John William Tuohy lives in Washington DC

Time to reconsider your definition of success and happiness.

Tod Robberson / Editorial Writer

Follow @trobberson Email trobberson@dallasnews.com

Continuing on the subject of One Day University from my blog item below, I also wanted to mention the awesome final presentation by Catherine Sanderson, of Amherst College in Massachusetts. She has not only spoken at previous One Day University events in Dallas but also has been published on our Points pages and in a separate Q&A.

The subject of her lecture on Saturday, like the Q&A published in our paper earlier in May, was the Science of Success. In a lot of ways, Sanderson reminds me of KERA’s Krys Boyd, except where Krys asks the excellent questions, Sanderson provides the excellent answers. And she makes you laugh while she’s explaining what’s going on.

Her lecture was less about the ingredients of a successful life than it was about all of the psychological impediments to success that we put in our own way, or that others introduce without necessarily knowing what they’re doing.

Sanderson started out with the impediments that girls face from an early age in large part because of the images they are bombarded with that tell them, “Success looks like this.” Almost always, those images involve a wafer-thin model whose body mass and height screams anorexia. When teens and pre-teens are polled on what they think an ideal height and weight they’d like to strive for, sizable numbers respond with answers that are pretty much unobtainable without some form of artificial help, including anorexia.

She cited another study in which three people are isolated in a room. Two of the people are complicit in the study, which means the third person is the subject being studied. No talking is allowed. There is nonverbal interaction among the three. But then one of the complicit participants takes a piece of paper, rolls it into a ball and begins tossing and batting it back and forth with the other complicit subject — deliberately excluding the test subject. This goes on for awhile, pretty much until the test subject is totally dejected and demoralized.
Then they go into another room where they are supposed to work together on ideas for a project. In the study, the demoralized person winds up not participating and ceding everything to the other two. The message here is for employers (attention DISD’s Human Capital Management Department): When you undertake personnel procedures that seek to uplift certain people at the exclusion of others, what you wind up with is a dejected an demoralized employee whose potential winds up being ignored and wasted. The best way to get the most out of your employees is to encourage practices emphasizing team building, participation and inclusion.

Sanderson also talked about the Marshmallow Experiment. That’s the oft-cited experiment where a child sits down alone in a room with two marshmallows on the table. An adults tells the child that he can eat the marshmallows now, but if he waits for 10 minutes, he can have a whole bowlful of them. Delayed gratification is believed to be a hallmark of intelligence in kids because it demonstrates an ability to visualize long-term outcomes and subordinate short-term temptations. Those who participated in this study apparently were revisited for decades afterwards. Sanderson knows this because, coincidentally, her husband was a Marshmallow Boy.
So what if you’re an immediate-gratification sort of person? Sanderson says the key isn’t to sit there and berate yourself because you went for the quick-and-easy marshmallows. The key is to recognize your own strengths and weaknesses. Work on the weaknesses and nurture the strengths, but always go into a challenge knowing where the pitfalls and advantages exist based on what you already know of your ability to negotiate them.

Success isn’t always measured by the ability to conquer a challenge immediately. Everyone falls down. Everyone faces seemingly insurmountable obstacles and embarrassing failures. Grit is the key. Do you keep sight of the goal and stick with the pursuit, even when it seems like you can’t possibly reach it? Or does the humiliation of defeat hold you back from trying again?

Sanderson doesn’t say this, but I know from studying the ingredients for becoming a Navy SEAL. And the one thing they look for isn’t whether you have muscles like The Rock. It’s whether you have grit. No matter how hard it gets, and no matter how unobtainable the goal might appear to be, the measure of grit is what makes or breaks candidates in the Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training period.

Finally, there’s the question of success as a measure of happiness and personal fulfillment. Sanderson raised the issue of financial remuneration for kids who score well on tests or for athletes who go to college on sports scholarships versus those who play on teams but who attend classes on academic scholarships. One study looked at what happens when one group of kids is rewarded with a gold-star sticker ahead of time for undertaking a task like coloring or drawing, while another group received the star (and praise) only after undertaking the task.

The study was designed to see what the kids did afterward when they went back to their normal playrooms. The kids who were rewarded beforehand tended not to pick up crayons and art books and continue the activity, whereas the kids who were rewarded afterward persisted with the activity. The reward wound up becoming a deterrent, because the kids developed an expectation of reward, rather than feeling an innate sense of accomplishment or an inner desire to draw and be creative.

The same holds true for athletes on sports scholarships versus those who just happen to be playing a sport but are there for an academic pursuit. When polled on whether they actually enjoy playing that particular sport, the ones who viewed it as remuneration (pre-awarded performance) were less fulfilled than those who did it because of an innate drive, not because of some kind of remuneration.

The message, as far as success goes, is to channel that inner drive to tackle challenges, to keep an eye on the goal instead of being overcome by obstacles, and to recognize what fulfills you rather than what fills your wallet. The fun is in the experience, in the challenge, not in the financial reward.

“How many times have people used a pen or paintbrush because they couldn’t pull the trigger?”Virginia Woolf, Selected Essays

                                          GOOD WORDS TO HAVE AND USE
Pathography: noun: A biography that focuses on the negative. From Greek patho- (suffering, disease) + -graphy (writing). In the beginning, pathography was a description of a disease. Then the word came to be applied to the study of an individual or a community as relating to the influence of a disease. Now the term mostly refers to a biography focusing on the negative. Earliest documented use: 1848. 

“He who seeks ecstasy in love should not complain of suffering.” Kahlil Gibran

"Her First Calf," by Wendell Berry
From Collected Poems (North Point Press).

 Her fate seizes her and brings her
 down. She is heavy with it. It
 wrings her. The great weight
 is heaved out of her. It eases.
 She moves into what she has become,
 ure in her fate now
 as a fish free in the current.
 She turns to the calf who has broken
 out of the womb's water and its veil. 
 He breathes. She licks his wet hair.
 He gathers his legs under him
 and rises. He stands, and his legs
 wobble. After the months
 of his pursuit of her, now
 they meet face to face.
 From the beginnings of the world
 his arrival and her welcome
 have been prepared. They have always
 known each other. 

“Relationships are like Rome – difficult to start out, incredible during the prosperity of the ‘golden age’, and unbearable during the fall. Then, a new kingdom will come along and the whole process will repeat itself until you come across a kingdom like Egypt… that thrives, and continues to flourish. This kingdom will become your best friend, your soul mate, and your love.” Helen Keller

What, do you tremble? are you all afraid?
Alas, I blame you not; for you are mortal,
And mortal eyes cannot endure the devil.
Avaunt, thou dreadful minister of hell!
Thou hadst but power over his mortal body,
His soul thou canst not have; therefore be gone.

“Behind every exquisite thing that existed, there was something tragic.” Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

“Doubt is the origin of wisdom.”  RenĂ© Descarte

 “Keep reading. It’s one of the most marvelous adventures that anyone can have.”  Lloyd Alexander   

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