Sunday, November 17, 2013

Succeeding When You're Supposed to Fail: Book review and summary

I just finished reading Succeeding When You're Supposed To Fail: The 6 Enduring Principles of High Achievement by Rom Brafman. So much of it deals with issues of parenting and teaching non-traditional students (which I do at the Clemente Course), that I thought I would take some time to summarize the book for myself and others. I italicize my editorial comments below.

First of all, I should note that Brafman is a psychologist -- this is not a reported non-fiction book.

Second, the full title of the book is important. While the skills and mindsets discussed are useful for anyone, the focus here is on people who face adversity and how they overcome those obstacles to succeed. Brafman tells of a discussion with a Stanford admissions officer who weighs a 3.5 average from an underprivileged neighborhood school more highly than a 4.0 from a wealthy suburban school. This makes sense -- the first student has some sort of character traits that helped him or her succeed (when expected to fail); the second student may have the same characteristics, but then again, they might not.

So: who are the people who succeed in adverse circumstances? Brafman calls them "tunnellers" because they have a way of boring through all the obstacles in their way. Tunnelers are regular people who have strong personality traits, and Brafman claims that they share six particular traits.

1. Tunnelers take responsibility for their circumstances.

This is not to say that they don't recognize injustice in the world or that others may have contributed to problems. However, tunnelers recognize their contribution to their situation and realize that they are the only ones who can help dig themselves out of problems.

Note that this is very different from "happiness studies" where an appreciation for luck, or God, or the contributions of others are said to result in a happier state of mind. Tunnelers realize that they need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, although, as we'll see, not totally alone.

2. Tunnelers make meaning

Tunnelers are following their passions and pursuing their dreams. They don't work this hard without an end in mind. Brafman uses zookeepers as an example. Shoveling animal dung may seem demeaning to some, but many zookeepers are college graduates who feel privileged to do their work despite the low pay. (Sounds a bit like teaching some days...)

How do we maximize meaning? A few ways: i. surround yourself with meaningfulness (family, volunteer work, a career that is your calling), ii. continue to seek, asking yourself, what can I do to life my life to the fullest? (this is more common in Asian cultures but we can learn to recognize the search for meaning as meaningful in itself), iii. find a community to discuss your passions with (they can agree or not, so long as they take your interests seriously).

This is veering into Aristotle territory. What is the proper function of a human being? How can you be your best self? Brafman is saying that even asking that question -- being a philosopher! -- is part of the answer.

In the Clemente Course, students are self-selected to a certain extent. If they want to take the course, they are looking to improve themselves and they are asking questions of themselves. As course directors and teachers, we work on fostering the communities that develop, creating a peer group that is responsive to each individuals queries. Many students tell me how much they appreciate other individuals in the class as role models, as friendly competitors, and as moral support.

3. Unwavering commitment

To accomplish their goals, tunnelers have a deeply rooted sense that they are meant to achieve. Obstacles become challenges to overcome. The most important personality trait in this regard is emotional stability. They do not allow themselves to be rocked hard by negative events, but carry on with equanimity.

I've found this to be a challenge in Clemente Courses. Many people sign up, still unsure how deep their commitment to the program is. Many people have underlying emotional issues that make dealing with problems difficult. The best thing we can do is to create classrooms full of mutual support, remind students of the ultimate goal (perhaps through stories of alumni success), and model calm behavior.

4. Temperament

This builds on the idea of emotional stability: even-tempered disposition is often a characteristic of successful people. They are clear on their goals, but they don't overreact to setbacks. Brafman's example: if you get a traffic ticket, does it ruin your day or week? or do you decide you can learn from this and move on?

5. Humor

A sense of humor is prevalent among those who succeed despite negative circumstances. What's the mechanism? Humor helps alleviate anxiety. Humor is also culturally dependent and having a good sense of humor is indicative of emotional intelligence. Different types of humor are culturally relevant; for example, among a group of male police officers in a study, teasing put-downs are often a way to include someone into a group, but that same behavior might feel demeaning in another context.

