Sunday, 24 March 2013

If You Read One Book This Year...

Book Review: The Narcissism Epidemic

Why do young people post ever-increasingly risqué pictures of themselves on social networking sites? Why have New York law firms had to hire ‘Praise Consultants’? (Yes, really). Why are young people behaving as if success is their entitlement? Why do people expect an intellectual sugar-rush from education, rather than the solid meal it takes a long time to digest?

If you have ever wanted to know the answers to any of these questions – and even if you haven’t – The Narcissism Epidemic is the book for you. Written by two American Professors of Psychology, it is a forensic examination of the way in which American culture has taken a wrong turn, giving rise to entitlement, a chronic lack of fulfilment, breakdown in social capital and in communities, and relationship breakdown rates which are depressing.

However, the book, as a whole, is not depressing. Although the authors do not (despite trying) conclude that a natural cycle will restore a sense of balance, they do come up with some suggestions for limiting the spread of the epidemic. But note that before they do this, they do demonstrate that the epidemic really is turning into a pandemic, and they chart the rise of narcissism even in societies with best religious or cultural defences against it.

The book does give some helpful pointers in the closing chapters. Those in educational leadership should read it. Avoid any sense that children are special or unique specimens – it is our similarities which psychologically reduce conflict. Avoid self admiration at all costs – humility, and belonging to groups, is much healthier. Avoid celebrity culture – especially the sort of vacuous fame-for-fame’s-sake that typifies reality TV. Avoid using the internet for self-promotion, for example by blogging for attention (I’ll think about that one!). And avoid debt – which lends itself to a worldview in which we all deserve the luxuries we can’t afford (‘...yet...’ we tell ourselves), on a personal level, and on a national level.

Instead, give, save, push oneself, regard others as being equally capable, expect success only as the result of hard work.  If that sounds old-fashioned, it might just be because you heard it from your parents – the so-called Silent Generation – the biggest effect on whom was the Great Depression, with the consequent expectation that life would be hard. This, of course, is the very opposite of entitlement. We could be undergoing just the economic process most likely to help.

Oh, and finally – if you are reading this because you are a concerned parent: don’t make your child the centre of the family; don’t obsess about parenting; don’t spend your free time trying to give your child the very, very, very best start in life. Because all this, of course, makes children think they are entitled to that kind of attention, and advantage, for the rest of their lives. And that is narcissism...

The Narcissism Epidemic, by Twenge and Campbell, published by $15.99. Worth every cent.

On AmazonUK,  it’s £9.50:

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Developing Resilience

I vividly remember being given charge of a team to take around an assault course when I was in Y12 at school. The first challenge was a small lake over which ran a taut wire. The team had a pulley block, ropes and a log and we were to take the team over on it. Unfortunately in our hurry, my team ended up with all the equipment and all but two of us over the lake, and two team members left behind. Forty or so pupils were observing, laughing, and I was solely in charge. It was a painful lesson in leadership.

I took a moment. There seemed to be three alternatives: misery – weeping or feeling sorry for myself; walking out of the problem; or thinking and acting around the problem. Thankfully, I chose the last of these.
Each time we make a choice, we create a pathway through our brain – repeated pathways create habits. This was a clear, memorable choice: difficulty could have elicited self-pity, avoidance (giving up) or strategy and action. Almost every month since, I have faced another ‘assault-course’ moment in my life – some difficulty which has brought the same three choices, and each time I have chosen the last, it has become more of a habit. On many occasions, I have seen the fresh crisis as a repeat of the assault-course experience, and replayed the choices available on that occasion, looking for the equivalents in the present.

Of course, I haven’t always chosen the last of the choices above, but the occasions when I have given up, or ducked out of difficulties are not the sort of thing I plan to write about in public. I am nevertheless convinced that our reactions to these events become habits more quickly than we realise – and start to form an intrinsic part of what we take to be character.

I was recently told that there is no word in one European language for ‘challenge’, only ‘difficulty’. There are many cultural aspects to language, and perhaps the English word challenge encapsulates a cultural determination to use difficult events to sharpen our capabilities, to grow as people. But all people face the same three opportunities when they face challenges or difficulties.

And so, in an assembly today, I invited our pupils to consider whether they had faced difficulties, or challenges, during this term. Which of the three responses, I asked them, had they employed this term? Self-pity, avoidance, or thoughtful action? Which of these three responses was being ‘inked in’ as their habitual response this term?

