Archive for April 2012

Confucius he talk crap sometimes

April 27, 2012

Tell me and I’ll forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I’ll understand.

When I first read this, I thought it was brave of the writer to admit to being an idiot. Subsequently I realised this is a well-known saying, supposedly a Chinese proverb. Now I realise that people who write this are still idiots, just in a slightly different way.

I’m not a visual learner. I’m not a spatial or “kinetic” learner. I don’t like the stupidity and smugness inherent in the assumption that any non-visual, non-active learning “doesn’t work”. It works just fine for me, most of the time.

Many of my lessons at school involved a few minutes of actual teaching, followed by an interminable “activity” designed to “reinforce the learning”. I struggled in those lessons. The bit where the teacher was telling us stuff was fine. The other bits were not.

Ah, I hear you say. That’s because you were just sitting back and letting the teacher’s words wash over you, then when it came to the “active learning” bit, you struggled because you hadn’t truly grasped the subject matter of the lesson. Well, maybe. But that doesn’t explain why I struggled in French lessons despite already being able to speak French. I think I struggled because a lot of lazy teachers would rather dump a poorly explained, confusing, pointless activity on their pupils than actually teach, and I am someone who doesn’t get on well with poorly explained, confusing, pointless activities.

I get why you’ll never learn to drive if you don’t get to sit in the driver’s seat. I get why certain activities really do require you to put your body in a certain space and actually do something before you can learn. What I do not accept is the lazy assumption that all learning has to work this way. Especially when the “involvement” is a substitute for genuine learning. Especially when the rhetoric about “active learning” is a cloak for the teacher putting their feet up while the learners flounder.

So stop quoting that sodding proverb. It just proves you’re unoriginal as well as a slow learner. I have no idea why you’d want the world to be sure of that.

The cult of sleeplessness

April 12, 2012

I’ve written about the cult of early and how early risers get cultural credit just for starting their day earlier than other people, even if they also finish earlier and get exactly the same amount done.

This is a problem because attributing extra productivity and moral worth to a person for something which has nothing to do with their actual productivity or moral worth is unfair and stupid. It’s a problem because a culture that disproportionately praises early birds is a culture in which many night owls are forced to adopt the wrong circadian rhythms for their bodies. Fighting your body to become an early bird boosts your productivity and job satisfaction about as much as wearing the wrong size shoes.

But it’s also a problem because it overlaps with an even more problematic cultural issue: the cult of sleeplessness. When Margaret Thatcher boasted of only needing five hours’ sleep a night while she was Prime Minister, her message was: “I am stronger than you, I am better than you, I am made to be a leader.” And people responded admiringly or disbelievingly, rather than shrugging and asking what on earth her sleep requirements have to do with her ability to run the country.

But just look at the kind of people who find it easy to wake at dawn, the kind of people who “naturally” don’t seem to need much sleep.

  • Babies
  • Toddlers
  • Older people who have retired from work
  • Some older children
  • (Presumably) the binmen who have cheery conversations with each other outside my house at 6am once a week
  • (Presumably) the early starters I know in blue-collar jobs

What do these people have in common? Freedom from responsibility. These are not people who have to make difficult decisions on a daily basis. They are not spending their waking and working hours planning, juggling and worrying. They either don’t work at all or they have their workday mapped out by someone else. I’m not saying that doing a full shift lifting recycling boxes isn’t hard work; I’m saying that it’s relatively stress-free hard work because all the difficult decisions are made for you in advance.

Some research suggests that decision-making depletes your willpower, and that, as the New York Times puts it, “we have a finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control.” In other words, if your day involves a lot of decision-making, you need to rest in order to refill your mental reserves.

