Tag expectations

Rethink { Passion }: Elusive, Idealized, & Obsessed

Having a Passion

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to “have a passion,” and why our society values this so much. As I talked about in my recent post about the construct of “grit”, grit is a character strength defined by passion and perseverance of long term goals. People with grit have sustained passion for one thing and stick to it. Research indicates that people with grit succeed in life, both professionally and academically.

Yet are we jumping on the grit wagon a bit too enthusiastically, at the expense of exploration?



Passion versus exploration

In a NY Times article last month entitled Our Push for ‘Passion,’ and Why It Harms Kids, Lisa Heffernan discusses this strange new notion that, by high school, a child must “have a passion that is deep, easy to articulate, well documented and makes him stand out from the crown“. She jokes that this must happen before he begins his Common App, and anyone who has applied to college recently or helped another do so is awake of this phenomenon. As Heffernan states,

This passion, which he will either stumble upon or be led to by the caring adults in his life, must be pursued at the highest level his time and talent, and his parent’s finances, will allow… This is madness.

She warns that the obsession with seeking a passion comes with costs. Children latch onto “passions” that are not really things they enjoy simply to be able to proclaim one. They feel lost and pressured to find their “one thing” early on. If we are laser-focused on finding one thing our students are good at and then push them to pursue it doggedly, they may miss out on other things they are perhaps more suited to or enjoy more. Childhood is about exploration. As Heffernan concludes,

…childhood isn’t about passion, but rather about exploration. Our job… is to nurture that exploration, not put an end to it. When we create an expectation that children must find their one true interest so early in life, we cut short a process of discovery that may easily take a lifetime.

In some ways, the exploration that Heffernan prescribes is antithetical to grit. However, I’d argue that grit is great, once you find something you want to be gritty at. However, we can’t push young students to latch on so quickly, and sometimes it IS more sensible to quit rather than to doggedly pursue.




Passion requires struggle

Evidencing the harm that societal pressure towards passion can cause, in a NYMag Ask Polly column last week, Polly assuages a 25-year-old woman’s fear that she does not yet have a passion. The writer calls herself “Life Is Buffering” and worries that she lacks an anchor in life.

Polly takes a different approach to the obsession of passion, explaining that children in the upper middle class who have been coddled by their parents and lived very fortunate lives often have known no struggle. Yet passion is not born from the easy life. She explains,

Passion comes from hard work. Passion bubbles up from intense, sometimes tedious labor. Passion floats in when you’re exhausted from doing something by yourself, for yourself, just to survive… Passion arrives when you stop seeing men and babies as a kind of solution to not having enough passion. Passion materializes once you give up hope and then you’re just sitting there, without hope, and you think, I might as well do something. I have to pay the bills some way, don’t I? 

Polly reminds us that passion is not “something that descends like magic at cocktail hour, when all the work is done.” It is instead an uphill battle through thankless work and setbacks and struggles. 

Moreover, it is okay to not yet know exactly what you want to do. Part of the struggle is defining that purpose. As Polly concludes,

Those people with the biggest question marks are usually the ones with the most passion of all.

Passion: Elusive, Idealized, & Obsessed

Overall, I believe that “finding a passion” is a bit idealized in our society. Moreover, for upper class students who’s parents and teachers are trying to give them every advantage in life, finding a passion can be a bit of a contradiction. Passion is not something you can be spoon fed, and it is not something that should be a item on your checklist for college acceptance. It is born from struggle and hard work, it takes time to develop, and it’s okay if you haven’t figured yours out yet.

This – of course – goes back to my obsession with failure. If we want our students to develop passions, we need to put them in situations where they can fail. We need to take them out of their comfort zones and into contexts where they will struggle. We need to let them explore and remove the expectations and pressures to zero in on one thing so early on. We must rethink what it means to be passionate, why we value it so much, and how to instill passion in our students without smothering them with the label.