As Disraeli is reputed to have said: “There is no teacher like adversity”. Challenge, and the right response, develops resilience.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

In Defence of Nick Clegg

So, Nick Clegg is a hypocrite, according to the British press (for one example, see Or, is he?

I think it is reasonable to assume that Mr and Mrs Clegg have different views on many things. For a start Mrs Clegg is a Catholic; Mr Clegg is the first mainstream political party leader to declare himself an atheist. I am guessing when England play Spain at football there is some good-natured marital rivalry about the result. (Mrs Clegg would not be well advised to change her allegiance on this particular matter). And so it seems to me quite possibly that the parents disagree on the appropriate direction of education for their children.

Of course, it might have been possible for the children’s father to demand that, as the children’s father, he has a patriarchal right to have the casting vote, and therefore he could have demanded that he had his own way. But we know that this didn’t happen. Is it reasonable to assume that it didn’t happen because Mr Clegg secretly wanted to send his children to the London Oratory. No. Assumptions about motives are not reasonable. And this news story is based entirely on assumptions about his motives.

And that, of course, is where this news story runs smack into another one, involving Lord Rennard. The LibDem media machine could have come out and said that the Cleggs disagreed, but Mr deferred to Mrs, because actually he doesn’t believe in a patriarchal society. The fact that they haven’t doesn’t make it less likely: it just suggests that some conversations between a husband and wife might actually be private.

My guess is that there was a protracted debate about the children’s schooling in the Clegg household, and Mr Clegg lost the debate. This doesn’t even suggest, given his wife’s profession, that he is a bad debater. It suggests that he knows that a family runs best when no member of it stands on their principles to the exclusion of everyone else’s view. I suspect he’s deeply uncomfortable about the school-destination of his child, and I suspect he is taking the hits for this because he doesn’t think it’s appropriate to be broadcasting private, familial discussions and decision-making. I suspect that Mr Clegg’s respect for women starts with respect for his wife’s views, and a willingness to defer to them sometimes.

And although I don’t normally come out on his side, I applaud him in this case.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Celebrating World Book Day

So, how to celebrate World Book Day? How about – for the simple fun of it – selecting one book published in each decade since 1880. (Why 1880? It got harder before that to know which decade a book was published in). The list below is not intended to be the best book in each decade – much too controversial – but just a spontaneous choice off my bookshelves. It’s necessarily eclectic, and I realise it could be contentious, but here goes anyway:

1880s: It’s tight, but The Woodlanders (1887) [Thomas Hardy] gets my vote. Actually I prefer it to Tess.

1890s: Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) [Hardy again]

1900s: The Hound of the Baskervilles () [Conan Doyle] – Conan Doyle had to get in there somewhere.

1910s: Mr Standfast (1919) [John Buchan] is my favourite of the Richard Hannay series, and I have always thought these to be classics of the time.

1920s: A Passage to India (1924 [EM Forster])  – mysterious and charming: a beguiling book even when I read it as a 17 year old.

1930s: The General Theory (1936) [JM Keynes] – so good that as an undergraduate economist, I went out to buy it because I wanted to own it. Well written, revolutionary, brilliant.

1940s: 19 Stories (1947) [Graham Greene] The best set of short stories I have ever read – later published as 21 stories, but that would put it in competition with the next decade.

1950s: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (1950) [CS Lewis]. A rich decade for books – this choice prevented my choosing a John Wyndham, which was painful, but what a classic.

1960s: Dead Cert (1962) [Dick Francis]. Ok, so it’s not a classic, but picked for the contribution to railway journey reading that he made: clever plotting, gripping and interesting.

1970s: The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy (1979) [Douglas Adams]. So different at the time that it was intoxicating – a marvellous book.

1980s: The Remains of The Day (1989) [Kazuo Ishiguro]. Marvellously evocative!

1990s: Possession (1990) [AS Byatt]. A huge work of fiction – the greatest suspension of disbelief: I simply couldn’t believe all that poetry was part of the fiction.

2000s: Bleachers (2004) [John Grisham]. A novella which is so much better than Grisham’s reputation.

2010s: Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) [Kahneman]. Guaranteed to change the way you see the world – brilliantly light, wonderfully profound.