Archive for February, 2013

Eminence Front

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em·i·nence

/ˈemənəns/

Noun
  1. Fame or recognized superiority, esp. within a particular sphere or profession: “her eminence in cinematography”.
  2. An important or distinguished person: “the Attorney General canvassed the views of various legal eminences”.

Eminence is everywhere in articles on giftedness of late. It’s arrived hand-in-glove with the Talentists, that group that seeks to broaden the definition of giftedness to include just about anything a human being can possibly do differently than other human beings1. The new way of thinking centers on the idea that gifted education should foster and encourage those most capable of – and I quote – “path breaking, field-altering discoveries and creative contributions by their products, innovations, and performances.” Thus, by the strictest definition of the term, noted above, gifted people are to be famous people. Important people. Superior people.

Look, I’m not offended by the idea that an intelligent person can work hard and be recognized for excellence in his or her chosen field. Far from it. What I do find disturbing is the expectation that everyone is a prodigy in a specific and defined field. Eminence suggests that we all somehow sharpen to a single point of brilliance, one which efficiently yields up the fruits of our giftedness to society in a quantifiable way. It all sounds very pleasant and logical, and at the same time, it makes me think I’m being rendered down for my mineral salts. More disturbingly, literature in the field is starting to suggest that giftedness + diligence = eminence, as a rigidly defined equation. It might; there’s certainly no shortage of examples out there. But it also feeds the gifted-as-output engine, and that can end up with terrible results – even for those that do become eminent. After all, if I rearrange that equation algebraically, I can also produce giftedness – eminence = – diligence; “if I’m smart but not famous, I clearly didn’t work hard enough.”2  That’s a horrific message to send to gifted children. Eminence is a delightful concept for those of us who single-mindedly pursue fields that offer the possibility of large-scale acknowledgment and the possibility of ‘recognized superiority.’ What are the rest of us? Failed experiments? Intellectual detritus? Cautionary tales?

This logic also doesn’t necessarily work for polymaths. I have terrible news for the Eminence Front; I’m not eminent. Not by the strictest definition of the word. I’m not technically a famous author; there’s a pretty tightly-defined slice of the gifted young adult population that likes my work, but they’re not New York Times bestsellers, and it’s unlikely that my books are going to be turned into godawful movies anytime soon. I’m not technically a famous guitarist, either, although there are those who will shout requests for songs I’ve written. I’m not technically a famous archaeologist, but one of my finds is on display in a cultural museum in Cortez, Colorado. I’m not technically a famous entrepreneur – but there are people who rely on the services my company provides every day to make the right decisions for their companies. I’m a better author than most entrepreneurs I know, and a better guitarist than most archaeologists. But the ideologues of the Eminence Front don’t value polymathic output; only prodigious output.

More importantly, though, these are the activities for which I’m even able to measure that output – the activities I’d have a chance of becoming eminent in. I’m not even really considering the things I can’t technically be famous for. Am I a famous father? (I do have a very, um, distinguished ‘Dad of the Year’ plaque on my desk.) Has my husband-ing ever been recognized for its superiority? Is it possible to be distinguished while I’m plunging a toilet or grilling hamburgers or taking the trash to the curb? Then there’s homeschooling, which – by definition – is an act that runs directly counter to the concept of eminence. Kathy and I have both made the very conscious decision to limit our career workload so that we can focus more closely on the education of our children. If eminence was ever camped out in my cul-de-sac, it likely packed its bags the day we made that decision. I’m OK with that, and so is she, but what are we telling our own kids when we tell them that eminence is everything?

