Logical Mystery Tour

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Once upon a short time ago, I spent over twenty minutes arguing with a Time Warner Cable representative about how math works.

My monthly cable bill had suddenly increased by $7 (increased again, I should say, because this was not the first time), so I had looked and found a new $7 charge listed for the modem. (The modem I had been using for no charge since…always.)

The TWC representative tried repeatedly to convince me that they had always been charging me $7 for the modem, it’s just that now they were listing the fee as its own line item on the bill. I replied that if that were true my bill total would not have increased (because, math), but it had increased, so there was clearly a new charge for something, and would she please just fess up to it already.

After twenty minutes of our own little version of Waiting for Godot (“I recognize that tree!”) she finally succumbed to the power of how numbers work and agreed there was a new fee. I agreed to no longer be a Time Warner Cable customer.

While I appreciate that this woman provided the kick I needed to finally bail on cable, our conversation makes me want to bang my head against a wall. For six years, I have spent much of my time helping adults prepare themselves for the rigors of law school, and in that time I have been repeatedly surprised and disheartened – as I was on that phone call – with the general lack of logical reasoning employed by humanity.

Logic is important, even if only to save us from Kafkaesque conversations and murderous thoughts. If we used it more, our civilization would be in a much better place.

For one thing, logic allows us to recognize when people (and cable companies) are lying. It demands reasons and facts be given to support arguments – including our own. With logic, we also recognize when a statement is technically true (“That Awkward Moment is the #1 comedy of the year!”) but essentially meaningless (“Dude, it’s still January”).

Even more relevant to our current state of debate, logic helps us stay focused on the actual point, instead of getting distracted by more convenient statements that are off topic. Sure, mental health and how we treat it is a major problem in the world, but it isn’t a relevant rebuttal to “I think there should be more gun regulation,” any more than “vegans are annoying” addresses whether we should let the pregnant pigs move around, or “I hate science” is an argument against global warming.

Most importantly, though, logic is vital because it exercises a skill that is crucial to human success: creative thinking.

It is no coincidence that Einstein was a skilled violinist while Hitler was a bad painter; creativity and reason go hand in hand. To be logical is to be able to mentally entertain as many possibilities as can be imagined and then evaluate them against whatever facts are known. It is to know that there was a mass extinction of dinosaurs, imagine the infinite reasons it could have happened, and use the evidence of meteor strikes, lack of evidence of spontaneous combustion, and miniscule likelihood of alien invasion to conclude that most likely the meteors were the culprit.

(It is also to know that the limited facts demand language like “most likely” instead of “of course it happened that way, how dare you question me?!” or “I don’t believe you so no it didn’t!”)

Logical thinking trains us to have flexible minds, which is the ultimate reason it needs to be more prevalent in our world today: because mental flexibility is the key to empathy. Yes, it also helps if we have and understand emotions, but empathy by definition requires the ability to think beyond our own personal situation.

In college, I was once asked by a boy (he was a boy in every sense) why I was pro-choice; to answer him, I started by saying, “given my own health issues, I can certainly imagine why someone might need-“ and he cut me off by rebutting, “It’s not about YOU. You’re so selfish.”

His statement was technically true – it wasn’t about me – but meaningless, because it WAS about my ability to put myself in another person’s shoes; to imagine circumstances that, while not true for me, may be true for someone in a different place or time or dimension.

A rigid “I would never” is not enough to close the book on any subject. That’s great that we would never; it is completely our right to choose to “never” – but somebody would, and shouldn’t we at least take the time to explore and understand their reasons before we judge?

Without empathy, progress can only happen once everyone personally knows a victim of sexual assault, a minority being denied rights, a dark-skinned person who has suffered harassment by those in authority, or someone forced to make a bad choice in a bad situation. Of course, the sad fact is, everyone already does.

That some people still refuse to acknowledge it defies logic.

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Looking Glass Houses

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There is an old LSAT problem I teach my students, about the paradoxical behavior of suburban birds who flee danger by flying smack into the sides of houses instead of hiding in nearby vegetation. The explanation for all the avian suicide is that the windows in the houses reflect surrounding foliage – so the birds think they are hiding – but that’s not why I like to teach the problem. Mostly, I like to teach it because the image of birds flying head-on into windows makes me giggle (call PETA if you want, but stupidity is funny in every species). Before I go down for schadenfreude, though, let me add that I also love this image as a metaphor; it is a moment to which I think we can all relate.