“I want to create a mystery, not to solve it” – Making the Ordinary Unknown to Enhance Creativity, Learning & Innovation …*

“I want to create a mystery, not to solve it” - Making the Ordinary Unknown to Enhance Creativity, Learning & Innovation ...* | rethinked.org - Photo: Elsa Fridman

“Fear of the unexplainable has not only impoverished our inner lives, but also diminished relations between people; these have been dragged, so to speak, from the river of infinite possibilities and stuck on the dry bank where nothing happens. For it is not only sluggishness that makes human relations so unspeakably monotonous, it is the aversion to any new, unforeseen experience we are not sure we can handle.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

This quote from Rilke, which I found on Brain Pickings, captures this week’s theme and a core principle of our team: the need to embrace and practice making the ordinary unknown.

Over on The Guardian, Charlie Skelton makes an intriguing point about René Magritte’s art sharing structural similarities to comedy, in that both hinge on making the ordinary unknown:

Magritte once said: “I want to create a mystery, not to solve it.” Still, without trying to “solve” these compositions, we can at least examine their construction. It’s noticeable that many of the techniques Magritte uses for creating his mysterious images are to be found in comedy writing. His pictures are frequently structured like jokes.


A good comic can take something mundane and familiar and make you see it an unexpected way, whether it’s Dave Chappelle talking about “grape drink”, or Louis CK ranting about his four-year-old daughter. Magritte will do the same by sticking a silk mask on an apple. Or having a cloud enter a room by a door. Magritte “transformed the everyday” says Professor Elza Adamowicz of Queen Mary University, London. He “created a world of irrational juxtapositions, which shake us out of our comfortable expectations”. These irrational juxapositions have the stripped-down clarity of a one-liner. “His style is neutral in a way,” says Camu. “He wanted to make surreal propositions without distracting the viewer with style or painterly surfaces.”


For Magritte, all the world’s a stage, and existence is throughly absurd. His aim is to make us see the absurdity, to jolt us out of dumb acceptance – “to make us think and imagine outside the box”, as Adamowicz puts it. To stop seeing the world as one uncomplicated thing. With Magritte, everything is something else as well. Owls are plants. Balustrades are people. Shoes are feet. And paintings are jokes. Knock knock. Who’s there? A cloud.

This focus on shifting our frame of reference and its ties to comedy reminded me of Tina Seelig, who has often mentioned jokes as a fun and effective way to practice reframing one’s perspective to enhance creativity and innovation capacities:

There are some entertaining ways to practice changing your perspective. One of my favorites is to analyze jokes. Most are funny because they change the frame of the story when we least expect it. Here is an example:

Two men are playing golf on a lovely day. As the first man is about to tee off, a funeral procession goes by in the cemetery next door. He stops, takes off his hat, and bows his head.
The second man says, “Wow, you are incredibly thoughtful.”
The first man says, “It’s the least I could do. She and I were married for 25 years.”

As you can see, the frame shifts in the last line. At first the golfer appears thoughtful, but he instantly turns into a jerk when you learn that the deceased person was his wife.

Another classic example comes from one of the Pink Panther movies:

Inspector Clouseau: Does your dog bite? 
Hotel clerk: No. 
Clouseau: [bowing down to pet the dog] Nice doggie. [he dog bites Clouseau’s hand.]
Clouseau: I thought you said you dog did not bite!
Hotel Clerk: That is not my dog.

Again, the frame shifts at the end of the joke when you realize they are talking about two different dogs. Take a careful look at jokes, and you will find that the creativity and humor usually come from shifting the frame.

Reframing problems takes effort, attention, and practice, and allows you to see the world around you in a brand-new light. You can practice reframing by physically or mentally changing your point of view, by seeing the world from others’ perspectives, and by asking questions that begin with “why.” Together, these approaches enhance your ability to generate imaginative responses to the problems that come your way.

Source: How Reframing A Problem Unlocks Innovation 

Speaking of Seelig, over on Boston.comSanjay Salomon has an article about “failure resumes” where he highlights some pointers given to him in a phone interview by Seelig.