6. Satellites

A satellite is someone who has unconditional positive regard for another person. This does not mean they do not criticize or give difficult advice, but that the subject knows that the satellite always has his or her best interests at heart. Examples include mentors in the Big Brother Big Sister program -- there is no requirements to be a Big Brother except to spend a certain amount of time with your little brother; even so, kids with Big Brothers or Sisters show marked improvement in school and in other areas.

This is basically our job as course directors. If the students feel that someone is looking out for them, this is a huge step towards their eventual success in the Clemente Course and beyond. As I was writing this, I just got an e-mail from a student: "You guys are such supportive professors." The idea of a stranger being so supportive is new for a lot of Clemente students and this is often the setback that students report when entering a local college -- the professors didn't give the same kind of support. It's not about writing centers or guidance counsellors, it's about the general feeling that the teachers care about their prospects in life. If we want our students to succeed post-Clemente, one key may be to find people at local colleges to be satellites -- to point out the campus resources, but also to just be a steady, positive influence.

Brafman has a final short paragraph where he suggests ways to put these ideas into practice. He breaks it down based on the person you are trying to help.

Yourself: Focus on how you can change a bad situation, find meaning, stay calm, stay the course, give yourself a break when setbacks occur, use humor, look for satellites (mentors), allow yourself to become inspired. When you've successfully tunneled through an issue, remind yourself of your success.

Employees (or students): Listen to their input, press further when they are passionate about a subject, be a good coach, model good calm behavior, think of them as family, help them see their own strengths, give positive feedback.

Children: Give them choices, follow through on their interests, know when to quit vs. persevere, model good behavior, laugh together, communicate love and respect, encourage them to take risks and challenge themselves, let them know you're there for them, let them know you are part of a team, treat them as a friend -- "supportive, critical when necessary, but always unconditionally loyal."

Overall, the book is a quick, easy read with lots of illuminating anecdotes that help the reader remember these concepts, and at less than 200 pages, Brafman gets to the important points quickly and doesn't pad out the page count. Highly recommended for teachers and parents.



Saturday, November 09, 2013

Even Tween Boys Need Hugs

My latest essay published by Brain, Child Magazine is about why my 10 year old son needs hugs and how I screwed that up:
My 10-year-old son can be a train wreck. 
I know it’s not his fault. His limbs are growing faster than he knows, and his brain is all over the place, from the world of Minecraft to the Marvel Comics Superhero Universe to the Greek gods of the Percy Jackson-verse. Still, excuses aside, he’s simply not that cognizant of his own body. 
When he walks down the hall, I cringe, worried that he’ll knock over framed photos hanging on the walls.

Read more here.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Comic Sans

Comic Sans roundup!

Ironically, Blogger does not allow me to use the font here.

But you know it.

Turns out Comic Sans was developed at Microsoft using two of the biggest selling comic books of the late 1980s: The Dark Knight Returns (lettered by John Constanza) and Watchmen (lettered by Dave Gibbons). Here's the Urban Legend Revealed.

Todd Klein, who designed some of the best logos at DC Comics (Camelot 3000, sigh) and lettered thousands of pages, discussed the font on his website.

Here's Comic Sans speaking up for itself in a hilarious ranting monologue (credited to Mike Lacher).

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Five-sided Corinthian Capitals in the Mortuary Temple at El-Kurru

Earlier this year, I worked on an excavation in northern Sudan. The most amazing thing we found were a couple of rock-cut rooms in a mortuary temple a hundred yards from the pyramids of the royal cemetery. In the rock-cut rooms, there were columns, and in one of them, capitals of unusual design. My contribution to the excavation report was an analysis of the pentagonal capitals. The citation:

“New Excavations at El-Kurru: Beyond the Napatan Royal Cemetery: Five-sided Corinthian Capitals in the Mortuary Temple at El-Kurru,” Sudan and Nubia, 17, 2013, 54-6.

