The Difference Between a System and an Ideal

Recently, New York City announced the results of their Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). This aptitude test is taken by eighth grade students and serves as the sole factor for admission to the most selective high schools in the city.

While black and Latino students make up 66% of all NYC students, they received only 10% of these coveted slots.

Hold that thought.

Meritocracy is defined as “a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement.”

Are we to believe that any one group of thirteen-year-old children is that disproportionately less talented than another to justify such as discrepancy as described above?

The term meritocracy was originally coined in the 1958 satirical essay by the sociologist, Michael Young. You read that right, satire.

The essay was a dystopian tale set in 2033, where a historian now living in a so called meritocracy looked back in time to review how they got there

Young’s historian proved also to be a wise futurist, when he recognized the limits of meritocracy. His forecast included a future full of simplistic judgment, saying for example — “the eminent know that success is a just reward for their own capacity, their own efforts and in which the lower orders know that they have failed every chance they were given.” 

He also envisioned a day where merit based systems would ironically lead to the hoarding of advantages amongst those who had worked their way to the top, writing that “nearly all parents are going to try to gain unfair advantages for their offspring.”

We conflate systems with ideals. It is the difference between “this is how things work” and ‘this is how things should work.” We no more live in a true meritocratic system than we live in a true democracy.  As Young foretold, rules get re-written by those at the top who, perhaps naturally, wish to remain there. 

It is the ideal of a meritocracy that we should constantly be striving to live by. 

Ultimately this means ensuring that everyone plays by the same rules and where the playing field is created level for all. 

But it must first start by being honest enough to admit when we’ve gained favor through other means AND recognizing when certain meritocratic practices (such as the test mentioned above) are not as much about merit as we would like to think they are. 

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up.

Do You Suffer from ERI?

If you’re like me, until recently you never even heard of ERI, let alone know if you suffer from it.

The term, coined by Johannes Siegrist, senior professor at the University of Dusseldorf, stands for Effort/Reward Imbalance.

The idea is that we all make a mental calculation when it comes to work. How does what I’m putting in compare to what I’m getting out of it?

In this insightful article on the topic from the Guardian, the author quotes Siegrist, saying there are two types of imbalance. “You can either do too little and receive too much or do too much and receive too little.”

In both cases, these imbalances can prove to be unhealthy. For those whose effort is great and reward small, it has been linked to heart problems and depression. 

Surprisingly and perhaps less sympathetically, those on the other end who may feel their reward is unearned may also experience mental health issues. 

So what is our response? 

Well because no one likes to feel off balance, we recalculate our Effort/Reward for ourselves and dangerously for others.

We overstate our effort while understating those of others. And we minimize our own reward while overstating the reward of others. 

In the process we throw shade on others in the form of guilt or shame. 

The problem is both effort and reward are hard to quantify in our own lives let alone try to judge in others. 

Both effort and reward are relative. They vary from day to day. They are both a point in time and a reflection of a lifetime of activity

So what is one to do?

If you’re reward is in excess of your effort — work harder… for others.

If you’re doing too much and receiving too little — demand more… with and from others.

You see the solution to ERI is not something we will find in our own heads but something we must seek in the company of others. 

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up. 

The Best Book I’ve Read in Years

The best books forever change the way you see something – and that is what The Overstory has done for me and my connection to nature – and specifically trees.

It is hard to describe, so I will start with these three  passages from different parts of the book:

That’s the trouble with people, their root problem. Life runs alongside them, unseen…A chorus of living wood sings to the woman: If your mind were only a slightly greener thing, we’d drown you in meaning.

As the lady officer in the station takes her fingerprints, she feels, for the first time since her father’s death, like she’s given the day everything it wanted.

The essay flickers under his fingers. He can’t follow it, can’t decide whether it’s brilliant or rubbish. His whole self is dissolving. All his rights and privileges, everything he owns. A great gift that has been his since birth is being taken away. It’s a grand luxurious act of self-deceit, an outright lie, that claim of Kant’s: “As far as nonhumans are concerned, we have no direct duties. All exists merely as means to an end. That end is man.”

The book is chiefly about connections – with each other, with previous and future generations and with nature and the living world. Trees play a prominent role, some might consider them characters or catalysts of the plot itself.

In reading the book (full disclosure, I’m not even finished yet), it has been an act of pure discovery and humility.  

It does not overtly advocate for us to change how we see the world or to become better stewards of our environment. Yet by allowing me to reflect on what it had to say, it has done just that.

It is embarrassing that I can’t name but a few trees I come across in nature or have such little appreciation for the life one has lived and given.  