A “failure resume” is not a document of personal missteps that you send to potential employers or post on your LinkedIn profile. Instead, it’s a private exercise is meant to make students, job-seekers, employees, and others confront, acknowledge, and learn from their mistakes in order be wiser when the next challenge arises.

Seelig requires each of her students to complete a failure resume to help them “realize that viewing their experiences through the lens of failure forces them to come to terms with the mistakes they have made along the way and to extract important lessons from them.”

My students have to look at their mistakes from different angles, and to prepare for next time they face a similar challenge,” said Seelig. “It’s important to mine your failure in order to learn.”

In her blog “CreativityRulz,” Seelig explains that items listed on a failure resume can include professional, personal, or even social blunders. Students are supposed to outline what they learned from the experience in order “to extract important lessons from them.” Seelig told Boston.com the failure resume is a helpful way to get students out of their comfort zones.

“Students are used to looking at their lives through the lens of success,” said Seelig. “But if you’re only looking at your success, then you’re missing an opportunity to learn from your failures. You’re also being disingenuous, since the road to success is riddled with failure.”

Source: Can a Failure Resume Help You Succeed?

Is this something you’ve tried? I’m rather intrigued by the idea and I’m hoping to carve out some time this weekend to get started on my own failure resume.

reframe, learn, create & innovate …*

{ The Happiness Equation } A Look Into Some of the Factors That Affect Our Experience of Happiness …*

Last week I wrote about the evolutionary function of positive emotions, now I’d like to turn our attention to some of the intrinsic factors that affect our enduring levels of happiness. In Authentic Happiness, Seligman proposes the following “happiness equation”:

H = S + C + V

Where H is your enduring level of happiness, S is your set range, C is the circumstances of your life, and V represents factors under your voluntary control. (45)

Today I will focus on the factors outside of our voluntary control (S) that determine our set range of happiness. (Don’t worry, we’ll soon get to the many things under your voluntary control that you can do to enhance and amplify your happiness.)


Seligman differentiates enduring levels of happiness from momentary happiness. This is important because the ways in which you increase the one are not the same as the ways in which you increase the other and the goal, of course, is to amplify our enduring happiness:

Momentary happiness can easily be increased by any number of uplifts, such as chocolate, a comedy film, a back rub, a compliment, flowers, or a new blouse. […] No one is more expert on this topic than you are. The challenge is to raise your enduring level of happiness, and merely increasing the number of bursts of momentary positive feelings will not accomplish this. (45)

Seligman identifies three key variables that keep each individual’s levels of enduring happiness within a relatively set range over the course of one’s life: the high heritability of personality traits, a baseline level of happiness (also likely genetically inherited) and our inevitable adaptation to the good things we have in life which leads us to take them for granted and reap less positive emotions from them over time.

{ THE STEERSMAN } We each have a personal set range for our level of positive (and negative) emotion which may represent the inherited aspect of overall happiness.

According to various studies on the psychology of identical twins and that of adopted children, it appears that roughly 50 percent of almost every personality trait turns out to be attributable to genetic inheritance:

The psychology of identical twins turns out to be much more similar than that of fraternal twins, and the psychology of adopted children turns out to be much more similar to their biological parents than to their adoptive parents. All of these studies—and they now number in the hundreds—converge on a single point: roughly 50 percent of almost every personality trait turns out to be attributable to genetic inheritance. (47)

Don’t despair just yet, as Seligman points out, “high heritability does not determine how unchangeable a trait is.”

Some highly heritable traits (like sexual orientation and body weight) don’t change much at all, while other highly heritable traits (like pessimism and fearfulness) are very changeable. ( 47) 

{ THE HAPPINESS THERMOSTAT } We each have a personal set range for our level of positive (and negative) emotion, and this range may represent the inherited aspect of overall happiness. 

