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Sunday, January 28, 2018

Focusing on the Finish

On days when I feel as if I have a lot of tasks before me, like today, I always think of the story of how, when I arrived for my freshman year at Princeton, I immediately had grave doubts.  I had come to Princeton sight unseen, from 3,000 miles away, from a family in which I was the first person to obtain a regular high school diploma, much less to attend college. I had arrived a week before the start of fall classes to take part in a pre-freshman trip to New York City.

My mother was the second person in our entire family to have visited New York City, and she had done so only seven years before my freshman year.  We were long-time Westerners; it was rare that anyone in my family traveled east of Las Vegas, Nevada. In fact, we rarely traveled at all. We still spoke excitedly about the time that one of my great-grandmothers had traveled from Muskogee, Oklahoma to Los Angeles, California in 1906. 

When my mother heard that it was possible for me to spend three days in the city with my Princeton classmates, she insisted that I go. Never mind that it took her all summer to save the $90 cost of the trip. We were struggling already under the cost of my family’s assigned financial contributions to my education, with both my mother and stepfather having taken on extra work to meet the payments, in addition to money that we had all borrowed. I arrived at Princeton that late August bearing the full weight of my mother’s expectations and sacrifices.

After I was installed in my dormitory, I walked over to a phone booth at the Dinky train station late that afternoon to call my mother to let her know that I had arrived at Princeton, and that I would be heading to New York City the next day. My mood was somber; I had been badly unnerved by meeting some of my other early arriving classmates. They were so smart and self-assured, and they chatted easily with each other. I was mostly tongue-tied in these early meetings, and I stood on the periphery of every group interaction.  

I started to tell my mother all of this. In the middle of sharing these woes my mother said, “Well, you had better figure out what hotel I’m going to stay in.” I had no idea what she was talking about; was she coming to get me, I wondered?  I knew that she could not afford such a trip, and I felt even worse thinking that I had worried her so.  “I am coming to see you graduate in four years,” she said in a tone that defied me to contradict her. My mother spoke in that tone whenever I showed any sign of backing down from a challenge. Eventually, that became the tone of my own internal voice. “Before you know it, that time will be here. Get yourself ready.”

My mother was right. And now that time has come and long gone.  My mother always focused on finishing, not starting, and she reminded me to do the same.

I have heard the expression "eyes on the prize" for my entire life, and certainly my mother was neither the first nor the last person to adopt this philosophy. In the context of exercise psychology there has even been research showing that "attentional narrowing",  or focusing on objects in the distance, is a mechanism that helps distances to appear shorter, helps exercisers to move more quickly, and makes the task seem easier overall.

But my mother's reminder to me to focus on the finish was neither a lofty platitude nor a conclusion reached after scholarly endeavor. It was plain language drawn from a lifetime of overcoming obstacles large and small. That was perhaps one of my mother's greatest gifts to me.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Gender Collaboration and Choices

Happy New Year.

Yesterday in a class my daughter, who attends an all girls school, was assigned to play a game typically known as lifeboat. It involves assigning roles or identities to each person in the room. The students were then told that there were only 10 spaces in a lifeboat that remains after a shipwreck. There were 21 girls in the room. The teacher’s assignment was for the girls to decide who should get a seat in the lifeboat, and who should not get a seat, based upon the roles each person was assigned. Those not getting a seat were being consigned to death. The teacher expected that the deliberation would take all of the 50 minutes or so of class time. It took 5 minutes.

Me: How could you all possibly have decided who would live or die that quickly?

Daughter: First, we all read our roles. Then, one girl stood up and asked: “Who thinks that they should die based upon their social contribution or importance?” Eleven people raised their hands. Perfect; we then assigned the people with their hands down to the seats in the lifeboat and we were done.

Me: Wow. It's interesting that the question was who should die instead of who should live. Did you raise your hand?

Daughter: Yes. The role that I was assigned was of somebody who didn’t seem to have any responsibilities to take care of anybody else; some peoples’ roles were described as healthcare workers or caretakers of relatives. My role had no information about whether I had those kinds of responsibilities. So it made sense to volunteer to die.

Me: I am not sure whether or not I should be impressed with how quickly you all resolved this. Do you think that your classmates, or you, would be that self-sacrificing in real life?

Daughter: I don’t know; maybe. On the whole I think we’re pretty caring people. And these girls seem to collaborate way better than when I went to a school that included boys. But I am sure that part of the reason we finished so quickly is that we understood that it was a game. The idea that anyone would sit there and rationally deliberate on life and death when there’s a lifeboat waiting is pretty unlikely to start with. As long as we are behaving in a way that is unlikely, we may as well behave in a way that comes out with the right answers.

Me: There were right answers?

Daughter: Mom, these morality games always have right answers, no matter what they say about choices. 

My daughter's story left me in deep thought, consternation, and admiration. I think that whether or not they know it, my daughter and her classmates engaged in a powerful illustration of the ideas of public and private morality, efficiency, and ultimately on the nature of autonomy (is their behavior Kantian? I am still working it out.). Sure, these girls are in high school, so some cynicism is to be expected, and even encouraged. I still want them to play such games "in the blind," that is, without acknowledging real life constraints. But perhaps they are better off if they raise the blindfold.