On “being the best person you can be”

The trick is to stop worrying about the future, which is so full of unknowns.

Be the best person you can be right now, today, this hour, this minute. If you do that—if you succeed at that only some of the time—you will find yourself equipped to deal with whatever life brings you, and to create the future you have imagined when the opportunities arise.

At certain moments, however, “being the best person you can be” means being someone who is exhausted, run down, discouraged, out of ideas, completely lacking enthusiasm or inspiration.

At such moments, you need to stop and take care of yourself.

The Education Genie [book excerpt]

Imagine . . .

It’s your summer holiday, and you’re walking along a beautiful, deserted beach. The wet sand oozes between your toes. The salt breeze blows in your hair. The seabirds run up and down as the waves roll in, then recede.

In the water up ahead, a strange shape catches your eye. As you approach, the waves wash it onshore. When you get close enough, you see that it’s some kind of old jar. No, wait—it’s a bottle, the glass so dark it’s almost black. And sure enough, it’s sealed with a cork that is covered with red wax.

“Cool!” you exclaim.

The wax is old and brittle, and with a bit of effort you are able to pry it loose. After some tugging, you succeed in pulling out the cork.

If there was ever something inside that bottle, it evaporated long ago. You turn it upside down and shake it, but nothing falls out and nothing rattles.

Oh well, you think. At least it’s a cool old bottle.

Then a thin trail of mist begins wafting up out of the bottle, growing into a cloud that hangs in the air just in front of you. Suddenly—bang!—a genie appears where the cloud had been. A genie! Just like in the old stories, dressed like someone out of The Arabian Nights, with one ring through his nose and another in his left ear.

“Greetings, my friend,” says the genie, bowing slightly. “A thousand thanks for freeing me from my imprisonment. I am ready to grant your wish.” 

“Whoa!” you say. “This is so cool! What’ll I wish for? Hmm . . .  I could wish to be the richest person on the planet, or an Olympic athlete, or a famous singer, or—” 

“Hold it!” cries the genie. “Let me explain. I’m not like those genies in the stories. I’m an Education Genie, and I only grant wishes that have to do with education.” 

“What?! You mean, out of all the genies in the world trapped in bottles, I have the rotten luck of freeing an Education Genie?” 

“If you’re that disappointed,” says the genie, “we can forget the whole thing, and I’ll just be on my way.” 

“No, no,” you say. “Wait, I’ll think of something.” Then, an idea. “Could I wish for my math teacher to take early retirement?” 

“No,” says the genie. “I’m not a School Genie. I’m an Education Genie. It has to be something about education.” Seeing the puzzled look on your face, he adds, “About learning.” 

“Oh,” you say, unable to conceal your disappointment. “Okay, let’s see, three wishes about learning . . . .”

The genie clears his throat. “Who said anything about three wishes?” 

“I don’t get three wishes?” 

“You’ve been reading too many old stories,” says the genie. “You get one wish.” 

“One wish?” 

“One.”

Oh boy. So you start thinking. You could wish to be a genius. But Melvin, the guy in your class who’s closest to being a genius, isn’t the most popular kid around… and he doesn’t even get the best grades. He always seems to be thinking about something totally different when the teacher calls on him. So maybe being a genius isn’t the best idea.

You ask yourself: what’s the one thing you don’t have, that you really need to help you do better in school? Hmm . . . No idea.

That’s it! Ideas! Wouldn’t it be great to be one of those students who’s always got an idea, or even several ideas? Like Lucy Dobner. She’s got ideas and inspiration to burn. Maybe you should wish for inspiration.

But then you remember that Lucy Dobner, for all her great ideas, is the most disorganized person on Earth. She forgets stuff all the time, her homework is always late . . . and she doesn’t get the best marks, either. Maybe inspiration isn’t the best thing to wish for.

Who does get the best grades? It’s usually either Janice or Chris. They’re not the smartest in the class, so what do they do that’s so successful? Well . . . they always pay attention, they write down all the assignments, they turn in their homework on time, and they never seem to have to cram for tests. They just have really good work habits.

That’s it! Habits! You start thinking about your own habits and realize that they could certainly stand some improvement. 

“Okay,” you say. “I’m ready. My wish is to have great habits.” 

“Are you sure?” asks the genie. “I’ve had many unhappy experiences with people making wishes and then wishing they’d wished for something else.” 

“I’m sure,” you say, “I’ve thought it all through carefully. The best thing to improve my grades would be if I had better habits. That’s my wish.” 

“Did you consider other alternatives?” asks the genie. 

“Yes,” you say, growing impatient. “I thought about being a genius, but that’s no guarantee of success. And I thought about being inspired with great ideas, but I don’t want to risk having great ideas without being able to follow through on them. So the best thing to have is good habits. Let’s get on with it. I should have been back an hour ago, and I’m getting hungry.” 

“All right,” the genie sighs. “Your wish is granted. From now on you will have excellent habits, and as a result you will earn much better grades.” 

“You don’t seem very happy about it,” you say. 

“You made the wrong choice.”

“What!?”

“You made the wrong choice,” he repeats.

“But why? I reasoned it all out very carefully!”

“If a genie offers to make your wish come true,” he explains, “you should wish for something you couldn’t possibly get on your own. You can improve your habits, if you really want to. You can even do things to become more inspired. But no matter what you do, you can’t turn yourself into a genius. You should have wished to be a genius.”

