For much of my childhood people told me I was smart. Things that frustrated other kids, like maths, seemed to come easy to me and this led to many people praising my ability. I never felt particularly smart, I mean there were dozens of other kids who were far more talented than I was, but at that age it’s hard to deny the opinions of adults, especially the ones who raised you. This led to an unfortunate misconception that stayed with me until after I left university: the idea that my abilities were fixed and that anything I found hard or difficult was simply beyond my ability. It’s only been since then, some 8 years or so, that I learnt that any skill or problem is within my capability, should I be willing to put the effort in.
It’s a theme that will likely echo among many of my generation as we grew up with parents who were told that positive reinforcement was the way to make your child succeed in the world. It’s only now, after decades of positive reinforcement failing to produce the outcomes it decried, we’re beginning to realise the folly of our ways. Much of the criticism of our generation focuses on this aspect, that we’re too spoilt, too demanding when compared to previous generations. If there’s one good thing to come out of this however it’s that research has shown that the praising a child’s ability isn’t the way to go, you should praise them for the process they go through.
Indeed once I realised that things like skills, abilities and intelligence were primarily a function of the effort and process you went through to develop them I was suddenly greeted with a world of achievable goals rather than roadblocks. At the same time I grew to appreciate those at the peak of their abilities as I knew the amount of effort they had put in to develop those skills which allowed them to excel. Previously I would have simply dismissed them as being lucky, winning the genetic lottery that gave them all the tools they needed to excel in their field whilst I languished in the background.
It’s not a silver bullet however as the research shows the same issues with positive reinforcement arise if process praise is given too often. The nuances are also unknown at this point, like how often you should give praise and in what fashion, but these research does show that giving process praise in moderation has long lasting benefits. I’d be interested to see how well this translates into adults as well since my experience has been vastly positive once I made the link between effort and results. I can’t see it holding true for everyone, as most things don’t in this regard, but if it generally holds then I can definitely see a ton of benefits from it being implemented.
Long time readers will know that one of my favourite bugbears is the R18+ rating for games. It’s not that I’m some masochistic lunatic who revels in violence and depravity, more that I believe that video games aren’t just for children any more and that video games are just a valid medium of expression as any other. The rest of the world seems to have been way ahead of us in this respect with most modern countries having classification schemes that recognize games are able to deal with mature themes and should be rated as such. The campaign to bring Australia in line with the rest of the world has been one that’s been going on for the better part of a decade and even up until recently it seemed like there was no end in sight.
But here we are, 2 years and 12 posts after I first wrote on game censorship, and there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
Just under a month ago I wrote a rather… impassioned piece on the latest developments with the R18+ rating. In essence we were there with all the attorney-generals agreeing to support it. However there was one hold out, AG for NSW Greg Smith, who seemed to be holding out for no good reason in particular. My political genius friend told me that this was probably part of some bigger plan to gain a bit of leverage in other matters, which only made me that much more frustrated at the whole situation. You can then imagine my shock when I read late yesterday afternoon that the NSW cabinet would now give the R18+ rating its full support:
The NSW Government has given its formal support for the introduction of an R18+ classification for computer games, according to Attorney General, Greg Smith SC.
Mr Smith said after a meeting of Federal and State Attorneys General in Adelaide that he expected NSW would join the agreement.
Cabinet has now given its “in-principle” support for the introduction of the R18+ rating.
This is fantastic news and is the first bit of progress we’ve seen in a long time on this matter. However there’s an awful lot of weasel words peppered throughout the AG’s statement, enough to give me a bit of pause before being able to celebrate this as a victory. Sure the in-principle agreement means that they can actually start moving forward with drafting legislation and the issues can be raised as part of that process rather than being the stonewall that we Australians have been butting our heads against for the past decade.
What starts now is the long process of formalizing the guidelines for the R18+ rating and, if I’m reading the press right, a reworking of the MA15+ rating. This isn’t going to be a short process by any stretch of the imagination and I’ll be surprised if we see the rating’s implementation within the next year or so. It also doesn’t mean that every game that got a RC rating under the old scheme will become available under R18+ either and there’s still the question of whether or not games rated under the current system will need to be redone or simply grandfathered in. There’s also the question as to whether R18+ games will require more stringent rules around display and sale since they are in essence a controlled substance much like tobacco and alcohol.
All that being said however I’m still very happy with this announcement. It signals that our politicians have finally recognised that games aren’t just for kids any more and they can be just as expressive as any other medium and should be treated as such. There’s still a long way to go until we catch up with the rest of the modern world but at least now we’re moving towards the end goal rather than chasing our tails constantly. I’m hopeful that today’s revelation marks the last road block coming down and from here on out we’re just going through the motions that will take us to a better, more sensible future.
I often find myself deconstructing stories and ideas to find out what the key factors were in their success or failure. It’s the engineer training in me that’s trying to find out what are key elements for something to swing one way or another hoping to apply (or remove) those traits from my own endeavors, hoping to emulate the success stories. It follows then that I spend a fair amount of my time looking introspectively, analyzing my own ideas and experiences to see how future plans line up against my set of criteria for possible future success. One of the patterns I’ve noticed from doing all this analysis is the prevalence of the idea that should you fail at something that automatically you’re the one who did something wrong and it wasn’t the idea that was at fault.
