Kaj Sotala (Xuenay) (xuenay) wrote,
Kaj Sotala (Xuenay)

Travel diary, day 4

SIAI House, California. April 9.

Yesterday, I:

- Wrote a new blog post of my experiences here
- Continued working on the mindmap / analysis of my uncertainties and began actually making progress
- Attended the math workshop and realized that maybe geometry isn't so bad and soul-destroyingly horrible after all
- Joined a conversation where Anna, Alicorn and others were discussing emotional issues and understood how they related to some of my own issues
- Read all the published chapters of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (they kept distracting me from work so I'm marking this as an accomplishment, all right? Now they won't distract me anymore, at least not until new chapters pop up)

Today, I will:

- Write a new blog post about my experiences, among other things summarizing what I learnt from the discussion yesterday
- Do the rest of the math assignments from yesterday's workshop
- Complete the mindmap / analysis of my uncertainties
- Work on something from the curriculum

Yesterday had its ups and downs. I didn't get very much done on my own. After finishing my travel diary entry, afterwards most of that day was wasted on random websurfing and that darned fanfic. I've always had difficulty with good focusing methods, and though coming here has made it somewhat easier to focus on the things I should be doing, it's no silver bullet. This also led to several rather angsty moments, with me again beginning to wonder whether I'm really any good (with anything), whether I should be here and whether I'm just deceiving myself and everyone that I'd be competent when I really aren't, etc.

Some moping around later, I realized a possible problem I was (and am) having. It's that I'm still not very clear on what exactly I'm expected to be doing here. Self-improvement and studying, sure. There's this wonderful library I should begin taking advantage of more. But other than that? I'd like to do something conrete here that I can't do back at home. Then I remembered that one purpose of the mindmap I'd been told to work on was to identify things we were uncertain of as a group, with the possibility of this revealing possible directions for research. We'll see what happens on Sunday, when everyone shares their mindmaps, and whether that sparks off any interesting projects.

This realization prompted me to start actually working on my own mindmap (which isn't a mindmap, as I realized a graphical format didn't work very well for me), and I finally settled into a format that allowed me to make progress. I kept working on it until Anna summoned us to her math workshop. The stated intention of the workshop and the ones after it was to give the interested participants a firm grounding in high school maths, to such a degree that we could theoretically pass the exam you need to pass to become a math teacher in California. Some others, who already knew the maths, attended anyway to watch Anna's teaching and learn how to tutor better. I went along because my math skills are rather uneven - I'm relatively good at some fields, but a lot of the stuff Anna was going to teach was geometry, which I've traditionally been bad at. I figured getting a refresher course couldn't hurt. At the workshop, Anna also mentioned that another purpose was to build our mathematical problem-solving skills in general, and afterwards that it'd also been intended to make us more comfortable with studying things and solving problems even though we weren't entirely sure we understood everything.

For my own part, the workshop went well and I enjoyed it, but there were some people with emotional traumas concerning math who dealt with it less well. Still, from my perspective even that was a good thing, because it led to a debriefing session where several people ended up discussing various emotional issues. And that led me to realize what one of the causes of my emotional issues were: adjective compliments. I'd already read of this problem in various places before, and realized that adjective compliments were behind part of my problems, but it never really clicked the way it did now. Others have already written of this better than I could at this late hour, so I'll just quote them. First Alicorn:
These books were my first exposure to the idea that you should not compliment your children, at least not in a broad adjectival way. Don't call them "smart" or "honest" or "creative". It feels good for a short time, but it makes them dependent on external praise (calling yourself smart or honest or creative doesn't feel the same, so you can't duplicate the esteem boost without someone helping), and will tend to call up counterexamples (calling a kid smart makes the kid think of the last six or seven stupid things they did, and even the smartest people have done stupid things). Instead, Faber and Mazlish recommend descriptive praise: just say what the kid did. This is pretty easy to duplicate alone. If you're used to praise coming in the form "you did your homework ahead of time and now you have all weekend to read!" instead of "you're responsible!", then it's pretty easy, when you're off at college and not getting external evaluation as frequently, to say "I did all my homework ahead of time and now I have all weekend to goof off!".

When I was in high school, I started to notice that in fact I got adjective compliments very frequently. In particular, people called me "smart" after talking to me for five minutes about something trivial, or after learning that I skipped a grade. I noticed that these compliments bothered me on some level, but I didn't make the connection with the contents of those books. I just concluded that praise from those people was worthless, because if they call me smart after talking to me for five minutes, or knowing that I skipped a grade without knowing all of the complicated drama that surrounded that, then they have very low standards for calling someone smart. I can't trust those people to help me figure out how smart I am, because they'd say that to anybody who gave them the least excuse.
I've had this experience a lot. People vaguely telling me I'm smart, but without providing any kind of real reason. There was a kid in high school that I spent some time with, not particularly much but just hanging out a bit on the breaks. As far as I can remember, we hadn't even talked about anything very intellectual. On one day, though, entirely out of the blue he said that I was the smartest person he'd ever met.