Most white-collar jobs involve planning your own time, negotiating with clients, colleagues and bosses, making work-related decisions and justifying those decisions as well as a thousand other smaller decisions like “do I go for a run at lunchtime?” and “how do I interpret this email? Is this person being aggressive or does it just come across that way? How do I respond neutrally?” And if you have other responsibilities on top of that, decisions merge with each other in a messy, stressful way. “If I go for a run at lunchtime tomorrow I’ll have to remember to bring a packed lunch because the only good place to run is in the opposite direction to the shops, so I’ll have to buy the stuff for a packed lunch today, but that’s difficult because I’m going to an after-work PTA meeting and when it’s over all the shops will be closed except my local corner shop and that’s a Tesco and I’m trying to boycott Tesco… but I could solve the problem by driving to work tomorrow, then I’ll have the car at lunchtime, but it just seems so wrong to drive to work in order to go running, but it’s not my fault we don’t have good public transport here, but I guess it is partly my fault because there was that meeting about it and I missed it…” You’re exhausted before you’ve even put your running shoes on.

The more responsibility you accept, the more rest you need. If you’re the kind of person who sees broken things in the world and wants to fix them, you need more rest than the person who ignores them because “they’re not my problem”. People who don’t need much sleep, by and large, are the kind of people who either don’t have much responsibility or refuse to worry abut the responsibility they do have.

Of course a toddler is keen to start the day if awake-time means cuddles, attention and worry-free play. And of course Thatcher didn’t need much sleep when she was Prime Minister, because as far as I can tell without ever having met the woman, self-doubt was not a problem for her. Her agenda was to dismantle and destroy: the welfare state, the NHS, the unions, the UK’s manufacturing industry. She didn’t lie awake worrying about it any more than your average toddler lies awake worrying about bashing the furniture.

Imagine a game where Team A just has to run around breaking everything they can while Team B has to prevent them from breaking things and take responsibility for fixing or putting up with whatever’s broken. Clearly Team B doesn’t get to stop unless Team A has stopped, and even then Team B is still dealing with the consequences of what Team A has done. Team B is anxious, Team A is just fine (especially since it’s Team B who has to bring the half-time oranges). In other words, Team A has lots of fun and power, while Team B has lots of responsibility but is forced into a reactive position without enough control over the situation or time to do what needs to be done. Which team is going to need more rest at the end of the game?

Being a selfish, destructive arsehole with little or no understanding of responsibility is much less tiring than behaving responsibly. If someone doesn’t need much sleep, it’s probably because they’re not doing their fair share of the worrying or the real work. They’re not to be praised or admired for it. Thatcher was basically a giant guilt-free toddler with a wrecking ball, having too much fun to go to bed. Is this at the root of the left-wing obsession with when she’ll finally be laid to rest?


April 10, 2012

“I’m getting my eyebrows done today. I’m telling you now so you can pretend to notice the difference when you see me tonight.”
“You’re telling me to remember to look surprised at how surprised you look?”

Early birds v night owls

April 4, 2012

The cult of early isn’t just about deadlines: it’s also about the hours in which we choose to be awake and do things. In fact, I would argue it’s more about our daily routines than anything else.

A fictional example: Luke works 7am-3pm while Tom works 10am-6pm. They both spend eight hours at work, so assuming they take roughly the same amount of break time, they’re equal, right?

Anybody who’s ever worked in an office with flexitime will know this isn’t the case. In terms of hours worked, yes, they’re equal. In terms of smugness about hours worked, Luke wins hands down.

When Tom walks into the office at 10am, Luke is socially sanctioned to make comments about Tom’s “lateness”, whether that’s a jokey “Good evening” or a sardonic “Oh, you’ve finally made it in.” If Tom challenges the comments, on the grounds that he’s not actually late but just working a different shift pattern, Luke will say he was only joking and Tom will look as if he can’t take a joke.

If Tom tries to get his own back by commenting “Leaving us already?” or similar when Luke leaves at 3pm, he will get a self-righteous response along the lines of “I think you’ll find I’ve been here since 8am!” Quite often the early shift pattern is for childcare reasons, which means that criticism of the office early bird is effectively criticising working parents: dangerous territory.

I don’t know where the cult of early comes from. I understand why culturally, we associate the hours of darkness with unwholesome things: crime, witchcraft, antisocial behaviour and so on. But I don’t understand why so many people seem genuinely to believe that being “early to bed, early to rise” makes you a better, more productive person.