Take for instance Tim Ferriss author of two self help books, The 4 Hour Work Week and The 4 Hour Body, who has undoubtedly helped thousands of people achieve goals that they had never dreamed of attempting in the past. I’ve read both his books and whilst I believe there’s a lot of good stuff in there it’s also 50% horse shit, but that rule applies to any motivator or self help proprietor. One of the underpinnings of his latest book was the slow carb diet, aimed at shedding layers of fat and oodles of weight in extremely short periods of time. I haven’t tried it since it doesn’t line up with my current goals (I.E. gaining weight) but those who have and didn’t experience the results got hit back with this reply from the man himself:
The following will address 99%+ of confusion:
– If you have to ask, don’t eat it.
– If you haven’t had blood tests done, I don’t want to hear that the diet doesn’t work.
– If you aren’t measuring inches or haven’t measured bodyfat % with an accurate tool (BodPod, etc. and NOT bodyfat scales), I don’t want to hear that the diet doesn’t work.
– If you’re a woman and taking measurements within 10 days prior to menstruation (which I advise against in the book), I don’t want to hear about the lack of progress.
Whilst being a classic example of Wally Blocking¹ this also places all blame for failure on the end user, negating any possibility that the diet doesn’t work for everyone (and it really can’t, but that’s another story). However admitting that this diet isn’t for everyone would undermine it’s credibility and those who experienced failure would, sometimes rightly, put the failure on the process rather than themselves.
Motivators aren’t the only ones who outright deny that there’s a failure with their process, it’s also rife with the proponents of Agile development techniques. Whilst I might be coming around to some of the ideas since I found I was already using them its not uncommon to hear about those who’ve experimented Agile and haven’t had a great deal of success with it. The response from Agile experts is usually that you’re doing it wrong and that you’re inability to adhere strictly to the Agile process is what lead to your failure, not that agile might not be appropriate for your particular product or team. Of course this is a logical fallacy, akin to the no true Scotsman idea, and doing the research would show you that Agile isn’t appropriate everywhere with other methods producing great results
In the end it all boils down to the fact that not every process is perfect and can never be appropriate for any situation. Blaming the end user may maintain the illusion that your process is beyond reproach but realistically you will eventually have to face hard evidence that you can’t design a one size fits all solution, especially for anything that will be used by a large number of people. For those of you who have tried a “guaranteed to succeed” process like those I’ve described above and failed it would be worth your effort to see if the fault truly lies within you or the process simply wasn’t appropriate for what you were using it for, even if it was marketed to you as such.
¹I tried to find an online reference to this saying but can’t seem to find it anywhere. In essence Wally Blocking someone stems from the Wally character in Dilbert who actively avoids doing any work possible. One of his tactics is when asked to do some piece of work place an unnecessarily large prerequisite on getting the work done, usually on the person requesting it. This will usually result in either the person doing the work themselves or getting someone else to do it, thus Wally had blocked any potential work from coming his way.
I make no secret of the topics that I have absolutely no idea in. Sure I’m able to make an educated guess about most things but I will usually seek an expert or experienced person in a field if I want to know something about it. This is why I always find it strange when people start bashing doctors or lawyers when they themselves have little to no experience in their field. Whilst I thought that this was probably the right way to rationally think about things it turns out I might actually be following my natural instincts closer than I thought:
Financial advice can make us take leave of our senses, according to research that shows how the brain sets aside rationality when it gets the benefit of supposedly expert opinion.
When a bank manager or investment adviser recommends a financial decision, the brain tends to abdicate responsibility and defer to their authority with little independent thought, a study has suggested.
Such expert advice suppresses activity in a neural circuit that is critical to sound decision-making and value judgments, scientists in the US have found.
Their results may explain why people are so apt to follow experts’ recommendations blindly, when a little reflection might be sufficient to suggest an alternative course of action.
This also brought up a good point about leadership in the workplace. Working as a contractor I’m often asked my opinion on matters to see what someone from outside the organisation thinks. However whilst I may bring a different opinion to the table I’ve noticed that people do tend to switch off the critical thinking whilst they’re talking to me, and become far too agreeable to some of the things that I propose. I’ve seen this happen with big projects as well, once an external agency wins a contract they will usually do work their way and the client will usually adapt themselves to agency rather than the other way around.
So thinking back to my distrustful friends it became clear that the best way to deal with a subject that you have no experience in is to first educate yourself about it. Wikipedia is great for this as it provides a good overview of a topic with links to further reading should you wish to pursue the topic any further. Once you know a little bit about the subject you can then ask the right questions of the experts, and get a feeling for when an answer is out of line.
I think the main problem with naively trusting the experts is that whilst they might be very well versed in their particular field of study they probably aren’t the definitive source on that topic. I know when people ask me about certain topics (virtualization is a great one) I’ll be able to answer 95% of questions off the top of my head. After that my answers start to get peppered with “I think” and “should be” but most people don’t hear this and will take that 5% of answers as expert opinion. Having a little knowledge in that area would hopefully give them enough scepticism to see when I started to walk outside my expert boundaries and trigger them to do their own research.
Overall developing a base level of knowledge and treating experts with a small dose of scepticism will ultimately leave your more informed and will keep your brain from switching off it’s critical thinking when someone floods you with facts. Wikipedia and Google are your friends here, but remember to treat them just as you would any other expert.