I was really taken aback at that. At first I thought I'd misheard, but he repeated it, so I think I managed to mutter an embarassed "thanks". Even today, people who I don't know well and have only interacted a little with suddenly surprise me by stating I must be really smart.

Here's a quote from PJ Eby before I go on:
...one of [Dr. Carol Dweck]'s experiments showed that giving a child a single IQ test and telling them their score meant they were "smart", was enough to create a...

Lasting Negative Impact!

And I was utterly floored, because it brought back memories of something that happened around the second or third grade. Some kid I didn't know came up to me on the playground and told me how smart I was and that they admired me.

I tried to brush it off, because that wasn't how I saw myself. I felt like what I did was easy and anybody could do it and it was just a matter of applying yourself. In fact, that's what I told the kid.

But he wouldn't accept it as an answer, and he kept trying to persuade me, "no, you're really smart..." So finally, I gave in to his assessment, if only to stop him pestering me.

And that was about the time that...

Things Started To Go Badly For Me!

Because I adopted what Dr. Dweck refers to as a "fixed" mindset: the idea that your ability or talent in some area is a fixed quantity, and that it's an aspect of you, rather than something that is variable and under your control.

[...] once I defined my identity as "smart", I had to live up to it. After all, if I made any mistakes, I wouldn't be "smart" any more! [...]

You see, it doesn't matter whether you think you're "good" at something or "bad" at it -- all that matters is whether you think your ability is fixed. If so, then you will develop fears and neuroses, or compulsive compensating behaviors.
I won't try to hide it: I'm insecure. Not so insecure that I'd let most people see it, but when it comes to the few people I'm really close to, they'll know that I'm fishing for compliments a lot. Not for everything - there are some things about myself that I'm not insecure about, because I've proven them to myself with my actions. I know that I'm caring, and I know I'm loyal to those closest to me, because I've inconvenienced myself to come to their aid countless of times. For that, I've long since passed the point where I'd have any doubts.

But things like "smart"? I hear that from a lot of people, but I don't have all that much giving me external validation. Smart in the sense of having an IQ above the population average of one hundred? Sure, certainly. If I had to guess, I'd say I was in the top 30%, but not much better than that. Unfortunately, many people keep giving me the signal that I'd be even better than that. And that leads to trouble, because then I end up comparing myself to people who really are that smart, seeing that I'm nowhere near their caliber, and getting demoralized. Or then there's that one pair of real analysis courses I've kept beating my head against. The first time I failed them was simply because I didn't have the time to do all the exercises. Combined with an entrance exam that I failed five years back, also basically due to time constraints more than anything else, that's left me with a rather strong alief that I'm both stupid and bad with math. (Though it's true to some degree, and not a complete alief. If I really were as smart as some of the people seem to be claiming, I'd have passed that course even with the lack of practice. I know people who can do that.)

So, yeah. That's my problem. It's worsened by the fact that the feeling of being stupid also gets triggered when I just don't get anything done. That's not directly related to intelligence, but likewise creates a feeling of being worthless and never accomplishing anything. I need to somehow retrain my brain away from the "fixed" mindset, where one keeps thinking of their intelligence and other traits as fixed properties, and into a "growth" mindset where challenges are only seen as growth opportunities. Easier said than done...
Tags: my life, pj eby, psychology, siai 2010, travel diary

  • Working on self-compassion: befriending my childhood self

    For some reason, I’ve always felt an instinctive dislike towards my childhood self. I generally like kids, but if somebody had magically…

  • On being a triad and a team

    For a few months this fall, I was part of a poly triad which ultimately didn’t work out… but the moments when it did work, worked. So…

  • Finding slices of joy

    Three weeks ago, I ran across an article called “ Google’s former happiness guru developed a three-second brain exercise for finding…

  • Post a new comment


    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 


  • Working on self-compassion: befriending my childhood self

    For some reason, I’ve always felt an instinctive dislike towards my childhood self. I generally like kids, but if somebody had magically…

  • On being a triad and a team

    For a few months this fall, I was part of a poly triad which ultimately didn’t work out… but the moments when it did work, worked. So…

  • Finding slices of joy

    Three weeks ago, I ran across an article called “ Google’s former happiness guru developed a three-second brain exercise for finding…