To think that we pass trees that have been in our backyards since before the revolutionary war and don’t bat an eyelash or pause to marvel at it’s journey north to the sky, south into the soil and across one generation to the next.

We cut them down without hesitation. Waste their by products, like paper, without a second thought to its source.  Blind to how truly connected we are, we cut their noses and spite our own faces. 

Knowing the name of a thing is the first step to seeing its value and protecting it. Stopping to reflect on its journey the second. Sharing that journey with others, the third.

Consider this shared. Here is a link to buy a copy (it’s printed on recycled paper), or better yet, download it or reserve it at your local library.

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up.

What Do You Do When You’re Wrong?

In response to last week’s post, several readers wrote me to point out an error. I incorrectly wrote, “Mr. Rogers invited the postman, Mr. McFeely, to come soak his feet in his pool.”  

In reality, he invited Officer Clemmons. Mr. McFeely is white while Officer Clemmons is African-American – not a minor point considering Mr. Rogers was trying to make a statement about integrating public pools.

My initial instinct was to hope no one else noticed and ignore it.  

Ultimately, guilt made me own up to my mistake, email the readers who pointed out the error and send this mea culpa. The net result was not only a personal relief but also some excellent exchanges with readers – even netting a book recommendation. What originally felt threatening instead felt liberating.
A few weeks earlier, my middle daughter had given me a master class in apologies.  Around bedtime, she had completely lost her cool about something that seemed trivial at the time. She said some hurtful and hateful things, including that I was “the worst Dad ever” and she “never wanted to read with me again.”  Both of which stung, especially since we’ve been having an absolutely awesome time reading a book series called The Unwanteds every night for months. She ran into her room crying, slamming the door.

Several minutes later, a notebook came sliding out from under said slammed door. In her two-page note, she walked me through every nook and cranny of what she was feeling and why she acted the way she did. I went into her room, her apologetic words in my proud hand, to tell her how brave it was to share her feelings so directly and purely. I asked if we could read theUnwanteds and so we did.
In the spirit of President’s Day, both examples, reflect these words from Lincoln:

My old Father used to have a saying that ‘If you make a bad bargain, hug it all the tighter.’
Owning our mistakes has always been hard, but it seems even harder today. We don’t allow much space for forgiveness. 
Saying sorry, admitting when you’re wrong. These are really, really hard things.  Yet we put every potential apology through the lens of judgment instead of understanding.  A world that seems more about gotcha, than “I get you.”
The problem is that when we don’t feel safe to own our mistakes, both parties suffer.  Apologies come either half-baked or not at all. And no one is able to move on.
There is something poetic about the imagery of hugging our mistakes all the tighter.  Just imagine, if we could all hug ours as tightly as a nine-year-old.

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up. 

What Do You Do in Line?

I recently heard the writer and sociologist, Arlie Russell Hochschild describe the discontent many feel in the country today.  It was from her acclaimed book,Strangers in Their Own Land, and was captured in the following metaphor:
“You’re waiting in line for the American dream that you feel you very much deserve. It’s like waiting in a pilgrimage, and the line isn’t moving. Your feet are tired. You feel you are properly deserving of this reward that’s ahead. And the idea is, you don’t begrudge anyone in this right deep story. You’re not a hateful person. But then you see… somebody cutting ahead of you. Why are they getting special treatment?
Then, in another moment, the president of the country, Barack Obama, who should be tending fairly to all waiters-in-line, seems to be waving to the line cutters. In fact, “Is he a line cutter?” — the idea is. How did his mother — she was a single mother, not a rich woman — afford a Harvard education, a Columbia education? Something fishy happened. That was the thought there.”
In a final moment, someone from the coasts, someone highly educated, someone from that so-called elite, turns around, and they’re really close to the prize, or they have the prize. But they turn around and look at the others who are waiting in line and say, “Oh, you backward, Southern, ill-educated, racist, sexist, homophobic redneck.”  That is the estranging thing, that insult.”
The power of metaphors is their ability to reveal deeper insights into our thinking about a particular topic.  

And in hearing hers, it illuminates the following truths about how we see mobility in this country:
We generally don’t understand how we end up in our place in line.

We have even less knowledge about how other people get their place in line

We don’t know why the line moves for some and not for others.

And finally, we spend too much time judging others in the line and too little figuring out how to make the line move faster for all of us.

What do you do when you’re in line?

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up. 

This Is Me vs. This Is Us

This devastating article details the lengths to which a private school went to drive their students into college. It included allegations of abuse, falsifying transcripts and encouraging students to exaggerate the challenges in their life in their admissions essays. 