A systematic study of 22 people who won major lotteries found that they reverted to their baseline level of happiness over time, winding up no happier than 22 matched controls. The good news, however, is that after misfortune strikes, the thermostat will strive to pull us out of our misery eventually. In fact, depression is almost always episodic, with recovery occurring within a few months of onset. Even individuals who have become paraplegic as a result of spinal cord accidents quickly begin to adapt to their greatly limited capacities, and within eight weeks they report more net positive emotion than negative emotion. Within a few years, they wind up only slightly less happy on average than individuals who are not paralyzed. Of people with extreme quadriplegia, 84 percent consider their life to be average or above average. These findings fit the idea that we each have a personal set range for our level of positive (and negative) emotion, and this range may represent the inherited aspect of overall happiness. (48)

{ THE HEDONIC TREADMILL } Causes you to to rapidly & inevitably adapt to good things by taking them for granted

Another barrier to raising your level of happiness is the “hedonic treadmill,” which causes you to rapidly and inevitably adapt to good things by taking them for granted. As you accumulate more material possessions and accomplishments, your expectations rise. The deeds and things you worked so hard for no longer make you happy; you need to get something even better to boost your level of happiness into the upper reaches of its set range. But once you get the next possession or achievement, you adapt to it as well, and so on. There is, unfortunately, a good deal of evidence for such a treadmill. (49)

  • In less than three months, major events (such as being fired or promoted) lose their impact on happiness level.
  • Wealth, which surely brings more possessions in its wake, has a surprisingly low correlation with happiness level. Rich people are, on average, only slightly happier than poor people.
  • Real income has risen dramatically in the prosperous nations over the last century, but the level of life satisfaction has been entirely flat in the United States and most other wealthy nations.
  • Recent changes in an individual’s pay predict job satisfaction, but average levels of pay do not.
  • Physical attractiveness (which, like wealth, brings about any number of advantages) does not have much effect at all on happiness.
  • Objective physical health, perhaps the most valuable of all resources, is barely correlated with happiness. 
  • There are limits on adaptation, however. There are some bad events that we never get used to, or adapt to only very slowly. The death of a child or a spouse in a car crash is one example. (49)

Here’s a wonderful TED talk from Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, Dan Gilbert on the Surprising Science of Happiness, where he looks into some of the very factors, notably the impact bias, at work behind our hedonic treadmill and happiness thermostat.

In conclusion, the S variables (your genetic steersman, your set range and the hedonic treadmill) tend to keep your level of enduring happiness generally stable across your life span.

Source: Seligman, Martin. Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology To Realize Your Potential For Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press, 2002. Print.

Rethinking…* the High School Drop Out Rate by Paying Attention to Students’ Own Expectations for Their Learning

Is there always pressure to perform or do I have opportunities to explore and make mistakes and learn from them without being branded as a failure? Do I have opportunities to tinker and make guesses?


When high-school senior Gianna discovered that one student drops out of high school every 12 second, she decided to investigate and find ways to help the educational system rethink…* and change this distressing statistic. She came across the ‘big four’ reasons usually given for the high school drop out rate: academic failure, life events, behavioral issues and disinterest. But underneath these big four, she realized that schools, generally, try to fit all students into the same mold: either you fit in or you drop out. And that’s a problem, for obvious reasons: we are all wildly different in our personalities, interests, and learning styles. In this short video produced by Leaving to Learn, Gianna, calls for educators to pay increased attention to ten essential expectations that students have for their own learning, and which are usually ignored or undervalued in schools. I particularly loved the format in which she presents these ten learning imperatives–as questions. Students don’t want to be talked down to, they want to engage in dialogue.