With a groan, you plop down onto the sand. “I’m such a loser!”

“Well,” says the genie, “I must be off now. Good luck!”

“Wait,” you say. “I have one more question.”

“Make it quick.”

“You say anyone can improve his habits. How?”

The genie seems a bit offended by such an easy question.

“It’s nothing difficult,” he replies. “Read this book.”

How to feel okay

1. Everyone wants to feel okay.

When we don’t feel okay, we do something to make ourselves feel better. There are good ways, and not-so-good ways, to do this. Good ways include going for a walk, calling a friend on the telephone, eating an apple. Not-so-good ways include making somebody else feel bad, gorging on sweets, or . . . sticking a needle in your arm. Just about all of us make ourselves feel better by using our strengths. If we are good athletes, we go with that. If we are very beautiful, or handsome, we rely on that. If we are very clever, we use that. This natural tendency to go with our strengths can, however, cause problems. For example, the star athlete may stop working at her studies because she doesn’t find the sort of easy, immediate success in class that she does on the playing field. Or the very clever person may alienate the people around him by constantly reminding them how smart he is. How do you make yourself feel okay?

2. Pain is your friend.

Pain is that little guy jumping up and down, waving his arms, trying to get your attention. “Hey, you! Look at me! You’ve got something to deal with here, and something to learn! Pay attention!” People who are not really our friends will give up on us. If we push them hard enough, even people who really love us will finally give up on us. Not pain. You can try to ignore him, run away from him, drown him in booze (or any other distraction you prefer) but he stays right there until you pay attention to him. He is trying to make you pay attention to some sort of problem, to fix it if you can and to learn from it so it doesn’t keep repeating itself. So then the question is . . .

3. What is your problem?

We all have problems. What’s yours? How can you fix it? How can you stop yourself from running into it again and again and again? This is the real work of being human, of growing and learning and developing. Think of a baby, just learning to walk. His problem is, he can’t stand up. Or if he does manage to stand up for a moment, he loses his balance and falls down. Once, twice, three times, ten times. It frustrates him, makes him angry, makes him want to scream, makes him want to cry. If he stops trying and just cries, it will take him much longer to learn to walk. The solution to his problem is patient, determined effort; the only way he can fail is to stop trying. Lots of other problems are just like this—but not all of them. In other cases, doing the same thing over and over again will get you nowhere. In still other cases the problem may be something we cannot change or control. So, what is your problem, exactly, and how can you best deal with it? That’s what you need to find out.

4. We can all use help.

That baby will learn to walk a bit sooner if somebody gives him a hand to hold onto and keep him steady on his feet. You and I will learn from our problems and move on, instead of staying stuck on them, if we get some help from someone who has been there before us, who can see the situation more clearly than we can, who can point us in the right direction. It might be a friend, a family member, a counselor or teacher or therapist or doctor, or a neighbour. Find someone who can help you, and ask for help. If the first person you ask is not the right person, keep searching: someone out there is able to help you and will be happy to do it.

Because we all want to feel okay, and one of the best ways to feel okay is to help someone else.

Oak Outliner: a great note-taking tool for students

Students who have laptops in class can take notes quickly and easily using Oak, a plain-text browser-based outliner that is free, fast, and easy to use. The commands are quite simple and intuitive. Nothing more than an internet connection is required, and you can save your work simply by copying it and pasting it wherever you like.

Give it a try: http://oakoutliner.com.

The brain seems to like habits

ArsTechnica’s John Timmer reports on a recent study with monkeys showing that when performing a habitual activity, the brain uses less energy to complete the task.

We are seeing more and more of such reports as neuroscience works to discover exactly how the brain works. What’s striking is how often these new studies seem to confirm what thinkers from Aristotle to William James have been telling us for centuries: turning a desirable behaviour into a habit has tremendous advantages!

What are you studying?

You think you are studying geography, history, science, math . . . and you are. But the real subject, whatever you are studying in school, is yourself.

Do you know yourself? Do you understand yourself? Do you know what sort of things stress you out? How do you dial the stress down to a manageable level? How do you respond to criticism? Are you a leader or a follower? What do you really enjoy? Why do you enjoy those things? What do you really hate? Why? Are you an extrovert, or an introvert? How do you learn? Why are you the kind of person you are? Are you like your parents, or one of them? Have you been shaped by childhood experiences? Are you like other people in your family? in your ethnic group? linguistic group? Are you like others who share your religion, or your nationality? How did you come to be the person you are? And so on.

The more you understand yourself, the more successful you will be not just in school, but in everything you do. And almost every moment of every day provides a new opportunity to learn more about yourself. Problems, disagreements, difficulties of all sorts offer especially good opportunities to think about how you are responding to a certain situation; and what that response tells you about the sort of person you are; and what that experience can teach you that will be useful in the future. As I used to tell my children when they were young, pain is that little friend waving his hand, trying to get your attention. “Over here!” he calls out. “Look over here, there’s something you need to know about! Something you need to learn from!” If you always run away from the pain, run away from conflicts, ignore problems or just endure them until they go away—then you will miss all those opportunities to understand yourself better.

If you do learn to understand yourself, then everything else you study—geography, history, science, math—will be much, much easier. You will earn better results, and you will enjoy your studies more.

Think of it this way: instead of having to learn six or eight subjects, you really only have to learn one: yourself. And the really good news? It’s a subject that you are actually interested in.