Thursday, 14 June 2018

Don't "be" the change you want to see in the world - create it!

I have never been keen on the advice to "be the change you want to see in the world".

If you want to change only yourself, then it's probably sage advice. If you want to effect a much wider change in the world, because you have identified something about the world and other people with which you are dissatisfied, then others telling you to be that change sounds like a put up and shut up. Why should I be the only one to (for example) make sure I don't drop litter, thereby being the change I want to see, while others can go on chucking rubbish everywhere with impunity?

A more causative course of action would go along the following lines:

(1) Find a way to change it.

If that doesn't create a large enough change, then:

(2) Recruit others who have the resources and influence to change it.

If those with resources and influence fail to bite and don't get with the program, then:

(3) Keep fishing for support through any available communication channels in order to achieve (1) and/or (2).

Option (3) is usually the course of action that gets protested the loudest when the thing one is trying to change is about remediation for the Inappropriately Excluded. One can quickly identify the type of language used to scoff, sneer and dismiss such efforts: "entitled", "bragging", etc. And then the efforts to throw responsibility back onto the individual: "It's what you do with your smarts that counts" (note the use of the word "you" - it's never "us").

Now that recent studies have suggested that human beings might not be getting any smarter and IQs may have even gone into decline, the world needs genuine cognitive talent more than ever. Should we really be told to "be the change we want to see", or should everyone - and that means YOU too, bud - be flowing resources and communication platforms our way so that everyone can benefit from our ideas and problem-solving skills?

Until I see real evidence of change and offers of assistance I will be shouting point (3) from the rooftops.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Overcoming the Too-Small Life

I do not believe that a person should have to adapt to their environment in order to be what psychologists call "well adjusted".  Some of us need a way bigger game than whatever accident of birth or circumstances of others' creation life handed us.  We are not the sort of beings that are capable of fitting into little boxes on someone else's org chart.  The challenge is when one is trying to remedy the situation solo, or where input from others comes mostly from interactions via the Internet, and one is stuck in an ordinary life with (1) no platform and (2) no funding.  The question is, how does one enter a game of a size appropriate to one's cognitive and creative capacity without (1) and (2) above?

Some may find this article a little strongly worded but before I start, may I say I make no apology for not pulling any punches and saying it like it is.  If I strike any raw nerves, particularly among employers: good.  There is too much apathy in this world, with people comfortable with the status quo, and who haven't any sense of responsibility to change anything.

People who read this article will generally fall into three categories:
1.                  Those who think that the status quo is a meritocratic sorter of ability, and that the cream will always rise to the top, it is just a matter of time.  This is the person who hates to have spelled out to them the reasons our society isn't meritocratic, and prefers instead to deal in blame and the fundamental attribution error.
2.                  Those who see that society does not sort justly by ability, but think that the way to deal with it is to go along with it.  More disturbingly, they think that everyone else should also just suck it up.  This attitude displays a lack of responsibility for the state of the society around them, yet they are also the ones that love to lecture the rest of us about how we (i.e. individually) are responsible for our situation in life.
3.                  The ones who actually recognise the scenario I am describing.  It is this last category that is likely to comprise my ideal clients.

Initially, my strategy was to devote myself to my life projects while taking what Barbara Sher calls the "good enough job"[i] for the purpose of economic self-support.  Those "good enough jobs" proved to be a very long way from good enough, for a number of reasons.  Firstly, they ate up an inordinate amount of my productive time while only providing a modicum of financial exchange.  Secondly, there was the lack of any meaningful intellectual stimulation.  Thirdly, there was the fact I had nothing in common with my co-workers or bosses and was simply turning up each day to do a job.  Finally, there was the societal perception angle: people insist on judging individuals by the paid employment they have, rather than accomplishments in the wider world – and meaning that the purposeful projects pursued by the individual are relegated to "hobby" status and not worth the CV paper they are written on.  Obviously, this was unacceptable.