That. in turn, raises the following question: where, in this equation, is the word happiness? How about fulfillment? Self-actualization? And which component of the definition of eminence are we supposed to be following? Is it more crucial to the essence of eminence to be important or famous? Famous or superior? Superior or distinguished? Ke$ha’s a famous person, but she’s not important. Zoe Keating is probably the anti-Ke$ha – important, but not famous. She’s got a lot of company. Miguel Alcubierre might end up becoming the most important man in scientific history – but he’s not famous. (Yet.) Brian Greene and Rodolfo Gambini are important, but not famous, and neither can yet demonstrate superiority over the other; in fact, one is likely to be dead wrong, and his error is going to prove to be immensely valuable to physicists. We can’t all be Neil deGrasse Tyson3.

What I’m going to tell my children is the following: follow your passion in life. It might be looping the cello, or developing warp-drive engines, or painting with oils in a sunny back yard. Following your passions might ensure you fame, or – ahem – “importance”(whatever that means), or being ‘recognized for your superiority.’ Or it might not. What it will bring you is meaning, and joy, and a direct conduit between the fire in your soul and the work beneath your hands. There is no more “important” goal than that in this life. They might find themselves famous, or “important,” as a result of their passions – but the converse is unlikely to be true.

As for the ‘Eminence Front?’ Someone fairly famous in his own right once informed me that it’s a put-on.

_________________________________________________________________________________________

1 You’re welcome.

2 giftedness = eminence – diligence somehow falls out of this, too. Go figure.

3 Yes, I’m counting the vests in the ‘distinguished’ column.

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My Daily Dose of Vitamin P

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One of the wonderful things about being an internist in a geriatric practice is the continual, daily perspective on what matters in life. I work part-time, rounding on patients who are residing at a skilled nursing facility or in long term care. Often, I will only be caring for a patient for a few weeks, one in a line of physicians from the emergency department to the hospital to myself. I will then hand them back to their regular physician when they are ready to discharge.  Even though I may not know them for long, I do have the luxury of being able to spend more time with them, seeing them several times a week if needed, and focusing on what’s really important to them. I am supported, thankfully, by fabulous teams of nurse practitioners, nurses, and nurses’s aides; physical, occupational, and speech therapists; nutritionists and case managers that keep things running smoothly for these patients at the various facilities I round at.

When I first meet a patient, I have already read their prior chart, looked through their medication lists, and retrieved the details of their recent medical history from our electronic medical record.  I let them know that I’ve already looked through this material, so they don’t have to repeat their story for the umpteenth time (unless they’d like to).  I’m mainly there to find out more about them, how they are feeling that day, and elicit whatever medical concerns they have.  We can then focus more on how recent events have affected them and their loved ones.  Many of the patients I see are over age 75, with quite a number over 90, and so discussions of end-of-life planning are common.

One of the first questions I ask is, “tell me about yourself.” It’s an open-ended question that allows them to tell me what is most important about themselves from their frame of reference, not anyone else’s. Even in patients with significant dementia, they are able to answer this question with details about childhood events; they are not living in the present, but perpetually in the past. Others, whose cognitive status is more intact, can tell me about their current life. I hear details about children, grandchildren, pets, faith, volunteer work, and travel. I also listen to descriptions of grieving, loss of hearing and eyesight, medical illness, fear, and pain.

Interestingly, the one thing patients don’t tell me is what they did for work. They might be happy to tell me proudly what their children and grandchildren (and sometimes great-grandchildren) do for work; their family members are business owners, military service members, homemakers, teachers, doctors, lawyers, and everything in between.  I often prompt patients to find out what they did daily for the better part of their life. Most have been retired for 20 years or more, and that part of their life has become less important to them over time, fading into the distance like so many memories. For many years since retirement, their life has been filled up with family, new babies, friends, pets, hobbies, books, and much more.  Even the patients who didn’t have children are involved as great-aunts, or run the local pet shelter. It doesn’t matter if they worked as a contractor, researcher, dancer, professor, engineer, author, or dentist.  It doesn’t matter where they went to high school, college, or graduate school, or what grades they got along the way. It doesn’t matter how devoted they were to their work, what awards they won, or whether they achieved notoriety in their field.  None of this matters as much to them at this point in their lives. While they have regrets, what matters to them the most are the personal connections they have been able to sustain throughout their lifetimes.