The idea was to “manufacture up-from-hardship tales that it sold to Ivy League schools hungry for diversity.”

In the fictional world of the TV show “This is Us”, a recent episode also focused on a character’s inspirational admissions essay.  Here young Randall resists the temptation to answer the question of naming “one” person who has made the greatest impact in his life.  Instead suggesting that it was a small army of people who made his journey possible. Watch him read his essay here. 

Both of these stories put a spotlight on the increasingly high stakes game of college applications and their signature component, the admissions essay. 

The first exposes the system’s bias toward “pull yourself up from your bootstraps stories.”  The higher the climb the more worthy the student appears to be. 

The second also funnels the student down a narrow narrative that tries to pin success, if not on your own effort, then that of a single other person.

We all love a good success story.  We root for the underdog and are moved – even to tears – when they make it. 

But our attraction to these stories can inadvertently drive young people to only see their journeys through this narrow lens at a time when we should be teaching them to see their lives more completely.  

We are telling them that we value stories that scream “This is Me” instead of asking them to make the connection that says “This is Us.”

Thanks to all of those who donated to our #givingTuesday campaign. Your generosity will go directly young designers/interns who have struggled to move up in life. They in turn will help us create moving content that helps more people reflect on their lives. 

I’m Biased. Are You?

I read the New York Times and watch MSNBC because they reinforce my existing beliefs (confirmation bias).

I remember bad things done to me more than good things done for me (negativity bias).

I think that the country will ultimately be ok (optimism bias).

I didn’t think the poll results were accurate leading up to the midterms (pessimism bias).

I believe that if I flip a coin five times and get heads each time, the next flip will be tails (the gambler’s fallacy).

I think that when a driver cuts me off, he was doing it to intentionally mess with me (hostile attribution bias).

I believe it’s ok to have that hamburger today because next week I’ll eat healthier (hyperbolic discounting).

Once we bought our Ford Flex, I started seeing them everywhere (selection bias).

I think that each natural disaster is a sign of climate change (availability cascade).

If my GPS tells me to turn, I do even if I have doubts (automation bias).

If an expert tells me something, I believe her (authority bias).

I think Jets fans are loud (group attribution error).

I think people in my political party are more fact based  (in group bias).

I value things I’ve made more than things I’ve bought, even if the latter is actually more expensive (the Ikea effect).

I think people mostly agree with me (false consensus effect).

Biases are when we create our own subjective reality based on our individual perceptions. They are shortcuts in how we see our world.  

Sometimes these biases can be consistent with objective facts (even a broken clock is right twice a day) but often they lead us astray. 

The problem with cognitive biases is not that we have them.  We all do. It’s what happens when we fail to recognize them in ourselves. 

Of course, there is a bias for that too.  It’s called blind spot bias, which essentially means we believe that others are biased but we are not.

Check out this list of cognitive biases or this article about how they impact our decision making process. And next time you’re in a difficult conversation or debate, instead of accusing the other person of being biased, admit your own. You’ll be surprised at how that might turn the conversation around. 

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up. 

Don’t Turn The Page

I really wanted to write something positive today. Then I saw this.

The first time I had seen that picture was last Sunday.  It was on the front page of the New York Times.  My seven-year old daughter had just crawled up on my lap and asked me who that was. I told her that this picture was of another seven-year old girl who lived in Yemen and because of the war going on in that country could not get enough to eat. She was now suffering from something called malnutrition. 

When my daughter, first leapt on my lap, I turned the paper over as the top of the fold story was about the shooting in Pittsburgh. I flipped it to protect her from that story, not knowing that an equally disturbing one would be revealed on the other side of the paper.

She implored me, “Daddy, please turn the page, I don’t want to look at that picture anymore, it’s scary.” In saying this, she expressed an all-too familiar sentiment we all feel when it comes to confronting terrible news. If we turn the page, it goes away.  Out of sight out of mind.  And so I did.

Later that day, my daughter threw a fit when her peas touched her pasta during dinner. It was a typical outburst of a tired child but I felt a deep rage within me.  So frustrated was I by her inability to put her own discomfort in perspective to what she had seen earlier that morning. How could she forget so quickly?

Well, she is a seven-year old child. What is our excuse?

Some will say we can only react to the problems in front of us and while they may seem trivial to the rest of the world, they are very real at the time. When we are confronted with the more serious suffering of others, our problems are put in perspective and their proportion is adjusted. They become and feel smaller. Fair enough. 

