Don’t count on it

I didn't think I belonged in college. It was my first semester and I was failing my intro to algebra class. The professor was intimidating when he spoke and when he turned away he furiously wrote figures on the chalkboard. I figured if I couldn't do well in a low level class like his, I probably should quit. I dropped the class but stayed in college and discovered something: That professor wasn't doing it right. He disappeared from the schedule the next year. I heard rumors about something being wrong with him and it dawned on me that the reason I wasn’t doing well wasn't me but his poor teaching. Whew! What a relief.

But back when I was sitting in his classroom, I didn’t know what was ahead. I didn’t know I would eventually attend graduate school and one day teach students in their first semester—just like I was. 

Some students will be sitting in college classrooms for the first time this week and by the end of the semester they will think that they don’t belong. They won’t know until another semester or two rolls by that the first semester was an adjustment to a new life. They won't know the context until later. They were just figuring out how to survive college and after that first set of classes they will slowly find their footing. 

There are other students about to have the opposite experience. They will have an easy time during their first semester and assume the rest of college will be a breeze. But somewhere along the way they will hit their ceiling. They just haven't been challenged yet. When they begin to struggle, they’ll have to adjust as well.

Throughout our lives, we’ll be tempted to think that first experience is “the way it is.” Sometimes that’s true. Don’t count on it. 

Stephen Goforth


Brain scans show Ugly

About one or two out of a hundred people has a psychological problem called body dysmorphic disorder. They become preoccupied with what they perceive as physical defects in their face. This can lead to numerous plastic surgeries or even suicide. Most people never get diagnosed. They just think they are ugly.

Scientists at UCLA used brain scans to get a better understanding of how the minds of people with this disorder work. Details of their finding are in the Achives of General Psychiatry.

Researchers scanned the brains of people with body dysmorphic disorder as they looked at photos of their own face and then that of a familiar celebrity – along with altered versions of each. One version obscured the details and another version showed only the details.

It turns out the brain of someone with this disorder doesn’t some parts of their brains that the rest of us use whenever we are looking at the shape and size of faces. They see a distorted, twisted version and fail to grasp how the parts fit into the whole. They're not able to contextualize the information.

The problem for them is really not on the outside at all.

In the same way, people with twisted, distorted views of the world have an inside problem. They’ll never bring the world in focus by making outside changes. The change has to happen on the inside.

Step back and get the big picture. See the painting created by the tapestry of life’s details. By themselves, those details can appear quite ugly. But that’s not the whole picture.

Stephen Goforth

the theory of multiples

If you look at the world’s biggest breakthrough ideas, they often occur simultaneously to different people.

This is known as the theory of multiples, and it was famously documented in 1922 by sociologists William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas. When they surveyed the history of major modern inventions and scientific discoveries, they found that many of the big ones had been hit upon by different people, usually within a few years of each other and sometimes within a few weeks. They cataloged 148 examples: Oxygen was discovered in 1774 by Joseph Priestley in England and Carl Wilhelm Scheele in Sweden. In 1610 and 1611, at least four different astronomers—including Galileo—independently discovered sunspots. John Napier and Henry Briggs developed logarithms in Britain, while Joost Bürgi did it independently in Germany. The law of the conservation of energy was laid claim to by four separate people in 1847. Ogburn and Thomas didn’t mention another multiple: Radio was invented around 1900 by two different engineers, working independently—Guglielmo Marconi and Nikola Tesla.

Why would the same ideas have occurred to different people at the same time? Ogburn and Thomas argued that it was because our ideas are, in a crucial way, partly products of our environment. They’re “inevitable.” When they’re ready to emerge, they do. This is because we do not work in a sealed-off, Rodin Thinker fashion.

The things we think about are deeply influenced by the state of the art around us: the conversations taking place among educated folk, the shared information, tools, and technologies at hand. If four astronomers discovered sunspots at the same time, it’s partly because the quality of lenses in telescopes in 1611 had matured to the point where it was finally possible to pick out small details on the sun and partly because the question of the sun’s role in the universe had become newly interesting in the wake of Copernicus’ heliocentric theory. If radio was developed at the same time by two people, that’s because the basic principles that underpin the technology were also becoming known to disparate thinkers.

Even if you assume the occurrence of true genius is pretty low (they estimate that one person in 100 is on the “upper tenth” of the scale for smarts), when you multiply it across the entirety of humanity, that’s still a heck of a lot of geniuses.

When you think of it that way, what’s strange is not that big ideas occurred to different people in different places. What’s strange is that this didn’t happen all the time, constantly.

Clive ThompsonSmarter Than you Think

getting the big picture

Without some grasp of the meaning of their relationship to the whole, it is not easy for individuals to retain a vivid sense of their own capacity to act as individuals, a sure sense of their own dignity and an awareness of their roles and responsibilities. They tend to accept the spectator role and to sink into passivity.

John Gardner, Self-Renewal