These daily encounters often leave me thinking about how to guide my current life. Meaning, if I had their perspective – vitamin P – how would I live my life right now? I find I have more initiative to help my kids find their passions in life, and less tolerance for continuing in negative situations. I seek the company of those who understand and celebrate me for who I am, not those who want me to be something I am not. I celebrate exploration and discussion more than achievement, and I place a higher value on snuggling and long walks.

When I am done rounding and go home to my family, it is a joy to walk through the door. I have usually picked up our kids from school, after homeschooling in the morning. Dave has been working from home, or we switched times that day so he could attend a client meeting. The house is busting with multiple intensities of every type, and learning, work, love, and laughter are all mixed together in one crazy bundle of energy. I will be always grateful that I became a physician, not as much for the patients I helped, but for how they helped me. And I hope, towards the end of my life, to have lived in a way that would make them proud, too.

Inception

InceptionOldSaito

“It’s really good,” the voice at the other end of the phone said. “Relevant. Timely. Exactly the sort of thing we need to hear. And I understand you’ve done it for us before?”

Yes, I replied. I’d actually delivered the presentation in 2010, as part of a corporate strategy day for a key client of mine. It’d been well-received at the time, and I ended up handing off USB flash-drive copies to a few people afterwards. I’d be happy to revisit it for content updates, I told my client partner; after all, it was now nearly three years old, and could probably stand a refresh.

There was an awkward silence, and then the voice spoke again. “Yeah. Um, about that. It’s a junior executive meeting – ” There was special emphasis placed on the word junior. “- and, uh, I wondered if you could find a, um, voice for this that would speak to them. An audience of twentysomethings.”

I can take a hint as well as the next guy, so I muted the call and furiously Googled +presentation +Millennial +format. Scanning the results, I had two immediate takeaways.

1. I’m old.

2. What the hell are they teaching my children in school?

“No problem,” I said. “Send me an Outlook meeting invite, and I’ll be there, ready to go.”

And I was off. I’m 43, so I’ve been in business long enough to remember prepping for presentations with this, and this, and this. Throughout all of these formats, fundamentals remained: a constant background. A series of bullet points. Sparingly-applied graphics, used to make a point or illustrate a concept.

That made my progress through my Google findings that much more painful. The more I read, the older and more out of step I felt. That’s in part because I’ve spent a good amount of time in a feedback loop of other middle-aged business geezers, all of us serving up the same old PowerPoint content to each other in progress meetings and project discussions. See the same suit fashions and tie widths among your peers long enough, and you’ll convince yourself that everyone’s wearing them.

An hour in, though, my creative juices kicked in, and I began to actively enjoy the process of taking my old presentation apart and rebuilding it into a new one for this audience. I’d almost completely lost myself in the work, when I realized that I had a visitor in my office.

“What are you doing, Dad?”

I explained to E that I was reworking a presentation for a new audience, and showed her the old one, and then the new one. As I went back and forth, slide by slide, her frown deepened.

“I thought you were supposed to use bullet points. And the background had to stay the same. The font size, too.”

“And you can. But some people are pushing the bounds a bit more. Adding more creativity to the mix.”

“I like it,” E opined. “Can I do mine like that?”

Just then, I realized I’m having one of those Inception-esque moments in parenting and education, Cobb awakening in the surf to go and retrieve my ancient, wizened children from modern educational Limbo. I’m watching two ten-year-olds get taught how to build old business-geezer presentations as quickly as I’m tearing mine down and repurposing them for Millennial audiences. We’re inside-out on these topics, preparing them for a world that doesn’t exist anymore based on what we knew to be true a decade or more ago. It’s just as vertigo-inducing when I hear about teachers insisting that students hand-write essays and then re-write them by hand if they make mistakes, while we’re working a three-writer swapwrite on Google Docs. Or when the kids head off to Young Ameritowne and practice waiting in line at a bank teller to deposit their paychecks – while I’m depositing a client payment by scanning the check on the iPad.

