Tag Archives: history

The Case for American History

“…That is because reparations is not a claim against white Americans, anymore than reparations paid to interned Japanese-Americans was a claim against non-Japanese-Americans. The claim was brought before the multi-ethnic United States of America…

People who object to reparations for African-Americans because they, individually, did nothing should also object to reparations to Japanese-Americans, but they should not stop there. They should object to the Fourth of July, since they, individually, did nothing to aid the American Revolution. They should object to the payment of pensions for the Spanish-American War, a war fought before they were alive. Indeed they should object to government and society itself, because its existence depends on outliving its individual citizens…

The United States’ success as a state extends out from several factors, some of them good and others not so much. The mature citizen understands this. The immature citizen claims credit for all national accolades, while disavowing responsibility for all demerits. This specimen of patriotism is at the core of many (not all) arguments against reparations. Everyone claims to love their country, but considerably fewer know their country…”

I wish I could quote this entire article and get it painted on the side of my car.

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June 3, 2014 · 5:59 pm

The Stories That Bind Us

March 15, 2013

By BRUCE FEILER

“I hit the breaking point as a parent a few years ago. It was the week of my extended family’s annual gathering in August, and we were struggling with assorted crises. My parents were aging; my wife and I were straining under the chaos of young children; my sister was bracing to prepare her preteens for bullying, sex and cyberstalking.

Sure enough, one night all the tensions boiled over. At dinner, I noticed my nephew texting under the table. I knew I shouldn’t say anything, but I couldn’t help myself and asked him to stop.

Ka-boom! My sister snapped at me to not discipline her child. My dad pointed out that my girls were the ones balancing spoons on their noses. My mom said none of the grandchildren had manners. Within minutes, everyone had fled to separate corners.

Later, my dad called me to his bedside. There was a palpable sense of fear I couldn’t remember hearing before.

“Our family’s falling apart,” he said.

“No it’s not,” I said instinctively. “It’s stronger than ever.”

But lying in bed afterward, I began to wonder: Was he right? What is the secret sauce that holds a family together? What are the ingredients that make some families effective, resilient, happy?

It turns out to be an astonishingly good time to ask that question. The last few years have seen stunning breakthroughs in knowledge about how to make families, along with other groups, work more effectively.

Myth-shattering research has reshaped our understanding of dinnertime, discipline and difficult conversations. Trendsetting programs from Silicon Valley and the military have introduced techniques for making teams function better.

The only problem: most of that knowledge remains ghettoized in these subcultures, hidden from the parents who need it most. I spent the last few years trying to uncover that information, meeting families, scholars and experts ranging from peace negotiators to online game designers to Warren Buffett’s bankers.

After a while, a surprising theme emerged. The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.

I first heard this idea from Marshall Duke, a colorful psychologist at Emory University. In the mid-1990s, Dr. Duke was asked to help explore myth and ritual in American families.

“There was a lot of research at the time into the dissipation of the family,” he told me at his home in suburban Atlanta. “But we were more interested in what families could do to counteract those forces.”

Around that time, Dr. Duke’s wife, Sara, a psychologist who works with children with learning disabilities, noticed something about her students.

“The ones who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges,” she said.

Her husband was intrigued, and along with a colleague, Robyn Fivush, set out to test her hypothesis. They developed a measure called the “Do You Know?” scale that asked children to answer 20 questions.

Examples included: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?

Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush asked those questions of four dozen families in the summer of 2001, and taped several of their dinner table conversations. They then compared the children’s results to a battery of psychological tests the children had taken, and reached an overwhelming conclusion. The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.

“We were blown away,” Dr. Duke said.

And then something unexpected happened. Two months later was Sept. 11. As citizens, Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush were horrified like everyone else, but as psychologists, they knew they had been given a rare opportunity: though the families they studied had not been directly affected by the events, all the children had experienced the same national trauma at the same time. The researchers went back and reassessed the children.

“Once again,” Dr. Duke said, “the ones who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient, meaning they could moderate the effects of stress.”

Why does knowing where your grandmother went to school help a child overcome something as minor as a skinned knee or as major as a terrorist attack?

“The answers have to do with a child’s sense of being part of a larger family,” Dr. Duke said.

Psychologists have found that every family has a unifying narrative, he explained, and those narratives take one of three shapes.

First, the ascending family narrative: “Son, when we came to this country, we had nothing. Our family worked. We opened a store. Your grandfather went to high school. Your father went to college. And now you. …”

Second is the descending narrative: “Sweetheart, we used to have it all. Then we lost everything.”