Although I carefully refrained from bragging at work, it did not take Sherlock Holmes to work out that I was active in a lot of other arenas, and reactions to this were mixed.  I can think of two firms that were mildly supportive of my personal development (at least, in the sense that they did not try to obstruct my outside interests) – one small business and one micro business.  Large organisations, on the other hand, were deeply uncomfortable with the idea that I was anything other than just support staff and one in particular stands out for having engaged in a mobbing campaign instead of finding or creating a position for me that could have tapped into my Good Will Hunting-esque abilities.

For instance, colleagues knew that I was a musician and I thought music might have been an innocuous topic of general conversation.  But when it was discovered that I was travelling to Europe with my band to compete in a world-class competition and play certain high profile gigs, while some colleagues were enthusiastic, others were less so.  One of the partners complained to the department head, as if my musicianship were some sort of distraction (because the leave I had booked for a musical event clashed by a day or two with her secretary's leave and she realised she couldn't dump on me in her secretary's absence) and she thought I should be more committed to being chained to a word-processor.

People like her were keen to bandy about words like "initiative", yet when I did things like devising a training plan for the department secretaries to learn to draft legal documents, this was also resented.  (Perhaps one or two people understood it might mean I could carve out a niche in staff training and development and they might actually have to promote me.)  When I made further enquiries, it turns out their concept of "initiative" meant constantly asking for more work, i.e. being palmed off with every gruesome admin task that the department trainee and the work experience student had already turned their noses up at.  Presumably this was a thinly veiled attempt to pull me in to the long hours culture that pervaded the whole firm, and our department in particular.

Some of my interests were just too technical for them, such as neuroscience.  "What did you do at the weekend?"  "I went to a quantitative EEG workshop."  End of conversation.  (I know, I know.  Support staff aren't supposed to have a brain.)

Another thing was my involvement in politics.  I didn't speak about my involvement in political campaigns, nor of my party allegiance, but I did discreetly mention (without namedropping) certain political figures.  Another workplace, and one which purports to encourage introductions to celebrities and opinion leaders, were overtly dismissive of my connections, as if I were exaggerating or even confabulating.  If they had worked as hard as I did at cultivating a mutual professional relationship, I could have gotten them some potentially valuable allies.

I contrast these scenarios to times I have contested seats in local elections.  In particular, I recall the last general election I contested where there was the sitting MP, his main party rival, and other candidates going around all the local hustings.  Even though in our constituency I was highly unlikely to win the seat, I made an interesting, and perhaps rather disturbing observation.  Bear in mind these people fundamentally disagreed with most of what I stood for, particularly the sitting MP.  Yet every single one of them was talking to me as an equal.  Just consider that.  I was getting more respect from my political rivals than I was in the workplace!

As I continued working on my own self-growth and intellectual sophistication, the reason became clearer and clearer.  I wasn't merely under-employed, I was grossly mal-employed. Those jobs were simply not in my league.

Why the mismatch?  Careful data analysis revealed two red herrings:
1.                  A lack of high school qualifications.  I will not dissect the reasons for this here, but it became clear that success in the school system loaded heavily on factors other than g; and
2.                  A CV that only reflected the type of jobs that recruiters were prepared to field me for (based on point 1. above) and gave very little opportunity to showcase my broader portfolio.  This is because recruitment is often a function delegated to minions or outsourced to salespeople whose lack of perception, low confront of life, terror of responsibility, and limited decision-making remit encourages crass bureaucracy.  This makes them difficult gatekeepers to get past when one's education and/or experience has been acquired through unconventional means.  Some may suggest this is even deliberate.

The point is, I have been there, I am still working on obtaining the sort of life I need to support my accomplishments and do my best work in order to contribute something of value to the world.  I understand what the inappropriately excluded experience on a daily basis.  If this story resonates, you are not alone.  Together, we can work at solutions.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Genius and the Cognitive Revolution

Genius as a concept is notoriously difficult to define, and sometimes it seems that only sex and politics attract more replies whenever the subjects come up for discussion – and usually of an equally confused and/or opinionated nature.