The pace of cultural and technological change isn’t slowing down. If anything, it’s accelerating. If we prepared kids for the world outside our doors today, we’d miss badly – and we’re not. Outside, it’s 2013. School is preparing them for life in 1993. It’s one thing for me to have to play catchup, as I did on this project; I’m of the age when it starts to become challenging to understand why Skrillex and Jersey Shore and Uggs are popular. But it’s quite another to waste kids’ time getting them ready to be wrinkled, out-of-step forty-year-olds the minute they exit the school system.

In the meantime, we’ll be here, downloading free images to backdrop our new typographic creations. Because it’s time to teach them some new wrinkles. Old wrinkles can wait for their appointed day.

Haku

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Nomenclature’s back again, for what appears to be its scheduled quarterly visit. Apparently, every three months I’ll get a trash bill in the mail, a cheery reminder from the work email server to change my password, and a scolding from somewhere in the world – in this case, New Zealand – about what term is socially acceptable to use in referring to my kids.

Know what? I’m kinda done with it. I’m not surrendering on this front, per se, but I will agree that we need a new word – if for no other reason than the word gifted itself has become a charred ruin. It’s radioactive. There’s no deploying the word in conversation without kick-starting a polemic. We might be able to come back to gifted in fifty years, or a hundred, but for the moment, it’s untouchable without tongs and a rad suit. It’s just become too divisive to be useful.

I’m glad that something finally pushed me off the fence, but the article itself is something of a trainwreck. It’s not as if Stacy Hunt doesn’t make any good points; I don’t like the term ‘gifted,’ either, actually, and I’m in at least partial agreement with her as to why. It’s a word loaded to the gunwales with effusive positivism. As a term, gifted virtually explodes off of the page in a nimbus of birthday candles and tinsel. But that doesn’t really match up to the reality for most of us. Gifted kids (and adults) don’t always feel positively about giftedness. It’s not that it’s not often useful to be gifted; it’s just that somehow, the word needs to reflect the flawed, organic nature of the gift itself.

I’ll also concede the point that gifted seems to indicate an act of giving, from some sort of outside force. While it’s true in the strictest definition – hell-O, those gametes came from somewhere – it also has a sense of something arbitrarily boxed up and shipped. Gifted didn’t come from somewhere, as gifts do, and it can’t go back, receipt or no. If it’s a gift, it doesn’t behave like one in the truest sense of the word. In these two areas, at least, I’d be fine with dispensing with the term. It just doesn’t convey the whole of the condition. Like so many words in our language, it sucks at conveying the complexity of what it describes.

But having made these points, then Hunt’s got to go where all good nomenclature critics go – into the elitist argument, as if having gifted kids is just pure upside, unadulterated positive differentiation. For Hunt, our use of gifted marks us all out as the bored, arrogant, listless Eloi to her salt-of-the-earth, hard-working Morlocks. I’ll respectfully disagree, as I always do when this tired saw of an argument gets deployed by offended gifted critics. I tend to think of elite in the strictest sense of the term – one in which, if I was part of this supposed elite, I’d be lounging on a dais with a fistful of grapes in hand while my gifted children worked diligently at their own self-designed work, my life vastly easier than that of other parents as a result. That’s not the case for us, and if you’re reading this, I’m guessing it’s not true for you, either. In fact, I’m pretty sure the ten-gee gravitational environment of a two-career, homeschooling household with three gifted kids would crush our New Zealand correspondent flat within a day. (Who’s the Morlock now?)  Still, I’ll take the presence of the elitist argument in Hunt’s column as more evidence that gifted has become a radioactive word. Start up a nomenclature jihad, and this is sure to be among the first arguments wheeled out. It’s become a knee-jerk reaction, and we’re simply going to have to acknowledge the reality: it would take a great deal of work to calm those societal knee nerves down at this point.