It is shocking, those moments when you realize that the space you occupy is significantly smaller than you thought it was, and it can happen to us mentally just as much as it can physically. While I have walked into my share of floor-to-ceiling mirrors (I know I am not the only one who wishes they would stop using these to decorate small restaurants and hotel lobbies), the times when I have slammed up against the invisible walls of my own mind have been far more jarring. These mental walls have been on my mind lately because around this time every year I revisit one of my earliest.

This past weekend, we celebrated my parents’ birthdays, one on Saturday then the other on Sunday. Not because I am a Joffrey Baratheon-style child of incestuous twins who refuse to share a party, but because my parents are almost exactly the same age. Nine hours separate their births – though since those nine hours straddle midnight they do have different birth dates. If you don’t think my mom makes the most out of the one calendar day when my dad is technically older than her, then you don’t know women very well. Or marriage.

Adult me knows that this birthday coincidence doesn’t happen very often, but it took many years for younger me to realize that my family’s unique situation had formed an invisible barrier around my perception of reality. Growing up, I assumed that every married or dating couple was the same age, and that I would obviously end up with Leonardo DiCaprio because his birthday is two days after mine (I was willing to overlook the different birth year). My November birthday theory went bust the first time I dated a fellow Scorpio and realized that, if this was the guy for me I should seriously consider being a lesbian, but the second wall is one I walked into many, many times (and still do from time to time). It doesn’t help that my brother chose to marry someone only five days older than he is – give a girl a break!

Those little things that in truth are simply the quirks of our particular circumstance so easily become our expectations for reality without us noticing. My brother and father are both left-handed, and so are the brother and father of my life-long best friend. When our families would eat together we always sat boy-girl-boy-girl, so all the men could cut their meat without anyone getting elbowed. We women were all righties, and boom: another invisible wall boxed me in. Handedness and gender were the same. To this day, I still have to stifle immediate envy when I meet a left-handed girl; I have to remind myself that it does not make her more exotic and tom-boyish than I could ever hope to be. Also, all right-handed boys are not automatically gay (if only it were that easy – high school and college would be far gentler on the hearts of so many young girls…).

Walking head-on into a personal bias always leaves me momentarily stunned, because it forces me to question my perception of the world. But I have run into enough now that I know they are there, and I am always on the lookout for the next one. Some of these invisible mental walls are relatively harmless, like my assumption (until recently) that everyone is as aware of their own heartbeat as I am, but others can be more dangerous – like the idea that everyone has two parents who read to them and love them, or that everyone is born with the tools to learn, or feed themselves, or deal with adversity. Coming to Los Angeles ran me straight into my assumption that people generally mean what they say (that one really hurt), and my belief in the importance of tangible markers for success.

We are the products of our assumptions, and our assumptions reflect our history, which is part of why I love teaching logic so much. The more we start to recognize the many assumptions that block our view, the more we can see those invisible walls and, instead of running into them, start to peek around them. We are Minotaurs, imprisoned in mental mazes of our own making, slowing working our way out from the center. With each new wall we crash into, we get a little closer to escaping the sheltered spaces we have built for ourselves to see the real world outside.

Fortunately for me, I actually am half bull – since I am the child of two Taurus parents. I like to think it gives me a fighting chance. Happy Birthdays, Mom and Dad; thanks for giving me the tools to navigate this labyrinth of life.

Poker Face (That’s What She Said)

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In 2012, I wrote a screenplay about a girl who starts an underground casino on the Princeton campus in order to pay for her suddenly scholarship-less senior year. Since the only personal experience I have with gambling is playing “Vegas rules” solitaire on my computer when I’m procrastinating, I had to do quite a bit of research before I could write it. One of my favorite discoveries came when reading about the psychology of the greatest poker players.

In poker, as in much of life, there are four possible outcomes every time we play a hand: we can play well and win (yay!); we can play poorly and lose (boo!); we can play poorly and win anyway (yay!); or we can play well and still lose (double boo!). Most of us – mere humans that we are – are emotional creatures, or what Lord Voldemort would call “weak”. While Voldy’s assessment is a tad harsh, it is true that our emotional dominance tends to result in reactions like those of the parenthetical cheerleader above (Mr. “Yay! Boo! Yay!”). We focus primarily on results – winning is good, losing is bad.