The word itself originates from the pagan belief in a guardian or tutelary spirit said to watch over the individual from birth: their “genius”.  Later, the word started to be used to refer to a “characteristic disposition”.  The definition of the word that referred to a person’s talent or ability appeared around the seventeenth century.  It was not until the invention and widespread use of psychometric testing that the word started being used to refer to a person with a very high IQ[i].  Most dictionaries that carry this definition state 140 as the baseline level for a genius level IQ, but usually omit to say per which test or scale.

Most online discussions I have run across tend to conclude that genius is undefinable, but that “I know it when I see it!”  I hope I am not alone in finding this definition unsatisfactory.

In 1926 Catharine Cox Miles published her seminal work Genetic Studies of Genius: The Early Mental Traits of Three Hundred Geniuses[ii].  While the work was thorough and ground breaking for its time, the difficulty with only including famous geniuses is that it raises questions as to how representative her subjects actually were of geniuses in general.  There is a perception among the public that links genius to fame and fortune and vice versa.  I would argue that it is highly unlikely that even a fraction of the geniuses that have ever lived attained the levels of eminence of the subjects of the Cox study.  The unfortunate corollary to the public perception that genius=eminence is that when such status is not forthcoming, then the hapless individual couldn’t have been all that in the first place, else he must have self-sabotaged by having no social nous.  (I will leave aside for now arguments regarding motivation and finding personal fulfilment in other ways.)

One of the most disheartening articles I ever read on the subject of high intellectual ability was Rena F Subotnik’s paper A Developmental View of Giftedness: From Being to Doing[iii].  While the author makes some good points, I am disheartened at the theme running through the article that while a high IQ is sufficient for the gifted label for a young child, an adolescent or adult is expected to exhibit stellar public achievements in order to warrant the label.  On the other hand, while I am not keen on the way Linda K Silverman presents the argument from a female versus male perspective, her article I’m Not Gifted, I’m Just Busy at least articulates clearly the point that ability is inherent, while fame, recognition and eminence are social constructs[iv].

Let’s examine why eminence is insufficient as a measure of genius.  Does the cream really always rise to the top?  Rather than choose specific individuals’ stories (which usually only invites off-topic nit-picking), I will keep the examples hypothetical.

Imagine, if you will, an individual who has all the ability and drive to potentially equal the success of any of the subjects of the Cox study.  There are no fatal flaws in this person’s character that might otherwise derail success, and we will assume no weaknesses in social interaction that might cause him to be shunned.  (I say “him”, but I wish to make it clear I am not referring to a specific individual, and I need to pick a pronoun to avoid grammatical clumsiness.)  He goes about his day, doing his genius thing and being productive.  The only difference between him right now and anyone on Cox’s list is the fact that they are known about and he is not.  Is he a genius?  Well, you might say, it is surely only a matter of time.  If he is really a genius, there is still time for his work to be discovered and for him to be propelled to fame and fortune.

Now let’s imagine that this individual lived 200 years ago, and his life’s work was discovered locked in the drawer of an antique bureau.  Experts in his field are abuzz with excitement, and are shocked at the fact that his work was never recognised within his lifetime.  Is he still a genius?  Obviously, since it is clearly impossible for someone to “become” a genius after they are dead.  It is just the world took a long time to catch on.

Let’s take the scenario a step further.  Imagine that instead of the old bureau being found and unlocked and the documents falling into appreciative hands, the house clearers take the whole lot to landfill and the person’s work never sees the light of day again.  I remind you that this person has all the same cognitive capacities and personal characteristics of anyone on Cox’s list.  Is he still a genius?

We could roll back the scenario still further.  Imagine instead of our hypothetical individual being productive in a field where it was possible to write up his life’s work with nothing more sophisticated than a pen and paper, the most that he was ever able to produce were theories and proposals.  Much of his desired productive output remained unrealised because it required access to particular resources (such as specialised equipment) that was not made available to him.  Bear in mind that this individual is still every bit as capable of ground-breaking concepts as anyone on the Cox list.  Is he still a genius?

