seeking enlightenment, or who are convinced that they have achieved it, would remember this.  After all, telling people that the only possible reason why they haven't succeeded is that they're not [INSERT CONDITION HERE] enough is neither positive nor helpful.

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