“The most healthful narrative,” Dr. Duke continued, “is the third one. It’s called the oscillating family narrative: ‘Dear, let me tell you, we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital. But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.’ ”

Dr. Duke said that children who have the most self-confidence have what he and Dr. Fivush call a strong “intergenerational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.

Leaders in other fields have found similar results. Many groups use what sociologists call sense-making, the building of a narrative that explains what the group is about.

Jim Collins, a management expert and author of “Good to Great,” told me that successful human enterprises of any kind, from companies to countries, go out of their way to capture their core identity. In Mr. Collins’s terms, they “preserve core, while stimulating progress.” The same applies to families, he said.

Mr. Collins recommended that families create a mission statement similar to the ones companies and other organizations use to identify their core values.

The military has also found that teaching recruits about the history of their service increases their camaraderie and ability to bond more closely with their unit.

Cmdr. David G. Smith is the chairman of the department of leadership, ethics and law at the Naval Academy and an expert in unit cohesion, the Pentagon’s term for group morale. Until recently, the military taught unit cohesion by “dehumanizing” individuals, Commander Smith said. Think of the bullying drill sergeants in “Full Metal Jacket” or “An Officer and a Gentleman.”

But these days the military spends more time building up identity through communal activities. At the Naval Academy, Commander Smith advises graduating seniors to take incoming freshmen (or plebes) on history-building exercises, like going to the cemetery to pay tribute to the first naval aviator or visiting the original B-1 aircraft on display on campus.

Dr. Duke recommended that parents pursue similar activities with their children. Any number of occasions work to convey this sense of history: holidays, vacations, big family get-togethers, even a ride to the mall. The hokier the family’s tradition, he said, the more likely it is to be passed down. He mentioned his family’s custom of hiding frozen turkeys and canned pumpkin in the bushes during Thanksgiving so grandchildren would have to “hunt for their supper,” like the Pilgrims.

“These traditions become part of your family,” Dr. Duke said.

Decades of research have shown that most happy families communicate effectively. But talking doesn’t mean simply “talking through problems,” as important as that is. Talking also means telling a positive story about yourselves. When faced with a challenge, happy families, like happy people, just add a new chapter to their life story that shows them overcoming the hardship. This skill is particularly important for children, whose identity tends to get locked in during adolescence.

The bottom line: if you want a happier family, create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.

“This Life” appears monthly in Sunday Styles. This article is adapted from Bruce Feiler’s recently published book, “The Secrets of Happy Families: How to Improve Your Morning, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smart, Go Out and Play, and Much More.””

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March 18, 2013 · 4:36 pm

A Yearlong Celebration of History’s Remarkable Women

by 

“Illustrated portraits of trailblazing women across art, science, and literature.

It can be extraordinarily challenging to write about notable women without ghettoizing it as “women’s issues,” and yet some of the most remarkable hearts and minds to drive humanity forward have come equipped with two X chromosomes. It gives me enormous pleasure to announce a new collaboration with artist Lisa Congdon, titled The Reconstructionists — a yearlong celebration of remarkable women across art, science, and literature, both famous and esoteric, who have changed the way we define ourselves as a culture and live our lives as individuals of any gender.

Every Monday in 2013, we’ll be publishing an illustrated portrait of one such trailblazing woman, along with a hand-lettered quote that captures her spirit and a short micro-essay about her life and legacy. We’re launching with four portraits — writers Anaïs Nin and Gertrude Stein, artist Agnes Martin, and inventor/actor Hedy Lamarr — for a taste of the project’s scope and sensibility, but will be publishing one per week for the remainder of the year.

The project borrows its title from Anaïs Nin, one of the 52 female icons, who wrote of “woman’s role in the reconstruction of the world” in a poetic 1944 diary entry — a sentiment that encapsulates the heart of what this undertaking is about: women who have reconstructed, in ways big and small, famous and infamous, timeless and timely, our understanding of ourselves, the world, and our place in it. (Nin’s work was also how Lisa and I first crossed paths creatively, which adds a private celebratory element to the public project.)

The site was generously and thoughtfully designed by wonder-worker Kelli Anderson, my collaborator on the Curator’s Code project and one remarkable woman herself.

Please enjoy.

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January 8, 2013 · 4:11 pm

A Brief History of the To-Do List and the Psychology of Its Success

by 

“On reconciling the fussy with the fuzzy, or what Benjamin Franklin has to do with Drew Carey.