But how perverse is it that the severe suffering of others serves a purpose of making us feel better about our own.

Are our only choices to turn the page or confront the suffering of others and feel better about our own problems?

The picture appeared again in Friday’s paper, with an update.  The seven-year old girl had died – the result of not being able to get the necessary follow up medical care, she so desperately needed.

If that seven-year old girl were in my daughter’s 1st grade class, I would fly off the couch to see how we could help. Instead of staying on it and turning the page.

Here is a link to Doctors without Borders that is active in trying to provide care in Yemen.  If so inclined, you can make a donation in memory of Amal Hussain, the seven-year old girl in the photograph.

Battling for Trophies

Recently my 10 year-old daughter participated in an event called, Battle of the Books. The premise seemed noble. Spark interest in reading by creating a program where students would be given five books to read over the summer.  They would meet as a group to discuss the book and then in the fall, they would gather with students from other schools for a competition based on recalling the book’s content. Sort of like a gameified book club for kids. 

Programs like this can be very valuable in encouraging reading over the summer, where studies have showed student’s reading and vocabulary often decline.
Then I arrived at the Battle.
Held in a high school gym, it had the feeling a live sporting event. Teams from across the county gathered and there was a palpable excitement that was easy to get caught up in. It was clear that teams were taking this seriously – some much more than others.  

While at the event, I heard of the lengths that some towns would go to in order to bring home the trophy.  Some teams had cuts.  Meaning that kids at some point were “kicked off” a reading team – and left home from the competition. 

Other teams had practice sessions to develop their “buzzer strategy.”  Apparently this is a key tactic for being able to be the first to “buzz” in to answer a question. Some even had designated buzzers. 
With a large team and no “buzzer” strategy, our squad did not fair well in the standard metrics of this competition. But when I asked my daughter how she felt about the whole things, her answer was telling.  
“Well, we were given five free books to read over the summer that were really interesting.  And we were able to spend time with our friends talking about books – which was fun.”
It has become the accepted position that competition and the potential for rewards are ideal motivators to drive us to our best.  

But as parents, teachers, business leaders, and even our elected officials – do we too often prioritize winning and competition over teamwork and cooperation? 
New research summarized in this week’s New York Times talks generally about the limits of a rewards based culture and how intrinsic motivation is better for long-term character development. The last line in this op-ed really drives home the point.
Leading thinkers like Douglas Rushkoff are encouraging us to return to our cooperative roots, via his Team Human podcast and soon to be released book of the same name (both are riveting and should be required listening/reading).
Competition can be fun and intense and there is no doubting the dopamine high we get when we reach the top of a podium. Yet, when we “go all in” and see only the trophy it means that some things are left out – like perspective and purpose.

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up.

The Child or The Road?

Uncertain times raise the stakes for raising a child.  We project our own fears upon their future and our anxiety seeps into our actions and ultimately theirs. 

This manifests itself in ways big and small, many of which are chronicled in the new book, The Coddling of the American Mind:  How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.  (Ironically, the title itself may unwittingly add to this anxiety.)  The book is challenging and tough to read as you reflect on your own actions and life, but it is valuable for that very reason.

It opens with a quote from a folk tale that says, “Prepare your child for the road, not the road for the child.”  Let that idea sink in.

We have leaders who we hope will prepare the road well through policy and practice. When they don’t we should do our part to hold them accountable. But the reality is that our control over the road pales in comparison to our ability to prepare our children for whatever that road may hold.  The film Captain Fantastic is a perfect example of how families can do just that – albeit perhaps to an extreme.

In an example closer to home, we’ve been giving much thought to the newfound freedom of our fifth grader who now must walk to school each day. It is a ten-minute journey that includes crossing multiple streets, navigating one five way intersection and walking through a hidden path.

Preparing the road means that we have street lights and stop signs, penalties in place for breaking traffic rules and crossing guards to facilitate crossing the road. Increasingly, some children are given phones so parents can receive updates on their progress or even track it themselves via GPS.  All of these seem reasonable ways to prepare the road for a smooth journey. 

At the same time, what does the child do when the crossing guard is not there, or the lights are not working, or the phone battery dies?  It is then when the test will come as to whether we have prepared them for this road.  Do they know to look both ways?  Can they use their judgment to determine when to cross un-assisted?  Will they know which adult it is ok to ask for help, if they need to reach their parents?

It is natural for any parent to want every road – present or future – to made free from danger.  But the reality is that is an impossible and exhausting ask.

Instead, our only hope is that we have prepared them to deal with the uncertainty that can make life both scary and thrilling.