Thursday, July 21, 2011

On linearity

This will sound kind of dumb and arrogant and obvious to many of you, but I’m OK with that. I sound dumb and arrogant and obvious to myself sometimes; why should I not sound that way to you?

            I’ve dealt with a lot of linear assumptions. This tendency is particularly manifested when people give compliments, or talk about other people. “He’s so smart, how can he not succeed?” “He’s so dumb, how is he ever going to do well?” “Those two are such a cute couple, I betcha they’re going to get married.”

            At first, I just assumed it was the polite thing to do here. I am American, but I don’t always think in these terms. The smart kid might run into trouble later on. The dumb kid might have a special talent. And Parker’s Law is as strong as ever: I am innately suspicious of the long-term prospects of overtly lovey-dovey couples, particularly after having lived that.

            Damn right, I’m a Debbie Downer. Or, for the dumb kid, an optimist.

            And then I started doing cross-cultural psychology research at work. The results? European, Christian Americans are much more likely to think situations will stay concrete in the long term, more likely than Chinese, Indians, Spaniards, Mexican-Americans, Jews (not just middle-ground ones like me, but particularly Orthodox), Arabs…and generally most other people outside of North America, Australia-New Zealand, and Western Europe. So it wasn’t just me.

            So I started thinking about the place where linearity and success meet.

            A lot of people assume smart people are going to be successful, and a lot of people assume that their current or past success assures their future success. I’m inclined to disagree with this concept.

            From a religious standpoint, I see it as such: G-d, as a Life Force and Balance Force, does not grant us the ability to become totally perfect. Perfection is an intangible thing; one can strive for it, but one knows that one can never reach that realm, inhabited by G-d alone. Success is not ever perfect.

            And then, there’s the practical measure. Success is not a place or a point in time, it is a state. A state that requires maintenance and construction. And that comes from hard work. One has to keep working, keep working, and not just until you get there, but after you get there. Example: my dad is successful in his profession, and extremely successful in terms of the profession he’s in. He also worked extremely hard for decades to get where he’s at, and he’s still working hard.

            Did it come at a price? Yes. He’s away from home a lot, and it’s had psychological effects on all of the family; I’m sure some of the anxiety that I’ve dealt with on and off through my life has had to do with the fact that one-fourth of my family is gone over a third of the time at points. But is he successful? Yes. He’s faced setbacks, and it’s not perfect, but he’s hit success. My family is fortunate enough to live comfortably, and my dad loves his job with a passion. He’s loved it ever since he started it. Does he accept that it wasn’t perfect, and hardly linear? Yes. Does he have to maintain it, with great effort? He chooses to do so. I do not blame him, although I still deal with residual issues. Does he ever assume it is permanent? No, even though it has all semblance of being so.

            I think this hard work thing ties us back to the religion thing as well. I must constantly work hard to be a better person, to tie myself in closer to G-d, to be more moral. But I know, at Yom Kippur, I will always say “I have sinned, forgive my transgressions.” My New Year’s  resolution this year was to act with more chesed (grace and loving-kindness): I have tried, but I must yet try harder.

            And then we come to the classroom. A lot of people come to UChicago resting on their laurels. I know I came resting on a few of our own. First year knocks most of those away, and many people feel ruined, or damaged, or hurt by this whoosh. Some of it, I am sure, is personal. (Some of it is also a matter of personal protection. I knew that I still had lengths to go in Chinese, but I cherished an idea of a proficiency that I didn’t quite yet have.) But some of it is societal too, perhaps. Does society assume that success automatically leads to success, without an interlude of failure?

            I guess it also comes to whether one sees success as a purely rational thing. I am of the opinion that it is not a purely rational thing: it is not guaranteed, and to think of it in a limited, rational context would be foolhardy at best and ignorant at worst. A lot of it is luck. A single twist of fate and my dad would’ve not succeeded at all. A single twist of fate, and I would have been born in Israel, doing my army service now. A single twist of fate, and I wouldn’t have been at UChicago, taking awesome classes and meeting amazing people and living in the wonderful city that is Chicago.

 I guess this expands to linearity in general:  in assuming the purely rational, one cannot live in a real world where the rational simply doesn’t always happen. A fault of linearity is that it makes the shock that much worse, but it also makes one unable to spot often pressing matters.

Hell, I’m not even guaranteed success now. Do I want to succeed? Yes. Do I want to succeed wildly? I think so. Do I know the contours of my success? No. Do I know that I will have to work and work and work to get there? Yes. Do I have the will? G-d willing.

And will I get there if I work hard and know the contours of the success I want?

I don’t know. I can’t wait to find out. And I can’t wait to find out for you, either.

Footnote: I know someone who speaks more languages than several universities let you indicate on their application. He was told in kindergarten he would never get there. You know who you are, and I salute you for it. 

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