“The list is the origin of culture,” Umberto Ecofamously proclaimed. (Leonardo da Vinci,John Lennon, and Woody Guthrie would have all agreed.) But the list, it turns out, might also be the origin of both our highest happiness and our dreariest dissatisfaction. So argue New York Times science writer John Tierney and psychologist Roy F. Baumeister in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. While the book is fascinating in general — an unconventional “self-help” tome that, much like Timothy Wilson’s Redirect, grounds its insights and advice in thirty years of serious academic research into willfulness and self-control — its third chapter, titled “A Brief History of the To-Do List, From God to Drew Carey,” is particularly interesting. In it, Tierney and Baumeister dissect the sociocultural anatomy of our favorite organizational tool, from the storytellers who crafted the Bible and wrote the Genesis myth with its six-step world-creation plan, to Benjamin Franklin’s fastidious pursuit of virtue bound by goal-setting lists, to comedian Drew Carey’s quest for supreme personal productivity.

These anecdotes and pieces of cultural mythology are interwoven with ample psychology experiments from the past century and, ultimately, distilled into insight on how to make the to-list a tool of fulfillment rather than frustration.

Franklin, for instance, demonstrated one of the greatest pitfalls of the to-do list: trying to do too much at once, letting different goals come into conflict with one another:

Franklin tried a divide-and-conquer approach. He drew up a list of virtues and wrote a brief goal for each one, like this one for Order: ‘Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.’

When, as a young journeyman printer, he tried to practice Order by drawing up a rigid daily work schedule, he kept getting interrupted by unexpected demands from his clients — and Industry required him to ignore the schedule and meet with them. If he practiced Frugality (‘Waste nothing’) by always mending his own clothes and preparing all his own meals, there’d be less time available for Industry at his job — or for side projects like flying a kite in a thunderstorm or editing the Declaration of Independence. If he promised to spend an evening with his friends but then fell behind his schedule for work, he’d have to make a choice that would violate his virtue of Resolution: ‘Perform without fail what you resolve.’”

The result of conflicting goals, the authors argue, is unhappiness instead of action. But deciding on the right goals can be a daunting task.

Tierney and Baumeister recount a revealing experiment: When a psychologist was invited to give a talk at the Pentagon on managing time and resources, he decided to warm up the elite group of generals with a short writing exercise. He asked them all to write a summary of their strategic approach limited to 25 words.

The exercise stumped most of them. None of the distinguished men in uniform could come up with anything.

The only general who managed a response was the lone woman in the room. She had already had a distinguished career, having worked her way up through the ranks and been wounded in combat in Iraq. Her summary of her approach was as follows: ‘First I make a list of priorities: one, two, three, and so on. Then I cross out everything from three down.’”

Unscrupulous, perhaps, but the authors argue this is a simple version of an important to-do list strategy for reconciling the long-term with the short-term, or “the fussy with the fuzzy.”

Comedian Drew Carey took a different approach to mastering his to-do list — he outsourced his strategy to productivity guru David Allen, author of the cultish, modern Bible Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, who taught him how to adhere to specific next steps rather than abstract larger goals. The latter loom in the back of our mind like a nagging mother, never fully silenced until specific actionable steps are taken.

In fact, our brain appears to be wired to nag about unfinished to-do list items as uncompleted tasks and unmet goals continue to pop up into our minds. This is called the Zeigarnik effect and explains phenomena like earworms — when you hear only a portion of song, the song is likely to run through your mind at odd intervals as your brain struggles to finish it. Originally, the Zeigarnik effect was believed to be the brain’s way of ensuring goals are eventually accomplished, by prodding you into urgency until they are. But recent research has shed new light on the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious in our cognitive to-do lists.

[It] turns out that the Zeigarnik effect is not, as was assumed for decades, a reminder that continues unabated until the task gets done. The persistence of distracting thoughts is not an indication that the unconscious is working to finish the task. Nor is it the unconscious nagging the conscious mind to finish the task right away. Instead, the unconscious is asking the conscious mind to make a plan. The unconscious mind apparently can’t do this on its own, so it nags the conscious mind to make a plan with specifics like time, place, and opportunity. Once the plan is formed, the unconscious can stop nagging the conscious mind with reminders.”

The moral, then? Unless you are Woody Guthrie, keep your to-do list to a few very specific, actionable, non-conflicting items, then go fly your kite in peace.”

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January 7, 2013 · 5:53 pm