"The minute you get away from fundamentals – whether its proper technique, work ethic or mental preparation – the bottom can fall out of your game, your schoolwork, your job, whatever you’re doing.”
― Michael Jordan
Jordan was famously the first person to the gym to practice and the last one to leave. It would always surprise rookie journalists when they would go in and see the great Michael Jordan working on basic drills, even at the end of his career.
Jiro Ono, regarded as the greatest sushi chef in the world, has a similar dedication to fundamentals. His apprentices, which have included his sons, spend years mastering basic elements of sushi preparation, like cooking the rice or making a level omelette layer.
Giotto, and the rest of the renaissance artists, would spend their first years in an apprenticeship simply mixing paint. Once that was mastered, they were then allowed to start creating art; at first, they were limited to painting draped cloth. Only after a few more years could they begin painting more complex subjects.
Academic fundamentals often get short shrift in this country. In English class, we rarely teach grammar; we often look at mastering math fundamentals as "rote" learning. (There are ways to make working on basic skills fun and engaging.)
Often, the complaint is that "rote learning" will kill creativity. But that is clearly false in other domains. Why is this myth so widespread?
One of the central tenets of positive psychology - the somewhat new branch of psychology that focuses on happiness, resilience, and success - is that gratitude is a good thing. There are scores of studies showing that gratitude, giving thanks, and counting your blessings has a wide range of positive effects, from better mood to better grades to better health.
Indeed, a few exercises in From Rebel to Ruler focus on gratitude. Many long-standing philosophies and religions have gratitude at their cores. In fact, my favorite "happiness hack" is to just stop and list ten things for which I am grateful.
In the book NurtureShock, author Po Bronson describes an exception: middle school kids. Kids ranging from 6th grade to 10th grade showed no reaction to gratitude journals. Diving deeper into the data reveals that happy middle school kids are actually made unhappy by gratitude exercises.
Kids at this age have a drive to feel independent and self-reliant. Gratitude makes you feel connected to other people. For students later in high school and college, who are making decisions about their lives and facing high stakes tests, connection is good. But for energetic, rebellious teens, gratitude makes them feel dependent and limited.
This interesting paradox cuts to the heart of teaching. Adults (non-teachers) will stand on their soapboxes and want to reinvent education around what they find valuable to their lives right now. In the best case scenario, kids will find these lessons boring. In the worst case, it could actually do harm.
“People focus on role models; it is more effective to find antimodels - people you don't want to resemble when you grow up”
― Nassim Nicholas Taleb
It is an often-heard complaint that "kids today" or "these kids" grow up without proper role models. Nassim Taleb, author, philosopher, and successful financial trader developed the concept of "antifragility." In his book of that name, he challenges readers to come up with the antonym of "fragile." Most people respond with "strong" or "robust" - things that can withstand stress. Taleb asserts that this does not go far enough; the opposite of fragile must be something that gets stronger under duress.
One fantastic way get students to be "anti-fragile" is to focus on cautionary tales. What have you learned NOT to do from the people around you? What behaviors could you learn to avoid? What choices do you know not to take? In this way, they will learn no matter who they are focused on. They won't need to wait for positive role models.
One potential problem with a lot of negative role models is that they are cool: they may be attractive and powerful and thus seductive.
Who are some useful inverse heroes?
Dale Carnegie, in his introduction to How to Win Friends and Influence People, quotes John D. Rockefeller. “The ability to deal with people is as purchaseable a commodity as sugar or coffee, and I will pay more for that ability than for any other under the sun.”
Carnegie was a colorful character from the turn of the 20th century. He punched cattle and sold soap, bacon, and lard in the Badlands of South Dakota. He learned business in “pioneer hotels” and gambling with “squaw men.” In college, he finally “distinguished himself,” after many embarrassing failures, by learning to speak convincingly in public.
He went to New York and offered to teach a public speaking course at the YMCA. They refused to pay him his requested $2 a day, so he negotiated a commission. Soon he was making $30 a night (a small fortune at the time).
Many of the people he worked with wanted a course not only in public speaking, but also in dealing with people. A survey at the time revealed that, after health, adults were most concerned with “how to understand and get along with people, how to make people like you, and how to win others to your way of thinking.”
Carnegie searched in vain for a course that would teach those things. He researched the lives of famous people and read the advice of philosophers and psychologists. He then asked the businesspeople attending his courses to use the advice and give him feedback. In that way, the course grew “like a child.”
