Archive for July, 2010

Have you noticed how quick some people are to use the issue of “qualifications” as weight behind their arguments?

A family knowingly took their disabled son to an organisation practising a very experimental form of neurotechnology, and who had made it clear their primary interest is in personal exploration and had not promised to heal or treat anything. When their son did not respond to the technology as well as other children with disabilities had, what did the parents choose to attack?  You guessed it – the fact that the chief developer was self-educated: “He doesn’t hold any qualifications!” – conveniently ignoring the fact that most people in history who made an important discovery or developed some important breakthrough did not have a college education. I wonder what these same people would have said if the developer and all his technicians had had university qualifications and licenses from official bodies coming out of their ears, but the same modest results had been achieved?

Another case in point was on a forum (now deleted as the site was upgraded), where one forum member was replying to the author of a post claiming to have discovered her own problem-solving method, which had boosted her IQ by dozens of points. The member replying wrote a comprehensive explanation why the original poster’s method could not work, and there must have been some other reason apart from problem-solving ability why she had tested so low in the beginning. I found myself agreeing with most of the points he made, until he signed off his name, job title and a whole string of psychology qualifications. Why couldn’t he have just left his arguments there, and let the sense in them speak for themselves, instead of spoiling it by appealing to authority?

Elsewhere, a student on a self-development course got given a job as an instructor by the management of the school.  This appointment occurred not only before he had finished the course, but before he was even halfway through. He was – you guessed it – a licensed psychologist. He had covered less than 50% of the specific content of the course, but was giving out advice as an instructor, apparently because the head of the school and the students considered that, because he had professional qualifications, he must know what he was talking about.

I am not a practising health care professional, psychologist etc. I am simply someone who has spent the last 25 years studying the mind, and techniques for study and learning, and how to boost one’s capabilities. My explorations have taken me through hundreds of books, taped lectures, courses, home study programmes, television documentaries, videos and DVDs, websites, online programmes, papers, manuals and other documents. I have studied the subject from the spiritual, psychological, neuropsychological, personal development and everyday practical angles, and I have a pretty good idea what works and what doesn’t.

Some people on forums have even cottoned on to the idea that I may know a thing or two, and regularly ask me for advice.

But…my advice will never carry the same weight as that of the two people in my latter two examples, because I am – guess what – “unqualified”!

It doesn’t matter a jot whether the professionals with qualifications or the schools that handed out those qualifications may be full of it. The point is, they have a piece of paper that carries authority.  It doesn’t matter that I may have covered many times the quantity and depth of material that a psychologist may have covered, and from very many more angles and perspectives than those psychologists will have been taught. I have no piece of paper that says that I know my onions, therefore as far as officialdom, academia and many members of the public are concerned, that settles the issue.

Or does it? I am interested in results, and have a track record in being able to obtain them. The problem, if there is one, is when people cannot weigh up the relative importances of data, and evaluate for themselves whether what they are being told is plausible and workable, and whether the person telling them can get actual demonstrable products and results with this data.

When even supposedly educated persons cannot differentiate between the certificates someone has, and the actual knowledge and ability to apply that those certificates are supposed to represent, then we end up with a bureaucratic society where paper certificates and licenses are everything. The person who can get results but who doesn’t have a sheepskin to prove it doesn’t stand a chance.

Weighing up a person’s knowledge and results on their own merits doesn’t even enter the equation, because people have lost the ability to think and judge for themselves.  The logical fallacy of appeal to authority is thus free to reign supreme, leaving those of us who have for whatever reason had to self-educate completely disenfranchised.

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As I mentioned in an earlier post, my life feels analogous to a misfiled particle – something that got put in the wrong drawer or slot accidentally, with little chance of being found again and correctly filed.

This train of thought has led to me to an important question: Is having any sort of regular job or career the best use of my time?

Certainly, in Western society, we have been so indoctrinated into the idea that a person must always be seen to be doing “work”, that the question of a person being freed up to do something else with their time is anathema to most people: “The devil finds work for idle hands”. People who have no wish to get out and do a day job are generally considered lazy.

This leads us to a number of problems. What if you are the sort of person whose interests and talents lie in an area which only brings in irregular work? It is incredibly sad to see a phenomenal musician or artist whose career in that direction is permanently being sabotaged, because his time is necessarily occupied during the daytime driving a truck or doing people’s gardens. What happens when a Friday night gig rings up, and asks the musician if he can come and play, but it is an impossibility because he doesn’t knock off until at least 5.30, needs to be already at the gig setting up by at least 6.00 to do sound checks, etc. and there is no guarantee that his boss will be flexible about constantly letting him have afternoons off at short notice? No wonder so many such musicians and other creative types simply “sign on”: it is the only way to be free to work at what they really want to work at.