All right, then. Whatever. Fine. Here’s your term back; you don’t like it, and neither do we, really. It does some magical things for parents still in a traditional school setting, so for them it’s worth the slings and arrows. For those of us that have brought our kids home, though, it’s nothing but slings and arrows. It’s served its time as a word that enables us to identify and talk with each other, and that’s useful at a sort of fifty-thousand-foot level. But even within ‘gifted’ as a broad-brush term, gifted sucks at specific description. We’re HG and EG and PG and 2e; we see the world through different intensities. My PG/intellectually intense E might belong under the same extremely wide umbrella as my HG/2e-emotionally intense H, but in our house they’re chalk and cheese – and A’s just as different from both of them. If I really wanted to describe them, I’d put their intensities in order behind their ‘G’ rating, so E would become PGInSIm, while H would become HG2eEInS, and A turns into EGESPIm. Descriptive? Sure. But a system like this one would read like stereo instructions.

So the term is neither accurate nor generically descriptive, and any system that would introduce fine detail – like the one above – would push the bounds of syntactic usefulness.  Fine. Where to from here?  How about using something completely non-judgmental, like…colors? Well, we’ve been through the Indigo phase, and that didn’t stick, which is kind of a shame. Indigo would have been a very agreeable and decidedly non-elitist term for kids in a different part of the spectrum. Oranges and reds and greens, and over here, the indigos. But a relatively benign basic concept got wrecked, excessively loaded down with New Age mysticism and outright bullshit (and meta-meta-bullshit), so we’re left to struggle for other possibilities.

Perhaps we can build it from the ground up, and look through our lexicon for a candidate. What does our word need to have in it? We’re different, for one, so let’s not entertain any sense of not being the Other. We are. Deal with it, society at large. We don’t see the world the same way you do. We perceive it through lenses of intensity, one before another, filtering and polarizing and changing our view of life. We think about things differently. So let’s not bother with campfire songs about belonging; we need a word that does a little bit of xenos. But not too much – because so many of our, um,useful xenos words are positively charged. Keen, sharp and bright all share a common antonym – dull – and that’s just the tip of the problematic iceberg in assessing the descriptive words as possibilities. From our own point of view as parents, too, we’re also going to need a word that isn’t strictly positive or negative. There are aspects of both to gif- er, to our children’s existences. So, you know…we’re looking for one of those emotionally ‘safe,’ culturally cautious words with immense descriptive power that can mean something daunting and challenging and wonderful and exhausting all at the same time. Good luck with that.

You have to wonder if, perhaps, we’ve arrived at a place where we’ll need to go outside of our own language to find a word that fits the bill. Just for fun, I went back to some of the wonderful work I’ve read on giftedness in other cultures and other languages. Among these is the work of Jill Bevan-Brown, who’s done some exceptional work on giftedness among the Maori. How appropriate! After all, the Maori are right in our New Zealand correspondent’s backyard. Maybe Hunt has had exposure to something better. Something more wonderfully on point, in the way that sometimes only the words of other cultures can be. Perhaps there’s a Maori word that might suit our needs.

Except it turns out that they don’t have a word for giftedness. Not in our sense, anyway. Gifted kids in Maori culture are valued and nurtured and offered ‘full membership’ in society – but they’re not labeled. I wonder if we shouldn’t try that road; labels seem to have done us little good up to this point from the society-level view. Until then, though, nomenclature has value – and just before I left Bevan-Brown’s world of Maori giftedness, I took one last look through the Maori lexicon for inspiration.

Guess what? One word – haku – means four different things at the same time: gift, flaw, open up, and flash (like lightning).

If there’s a better single word to describe what’s going on in our house, I’ll cheerfully take it. Until then, I’m thinking about adopting haku as our term  – our flawed gifts flickering and flashing as they open us up to new possibilities each day.