There is no moral dimension to our choice of waking and working hours. Do I need to say it again? There is no moral dimension to our choice of waking and working hours. Whether you are “good” or “bad”, hard-working or lazy, is not about your circadian rhythms. It is about who you are and what you do.

There is a theory that lustratory rituals actually encourage bad behaviour by encouraging a false sense of righteousness, a feeling that you are super-clean and can do no wrong. I wonder if it’s the same thing with early birds. If you belong to a culture that values earliness for its own sake, are you starting your hideously early day with the assumption that you’ve already “won”, that you don’t need to be as productive or as friendly as the colleague who’s currently still snoozing?

The misguided cult of early

April 2, 2012

I recently volunteered to do a task. This task needs to be done by Wednesday this week. I volunteered for it some weeks ago and then went through my diary to work out when I could do it. It’s a difficult task that requires about four hours to be set aside for it, and I’m working full time as well as doing a lot of volunteer work, so I knew that I would need to plan my time carefully and rearrange various things in order to get the task done before the deadline.

This I did. The earliest I could possibly do this task was today (Monday) and even that would involve rearranging paid work commitments. I duly rearranged those work commitments, which involved negotiating with four different people, and I told everybody concerned in the voluntary task that I would be doing it this Monday.

In other words, I am a busy but responsible adult who goes to huge lengths to manage expectations and get tasks done before their deadlines.

No. Apparently not. Apparently because I “could” have done it sooner but didn’t, I am in fact a naughty child who deserves to be nagged and laughed at for “leaving it to the last minute”.

Last night I received an email from someone asking if I had done the task yet. This person knows perfectly well that I have not done it. I explained to him in person that I had set Monday 2nd April to carry out the task, then I followed the conversation up in an email so that he would be in no doubt. But he still felt entitled to send me a chidingly-worded email before the date I’d scheduled, because I’d “left it to the last minute”.

In the meantime, my partner has also been teasing me for “leaving it to the last minute”. This is someone who knows precisely how busy I am, who knows just how stressful I sometimes find it to manage my commitments. This is someone who’s seen me break down in tears because I have so much to do and I am too responsible to just drop any of it when it gets too much. This is someone who knows damn well that today is the first day I’ll be able to do it. (This is also someone who refused this task themselves because – guess what? – it was too time-consuming and difficult.)

I do believe that if you genuinely can’t do a task, or want to refuse it for whatever reason, a “no” is better than saying “yes” when you don’t mean it and then letting everybody down. But I’m not going to let anybody down. I’m going to get the task done today, on the day I planned to do it, on the day I told everybody I was going to do it. And yet somehow I’m more at fault than all the people who said “no” and got away with doing nothing at all. They’re not getting nagged and laughed at, but I am.

I have felt anger about the cult of “early” for a long, long time. My attitude is: unless it’s a race, it’s not a race. If the work is handed in before the deadline, let it be judged equally with all the other work that’s handed in before the deadline. Don’t assume that something’s superior because it’s three weeks rather than two days early. It’s probably early because the creator fell for the cult of “early”.

I wish I had just said “no” to this task. When I accepted it, I thought I would get credit and approval from the voluntary group, and from my partner, for getting it done and getting it done on time. I didn’t think that failing to get it done earlier would cancel out the achievement in everybody else’s eyes but my own. I didn’t think that all my efforts to manage expectations and be upfront about what I was scheduling would be ignored because the task was scheduled close to the deadline.

I thought I was being “clever” and “good” managing to juggle things so I could cram this task in to a schedule that was already too full and get it done days before the deadline. (Pathetic really, to crave that kind of school-level approval as an adult.) But it seems that I’m still in the wrong. As I sat painstakingly planning out the weeks ahead, slotting tasks into the days like some nightmare game of Tetris, and felt a flash of triumph that I could do this task, I was putting myself into the wrong.

This is the stupidity of the cult of early. The cult of early says “It doesn’t matter that you’ve done it; it doesn’t matter how well you’ve done it; it doesn’t matter that you did it before the deadline we agreed. I still get to feel superior to you for doing it later than I think you should have done it, even if I have done nothing myself.”