Monday, December 13, 2010

The Curse of Knowledge

We were reading research showing that people who speak a tonal language (such as Chinese) have better pitch than those who speak other languages (such as English). They often notice even the slightest defects in pitch, such as a guitar which is slightly off. This can be a great musical asset, but it can also be a curse: while most people enjoy a slightly off tune song by the fireplace, those able to recognize small variations in pitch are annoyed by what can amount to noise for them.

I've experienced similar situations (not related to pitch, as I am almost tone deaf!). I learned to scuba in Australia's Great Barrier Reef. That became my "reference point" for diving and now most other places feel pretty bare in comparison. Or, take sushi: after discovering and frequenting some truly amazing sushi we have a hard time enjoying sushi anywhere else. I imagine wine connoisseurs have similar experiences: a slight problem with a wine ruins it for them - while most of us don't even notice. Of course the positive side is the tremendous enjoyment we get from superb things that we are capable of appreciating: a perfectly played violin solo, an extraordinary wine or a perfectly prepared piece of fish.

I do believe there is a takeaway, or at least so I told the kids: try to build up your experiences so that you culminate on the best one. In other words: save the best for last!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Pursue your top choices first, even if they seem unlikely

I got a call from C yesterday morning: "You wont believe what just happened to me... I dropped my car keys down a storm drain! Can you please bring me the spare key?". Sure. I started driving to where she was but a few minutes before I got there she called me again: "I got the key. Someone saw what happened and figured out how to recover the key". When the key dropped down the drain, Cindy simply assumed it was lost - as did I. So we immediately went into Plan B: get the spare. Yet sometimes Plan A works, even if it seems far fetched. Don't jump into plan B without giving Plan A a fair trial...

Other examples I discussed with the kids: when I first applied to my top choice school for graduate school I was rejected. Instead of going to my second choice school I applied again - and got in. Of course sometimes Plan A is unattainable, and we need to know when to give up and move on to Plan B.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A personal matter

N was late to school yesterday and was embarrassed to tell his classmates the reason. So, he made up an "acceptable excuse" that he felt was a "Green Lie". I argued most such excuses are unnecessary, risky and plain wrong. Unnecessary because it is usually possible to provide a generic explanation such as "I was late for personal reasons". And leave it at that. "What personal reasons?". "I would rather not discuss". End of the story. No lie. No embarrassment. No risk of being caught lying. While yesterday's example was trivial, it is easy to get into the habit of making up excuses to justify our behavior. I see people who do this all the time. Instead, I encouraged the kids to get into the habit of always providing truthful explanations that contain just enough information, but not more than they want to share.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Put your oxygen mask first...

P woke up early this morning and before I had had a chance to make my morning coffee he asked me if I could toast a bagel for him. I told him I would do it after I made my coffee, as I am not fully human before my morning coffee... This reminded me of the emergency instructions on airplanes, about puting your oxygen mask on before helping kids. Spoke with the kids about this today. What are other situations in which you have to help yourself before helping others? If someone is sad or depressed, you probably need to be in a good mental state to cheer them up. Or, sometimes you have to set a good example to help others. For example, if you want to help someone do more exercise it probably helps if you do exercise yourself...

Then there are situations in which you might put yourself at risk in trying to help someone else. A few months back I was kitesurfing under the Golden Gate bridge with a friend who lost his board. I helped him recover it - which was not a big risk. Then he lost it elsewhere, and again I got his board. But when he got into a wind hole and dropped his kite I decided the smart thing to do would be to call the coast guard on his behalf - rather than get stranded with him. These decisions are not always Black & White of course... Sometimes you do need to take risks to help others (although ideally not before your morning coffee).

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Avoiding Unnecessary Risks

P mentioned yesterday morning that he was taking his wallet with him to school to buy books at the school's book fair. In addition to some cash, he said he had a bunch of gift cards that he had gotten. I asked him why he would carry the gift cards with him. No good reason. That is where he stored them and he didn't feel the school was a dangerous place to take his gift cards to. I said carrying those gift cards around was an unnecessary risk. Hundreds of people attend his school every day, including many strangers. Why take the risk? He continued to argue that nobody in his school would steal them, but the next day told me he had taken the gift cards out of his wallet :-).

I told the boys that when I travel, I make a point of leaving at home unnecessary things that would be problematic or expensive to lose. And when I go on excursions, e.g., a day hike or bike ride, I often just take a bit of cash with me and leave my wallet in a safe place.

You do have to think carefully about what is a "safe place". I mentioned to the boys that soon after graduating from college I decided that my apartment was not a safe place to keep my college ring and nice watch (since I was concerned the cleaning person might steal them). So I decided to store them in my desk at work. Well, that was not very well thought out as they were stolen from there - probably by the cleaning person from the office!