So what is work, anyway? It is extremely hard on the very creative or very intellectual individual when his or her interests and skills are not necessarily the same activities industry is prepared to pay for. Thus we see potential go to waste, because that would-be artist cannot get regular paid work at his art, or that would-be research scientist cannot get a grant in her field of interest. We see these people working as an IT technician or an accountant instead, and hence it literally becomes “work” – something the person does to pay the bills, instead of the thing that really puts the proverbial wind in their sails. Contrary to what the self-help books tell you, it is not always possible to do what you love and have the money follow. Too many broke musicians are testimony to that.

Those people who cry, “So they should work for a living, just like the rest of us!” are missing the point. Making the self-taught scientist work as a typist might seem “fair” to governments, the unthinking taxpayer and the dole office. But the highly creative person, the natural philosopher, the big-picture thinker – these are not ordinary mortals we are talking about.  Deprive these extraordinary beings of practical support, and time to follow their muse, and society stabs itself in the back by denying itself the fruits of their passions.

For there to be quantum leaps forward in the arts or the sciences, the very people who have a natural aptitude for making those breakthroughs need their minds – and somehow their time – freed up. The only question I have is: how?

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I tried to start a discussion on this topic on a public notice board. I suppose I should not have been surprised when readers spectacularly failed to grasp the point I had been making, and the thread died after a few confused and off-topic replies. It culminated in a bare assertion from someone of “The correct answer is [their opinion]”, which was not substantiated by the forum member despite a direct question on the subject from myself. At the very least, I was expecting some lively discussion, and I was even prepared to have to field the odd pissing contest between members of the two camps.

So, if there is a lesson to be learned here, it would have to be that yet again, I may have accidentally judged the public by my own standards of understanding. It was too easy to assume that readers would understand, from their own general knowledge, what I was talking about, and be able to use that as a platform from which to consider other ramifications.

Hence, I will repair that oversight here by beginning with a brief overview of what is meant by “nature or nurture”:
In the blue corner, we have those who argue that a person’s intelligence, aptitudes, special abilities etc. are inherent: the person is programmed by his or her genes. This is the viewpoint that gives rise to arguments such as “IQ is fixed for life, there is nothing you can do to change it.” (Most neuroscientists these days would tell you that datum is a falsehood, by the way.)

In the red corner, we have those who argue that the person is shaped by his or her environment: experiences in babyhood or childhood are entirely responsible for the way the person turns out. This is the type of belief that gets some pushy parents excited; they think that if they hothouse their little Jamie or their little Sarah hard enough, then he or she will become a genius.

Even those people who do not believe strongly either way still believe that a person is a product of some combination of both nature and nurture.

When I first encountered this argument in something I had been reading, it did not sit well with me, although I could not have explained from my childish viewpoint where exactly the bone of contention lay.

I would later read numerous books arguing for one side or another, or arguing for this or that ratio between the two. As I read, the concept continued to niggle away, and I increasingly felt that neither explanation, nor any purported ratio of nature v. nurture, gave the entire picture.

I considered the phenomenon of so-called “late developers” – people who, upon reaching adulthood, or upon reaching their mature or even senior years, took up a new-found passion in life and in due course became extremely capable and productive in that field. Or perhaps someone who had flunked out of school when young, but had gone back to college as a mature student and discovered their true academic abilities.

What was happening here? Had these people got some genetic code that predisposed them to suddenly becoming gifted in adulthood? Was there some environmental factor that somehow triggered their abilities later on in life? Or what?

Now, I’m not going to be unrealistic here. A 5’5″ man is unlikely to ever become a world-class basketball player, and lack of opportunity is lack of opportunity whichever way you spin it.

However, there is a third factor to be considered, and that is the individual’s free will.

I am not going to get into a lengthy discussion at this juncture as to what free will is. I know many philosophers and psychologists have agonised over the subject – perhaps another example of how people who do not understand something tend to needlessly complicate it. For the purposes of this article, I am simply running with the concept that most individuals are able to make decisions and act of their own volition.

I reject the idea of being constrained by my genetic legacy or my upbringing, because as a self-developer, that puts me in an incredibly disempowered position. What would be the use in trying to push myself to improve, if I am merely the result of my genes, the environment in which I grew up, or some combination of both? I didn’t grow up naturally knowing how to play the piano, and lessons certainly were not forthcoming when I was a child. The only reason I learned to play was because I made a decision to take lessons and work at it. I have also vastly increased my abilities in other areas too, because I took stock of the situation, decided something needed to change, and set about changing it.

A great philosopher once said that very few people’s awareness was up to the level where they actually wanted change to happen, much less considering that they are able to do something about the hand the past has dealt them and do something about it.

Perhaps the entire reason the “nature v. nurture” argument is still alive and well today, with no other alternatives being considered, is because most of humanity still considers no change is possible – or even desirable.

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