As the introduction says, it is a course that is “as real as the measles and twice as fun.” Its fans are many and distinguished. Warren Buffett, the multibillionaire investor and philanthropist, calls it the most important book he ever read.
Carnegie’s criticisms of the education system are not harsh, but they are familiar. He says that the things that are taught in school are not very practical, and that people search for more as soon as they are out in the real world. These people include some of the best-educated in the world, several of whom took his courses.
Carnegie claims that the content of his courses – public speaking, coping with worry, and dealing with people - were “incidental” to what he was really teaching: how to confront your fears and develop courage.
Can courage ever be included in a school curriculum?
Seneca, the famous Roman stoic philosopher, tutor of two Roman emperors, successful businessman, regent, playwright, and inspiration for many of the exercises in From Rebel to Ruler, describes an interesting visit he had to Scipio Africanus's villa.
Scipio had lived about one hundred years before Seneca (who lived 2000 years ago). He was the general who finally defeated Hannibal. Scipio was a hero to Romans.
Seneca pays close attention to Scipio's bathhouse; it was small, cramped, and dark. The bathhouses of his time were luxuriously appointed with fine marble, precious stones, elaborate fountains, and huge windows. He says that many visitors found Scipio's bathhouse shockingly "primitive" and were appalled that he used cloudy rainwater to bathe.
Seneca mocks the modern Roman as too luxurious. People went to bathhouses several times a day, were overly concerned with their personal hygiene, and "stunk of perfumed oils."
Seneca contrasts that life with Scipio's simplicity. Scipio would work the land on his farm all the way into his old age. Seneca praises the fact that Scipio would wash only his arms and legs daily, leaving the rest untouched. Responding to criticism that Scipio must have smelled bad, he snorted, "What do you think he stank of? Hard soldiering, hard work, and manliness."
We seem to always look at the world of our grandparents as more pure and governed by stronger values. It is jarring to realize that they did the same thing. Is "the old school" - a simpler time of quality and courage - an illusion?
Veterans of WWII will tell you about him in hushed tones of admiration: Erwin Rommel, the Nazi general nicknamed the Desert Fox, was a gentleman and a deadly warrior. He famously refused to obey many of Hitler’s most evil orders and was involved in the plot to assassinate him.
But these facts were not known until after the war, and yet, he was widely admired during the war. Winston Churchill was almost censured for calling him a “daring and skillful opponent.”
Go through a catalogue of wars before WWII, and the phenomenon of the “worthy opponent” will recur. The “Red Baron,” Robert E. Lee, Santa Anna, and Geronimo are all instantly recognizable names.
All of them demonstrated otherworldly skill and adhered to a code of honor.
The ancient Romans held Hannibal, who nearly destroyed Rome and brought a huge army to its gates, in high regard and made statues of him and minted coins with his face on them. Hannibal’s marching of elephants over the Alps, as well as his devious strategy during the Battle of Cannae, became legendary even in his own lifetime.
This phenomenon seems to have dried up, in war and in politics. John F. Kennedy and Barry Goldwater, political opposites, so respected each other that they planned on campaigning for president together, staging a series of substantive debates. Is that even imaginable today?
The desire for peace and reconciliation is a fundamental aspect of this phenomenon. The hatred of the enemy is not pure: at least one of them is commendable. A certain wishful thinking will often be found in the description of the worthy opponent; had they chosen differently or been born somewhere else, the war never would have happened.
Even deeper, a better attitude toward competition is embedded in this worldview. If the first rule of combat is to never underestimate your opponent, then admiring the skill and honor of one of them is living that rule.
“Never hate your enemies. It affects your judgment.” – Michael Corleone, the Godfather
The wars of the second half of the 20th century were devoid of enemies that the public romanticized. Some commanders in Vietnam admired General Vo Nguyen Giap, but the general public never heard of him.
There are examples in fiction, like the obsession with the Joker as a character, and mafia movies in general. It is interesting to note that the old western movie trope of a gallant hero taking on an honorable outlaw has morphed into deep explorations of the outlaws themselves.
We’ve fought several wars – in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq (twice), Afghanistan, and other middle eastern countries – over the past 75 years, and not one worthy opponent emerges from these conflicts.
Even our political rhetoric demonstrates a change in attitude towards competition. Political debates are conducted in echo chambers and the other side is denigrated as evil and insane. Their arguments are straw-dogged into illegitimate cartoons.
The Desert Fox seems to be the last honorable enemy the United States has had. Have our enemies changed, or have we?
I'm an entrepreneur and I teach math, history, economics, and fitness. I'm looking for arguments.