  1. RELATIONSHIPS ~ Do my teachers know about me and my interests and talents? Do they help me to form relationships with adults and peers who might serve as models, mentors and coaches?
  2. RELEVANCE ~ Is it just a series of hoops to jump or is the work relevant to my interests? Do my teachers help me to understand how my learning contributes to my community and to the world?
  3. TIME ~ Am I expected to learn at a constant pace decided by the teacher or can I learn at my own pace? Is there time for my learning to be deep as well as broad?
  4. TIMING ~ Do all students have to learn things in the same sequence or can I learn things in the order that fits my learning style or interest?
  5. PLAY ~ Is there always pressure to perform or do I have opportunities to explore and make mistakes and learn from them without being branded as a failure? Do I have opportunities to tinker and make guesses?
  6. PRACTICE ~ Do we learn something and then immediately move on to the next skill or can we engage in deep and sustained practice of those skills we need to learn?
  7. CHOICE ~ Am I just following the same path as every student or do I have real choices about what, when and how I will learn and demonstrate my abilities?
  8. AUTHENTICITY ~ Is my work just a series of dittoes or is the learning and work I do regarded as significant outside of school by experts, family and employers? Does the community recognize the value of my work?
  9. CHALLENGE ~ Is it just about completing assignments or do I feel appropriately challenged? Am I addressing high and meaningful standards of excellence?
  10. APPLICATION ~ Is my learning all theoretical or do I have opportunities to apply what I’m learning in real world settings?

“I’d like to propose that schools evaluate themselves not just by students’ test scores but also by students’ judgments about how well the schools deliver on these imperatives.”

10 Expectations ~ via Leaving to Learn, published May 9, 2013.


Also check out this four minute animation to learn more about Leaving to Learn and Gianna’s research into the high school drop out rate:

Leaving To Learn ~ via Leaving to Learn, published March 9, 2013

So much …* love: Kelli Anderson on Disruptive Wonder & the Hidden Talents of Everyday Things

“People arrive at experiences […] with expectations and when we make things we’re actively choosing what to do with these expectations. And in my work, I want to create disruptive wonder. I want to confound these expectations because I think that everyday fundamental things and experiences frame reality in a way that we often take for granted. So the small things we make can work to reinforce our assumptions about the world. Or small things can come out of left field and jar us into reassessing our complacent expectations about reality. This doesn’t happen often but when it does, it’s awesome. Because then these small things act as a sort of humble backdoor into understanding a reality that is infinitely surprising.”

Watch this terrific TEDxPhoenix talk from 2004, given by artist, designer and tinkerer–Kelli Anderson–who aims to create disruptive wonder through design and tinkering in order to discover the hidden talents of everyday things. Kelli describes her philosophy about the power of small everyday things to jar us into rethinking the familiar and ordinary and walks us through of her own projects to

“demonstrate that by rejecting normal order, by messing things up and by rearranging the pieces, we can expand our notion of what we demand from reality. So today I want to put forth this idea that an avenue to better is for a million teeny tiny disruptions to whatever is sitting in front of you. So go mess with the complacently rational!”


Some of our favorite quotes from Kelli’s talk:

I get to tinker with everyday experiences and as we go through our everyday lives, visual and experiential things exert this invisible authority over our brains at all times. And they yield this power in subtle and sneaky ways. So visuals, for example, speak volumes through these teeny tiny details codified in things like type, shape, color, and texture. So these small picky things form the vocabulary that come together and make the sentences, enabling us to make tangible things like a solar powered Popsicle truck.

The world is full of order that doesn’t necessarily deserve our respect. Sometimes there’s meaning, justice and logic present in the way things are but sometimes there just isn’t. And I think that the moment we realize this, is the moment we become creative people because it prompts us to mess things up and do something better with the basic pieces of experience.

So what I’m after in my work, really, is this: the hidden talents of everyday things–all those overlooked powers bestowed on the things that surround us by the wonders of physics, the complexities of cultural associations and a gazillion other, only partially chartable, things.

Try to something better by doing something more absurd.

Ritual becoming empty gesture speaks to the fact that the more an experience repeats itself, the less it means because we begin to take it for granted and that’s why clichés are interesting and why people get in car wrecks nears their homes. When experiencing things over and over again they just lose their gravity.

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