Our hypothetical example could even go beyond mere neglect and the individual’s extraordinary nature could have been actively fought and resisted, right from early childhood.  Jealous family members, jealous teachers and other school staff, opportunities denied and withheld right from the beginning before the person is even old enough to have formulated a self-concept to protect, the outcome is the same, and that is inappropriate exclusion.  I reiterate one more time that he otherwise still possesses all the same cognitive and character traits as anyone on Cox’s list.  Is he still a genius?  I suggest that it would be rather perverse at this stage to argue that he is not.

The point of these examples was, of course, to illustrate how being recognised as a genius involves so many other factors that may be well beyond the individual’s control.  This is why I suggest that we need a definition of genius that only considers traits within the individual, and does not consider extraneous variables such as public opinion, socio-economic status, or the current societal definitions of “success”.

There are always those who make claims along the lines of “genius will always find a way.”  I would simply put the question back to them: where is the proof of that?  The geniuses we know about are simply the ones that became famous.  But fame does not a genius make.  There are always going to be those whose seeming sole ability in life is in self-promotion.  And of course once one has a modicum of financial success in life, one can simply pay a publicist to do it all for them.

To attempt to narrow down where a proposed definition of genius should be looking, let us explore an interesting development in psychology research that came to be known as the Cognitive Revolution.

For most of the early part of the twentieth century, behaviourism dominated research in psychology.  Observing what an animal would do in response to a given stimulus was considered more “scientific” than trying to make inferences about motivation, thought processes, emotions, and so on.  Anything that could not be directly observed was simply filed by the psychologists of the day into a proverbial black box.  Very little was known about brain systems or cognitive processes; hence the “solution” was simply to disregard the internal workings of the mind.

That was all to change during the 1950s and 1960s, when a number of papers and books were published examining the information processing capacities of the mind, for example Miller’s paper on working memory capacity The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two[v], Chomsky’s criticism of Skinner’s book Verbal Behavior[vi], Neisser’s book Cognitive Psychology[vii], and the attention experiments of Cherry and Broadbent.  The invention of the computer provided a useful analogy: that of a system where information went in, was processed, and came out.  The information processing model provided the foundation for a paradigm shift in psychological research.

So how does all this help us define genius?  I believe that the way genius is commonly perceived is still stuck in its behaviourist era.  Using metrics such as wealth, prizes and accolades won, the amount of words of biographical data written about them, and so on, might be easy to measure but as I hope my argument has made clear, this approach is particularly prone to both false negatives and false positives.  What we need is a cognitive approach to defining genius – a metric that focuses on how geniuses perceive the world and how their mental functions operate.

Actually, we hardly need to start with a whole new field, but rather extend an existing one.  There is a long history of psychometric testing, measuring such cognitive processes as working memory, vocabulary, quantitative reasoning, logical inferences, and so on.  Because these tests are constructed to follow a normal distribution curve, there is an obvious difficulty in measuring in very high ranges, and most standardized tests stop measuring at around four standard deviations, where there is only about a one in 31,500 probability of finding a person with an IQ that high.  I suggest that somewhere approaching this level is where the genius-type cognitive style is likely to start.

Perhaps with developments in brain imaging and cognitive neuroscience, we may develop ways of measuring those cognitive processes more reliably and better understanding what underlies them.

[ii] Cox, C. M. "Genetic studies of genius: The early mental traits of three hundred geniuses". 2. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
[iii] Subotnik, R. F. (2003). A developmental view of giftedness: From being to doing. Roeper Review, 26, 14–15.
[iv] Silverman, L.K. (2005). I’m not gifted, I’m just busy: unrecognized giftedness in women. Retrieved from:
[vi] Chomsky, N. (1959). "Review of Verbal Behavior, by B.F. Skinner". Language. 35: 26–57.
[vii] Neisser, U (1967) Cognitive Psychology Appleton-Century-Crofts, New York.