The article begins:

"One of the more unusual finds in the 2013 season at el-Kurru 
were two five-sided Corinthian column capitals in a rock-cut 
chamber of the mortuary temple (Reisner’s Ku.1500). There 
is no clear precedent for this design, although the forms fit 
within the greater corpus of Ptolemaic capitals."

Here's an idealized drawing of the capitals in question.

Leave a comment if you'd like a pdf offprint.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Newton Family Singers

I've been a regular blogger for the local singing group my family belongs to, the Newton Family Singers. I play guitar and other instruments, too.

For that blog, I write about songs -- their origin, stories about their composition, arrangement and interpretation.

Some of my favorite posts:

Seven Bridges Road

If I Had a Boat

The Water Is Wide

The Tide Is High

The best compliment I got on these posts was a simple acknowledgment from Carl Wiser, founder of the awesome website You know how radio djs (used to) tell you little facts about each song? They were using Songfacts.

Here's a full list of my blogposts at Newton Family Singers.

Breaking Bad Writer's Advice

Grub Street is a terrific resource for writers in the Boston area -- they offer classes, consultations and conferences. They also have a daily blog of writing advice. My contribution was about what I learned from listening to the "Breaking Bad Insider Podcast."

It starts:

I’m among the many fans who are eagerly awaiting each episode of the television dramaBreaking Bad in its last season. I’m also a fan who can hardly wait for the “Breaking Bad Insider Podcast” that follows each television show. The podcast is entertaining and, more importantly for this audience, a great lesson in writing.

Read it all here.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Breaking Bad prediction

After Breaking Bad's last episode's cliffhanger, I have no idea whether Hank, Gomie or Jesse survives, but I had a sudden flash of insight as to what will happen with Walter White and the Neo-Nazis. My prediction is based half on what is being shown with the characters, and half based on analyzing the narrative of the show.

Walt cooks meth one more time.

Of course he does! How could he not? The final season and Walt never does chemistry? After all, that is the price of Jesse's life that he negotiated with Uncle Jack. They can't bring it up and not follow through with the concept.

[Perhaps, though, he's doing the final cook as a payment for the life of his brother-in-law? Or Jesse?]

So Walt does one more cook, but perhaps he alters the recipe a little, creating a lethal gas that would kill bystanders who don't like wearing gas masks (i.e. Uncle Jack and Kevin Rankin's character). This would be a call back to the first episode and the death of Crazy 8's partner in the RV. It's possible that it would just maim, and not kill some of the Aryans ("She blinded me... with SCIENCE!"). It would also set up sociopath Todd (who wears a gas mask because Mr. White told him to) to be a new archenemy, perhaps one who would force Walt to call the vacuum salesman that Saul knows.

But in any case we have to return to Walt's strengths -- his science background -- for the epic climax of this story.

As for 52 year old Walt, armed with a huge gun and a small bottle of ricin... I got nothing.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Letter re: Wiffle Ball

The July 14, 2013 issue of the Boston Globe Magazine printed this letter:

Just a quick note to tell Jack Cheng (Connections, June 23) that he wrenched my attention away from the crossword with his first paragraph: “A 70-year-old man is blocking the base path .  .  .  . As he stumbles, I race toward second base.” It was a good wrench, as wrenches go. Loved the images, the sense of Wiffle camaraderie, teaching by showing the kids about proper rule bending — the whole piece, actually. Thanks.
David Sylvestro
Easton, Connecticut

Friday, July 19, 2013

Cognoscenti: Trying Not To See Race Means Closing Your Eyes To Reality

My original title was "The Opposite of Racism is not 'Race-Blind'" for what it's worth. Here's how it starts:

Only white people think the opposite of racism is “race-blind.”
That was one of the first thoughts that came into my head as I heard about the process of the George Zimmerman’s trial. (Just to be clear, I’m not saying all white people believe this, but rather that non-white people decidedly do not.)
I have to admit, I did not follow the trial closely, and I have sympathy for the position that there may be legal reasons that Zimmerman was not found legally culpable in the death of Trayvon Martin.
What threw me, however was this statement by the anonymous juror known as B37: “I think all of us [on the jury] thought race did not play a role. We never had that discussion.”