But some people are ruled more by logic instead – Sherlock Holmes, the main character on Bones, and Mr. Spock to name a few. These people would have very different reactions to the four possible outcomes, because they don’t focus on results as much as process when judging performance. Good poker players know that long-term success demands that they learn to think this way – to be more Spock than jock – and they have the experience and maturity to “make it so”. (Yeah, yeah, I know that’s Picard’s line. Give me a break.)

A professional poker player understands that sometimes, life happens (or, in their case, luck). Sometimes, you play the odds perfectly, and read an opponent just right, but he still draws that one improbable card that gives him the one had that can beat you. Yes, this hand is lost, but what matters is that it was played well. The successful poker player walks away from this situation satisfied, and would be similarly displeased if the roles had been reversed and she had won on a lucky card rather than skilled play.

Daft Punk may be up all night to get lucky, but the best poker players are up all night to hone their craft.

Empirically, I know this to be the path to success. I tell my LSAT students relentlessly, because I have seen it bear out time and again: focus on the process instead of the score, and not only will you be happier, you will also ultimately see much better scores. It is logic. It is proven. It is also much easier said than done.

Most people hear about my romantic travails in 2012 and immediately want to give me a hug, buy me a cookie and tell me it’s all going to be okay. I won’t lie – it was emotionally rough. But I look at the year as a success because I finally learned to start looking at the world with the eye of my inner poker player. Yes, I had two relationships end in one year, and yes, both times it was because he chose to be alone rather than to be with me. I could easily look at that, see two defeats, and decide to try being a different person, but the outcomes don’t bother me. Sometimes, two people just aren’t meant to be together – and boy, did I not belong with either of them. Instead, I choose to focus on how I handled things once that was known.

Neither of the two men involved was capable of sustaining a long-term relationship. The first was a true loner; he loved me, but after a year his wanderlust started making him more and more distant. When this became too apparent to ignore – along with the fact that he was never going to own up to it – I sat him down and told him to figure out what he wanted. If it was me, fantastic, I was totally in; but if it wasn’t, he needed to go so I could find a man who did want me. He left and it was heartbreaking, but for the first time in my life I had handled a romantic entanglement with complete maturity and strength. Even though I lost, I walked away with pride because of my good play – and hoped to continue such behavior in the future.

Naturally, my handling of the next guy was a disaster. He was self-absorbed, closed off, and a really good liar. Even though, in the few short months we were together, my inner voice kept screaming, “Get out! You deserve better than this!” I chose to believe him every time he begged for patience and forgiveness. My last capitulation – an agreement to pause, let the holidays pass, and regroup after life was calmer and heads were clearer – was rewarded with an abrupt break-up speech en route from one Christmas party to another. It really couldn’t have ended better.

Still, even though I consider that last relationship more of a win than a loss (being single is so much better than being with him), I seethe with shame every time I look back at it because I really could not have played it worse. Well, okay, I could have “accidentally” gotten pregnant by him to appease my biological clock – THAT would have been worse. But you get my point. Any outcome based on bad play is far less desirable than even a loss after good.

Poker mentality is a refreshing alternative to our usual results-based evaluations. It is especially vital for sanity when taking the life or career path less traveled. Sure, it’s a little annoying that to most of my friends I appear far more upset about (and thus attached to) the ass than the guy I actually loved, but that’s on them for making assumptions. I’ll take my healthier mental state any day.

Of course, it is still harder to practice than to preach. Not only do we have to learn to focus on process over outcome in the face of a culture that overwhelmingly cares about results, but we also have to learn to trust our own evaluation of that process. This is especially hard in an imperfect and uncertain world, where it is often difficult to distinguish bad luck from bad strategy. Did this relationship or project fail because it just wasn’t meant to be, or because there is something wrong with my selection process? Most of the time, it’s a little bit of both.

But just because something is hard doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing. We just need to practice. The more experience we collect, the easier it will become to judge our process and then to trust that judgment. Start small (my oven timer broke and the cookies burned, but the batter tasted great), work up to the bigger things (sure, my kid’s a rocket scientist, but what matters is that I taught her to be nice to people), and counteract inherent uncertainty with self-forgiveness.

If we focus on the method instead of the goal, we will find more pleasure in the process, and with a little luck see better outcomes than we ever imagined. (That’s what she said.)