Monday, July 01, 2013

Boston Globe Connections: What Wiffle Ball Reveals

My latest contribution to the Boston Globe Magazine came in the Connections column on Sunday June 23, 2013 begins this way:

A 70-YEAR-OLD MAN IS BLOCKING THE BASE PATH. He’s clearly in the wrong here, so I shove him forward, and as he stumbles, I race toward second base.
Wiffle ball is not to be trifled with at our house. Each year when the weather warms, we invite my wife’s family over for a midday meal. Cousins bring their kids, aunts and uncles arrive from out of state, and invariably someone brings a college roommate. We shake hands and politely ask how retirement is treating them, how the job hunt is going, ask for updates on the sibling who didn’t make it this year. After lunch, before satiety turns to somnolence, my wife announces: “Time for the game! Only winners get dessert!”
We trudge out to the backyard where my son is practicing his swing while an older cousin pitches. The teams are formed like this: Some people head out to the field while the laggards wait their turn at bat. In other words, the enthusiastic people end up on one team while the people who are just hoping for cake and coffee shuffle onto the other.
Read the entire piece with illustration on the Globe website here.

Friday, May 24, 2013

What Spelling Bees Taught Me About Life

Life lessons I learned while watching two spelling bees, published in Brain, Child Magazine.

My two children recently competed in city-wide spelling bees. Sitting in the audience, my vocabulary didn’t improve, but I learned a lot about life. Luckily, I took notes in the form of Twitter missives. For example:
Life is not about spelling (even spelling bees are not about spelling):
Realizing the spelling bee is about overcoming fear, not actually about language. Nervous for all of them.

The rest of the post is here.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Assyria's National Instrument

The journal Iraq, published by the British School of Archaeology in Iraq recently printed an academic article about Assyrian music that I wrote. The citation is:

Cheng, Jack, "The Horizontal Forearm Harp: Assyria's National Instrument," Iraq 74, 2012, p. 75-87.

Here's the abstract:

A horizontal harp, strung with 7 to 9 strings and usually decorated with a finial in the shape of a human forearm, was likely symbolic of the Neo-Assyrian state. Various features distinguish this musical instrument from contemporary Elamite harps, or other harps in Mesopotamian history. The horizontal forearm harp was the most frequently depicted musical instrument on Neo-Assyrian palace reliefs and bronze doors; pairs of male Assyrians play the harp for the king in official duties of state or cult. The decorative forearm sometimes wears the rosette bracelet associated with royalty. Speculating on the iconographic significance of the forearm suggests possible Neo-Assyrian attitudes toward music.

Feel free to contact me (by leaving a comment here) if you'd like me to send you a .pdf.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Antigone in Boston

My latest post for The Public Humanist begins like this:

I was a Creon until I realized that it put me against Antigone. Now I'm not so sure. 
Last week, listening to public radio, I heard about the protests against the burial of Tamerlan Tsarnaev. I nodded in agreement as various voices denounced the alleged Boston Marathon bomber and felt disgust at the thought that his corpse would pollute our state. Then, an undertaker was interviewed and he did not argue that Tsarnaev deserved any special treatment, but said that we debased our own humanity by denying his body burial rites.
That's when I realized that I was living through Antigone, the classical Greek play by Sophocles and first performed around the time the Parthenon was being built in Athens. As the Academic Director of the Clemente Course in Dorchester, I work to provide college-level instruction in the humanities to a couple dozen low-income adults every year. Antigone is one text that we read regularly, either with our professor of Literature or with our professor of Moral Philosophy.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Birds and the Bees

Here's my latest publication, for the Boston Globe Magazine's Connections column. It's about the birds and the bees and what that phrase helps explain about sexuality (spoiler: it explains nothing).