Friday, July 21, 2017

Killing the Sensei

In the Criticism≠Teaching post I wrote about students who have been so conditioned to criticism that they criticize themselves when no one else does. They even criticize as a habit when they have done nothing wrong. I advised you to kill that voice in your head, and a few people asked the very reasonable question, “How?”
I can’t give a definitive answer. The voice still bubbles up for me, sometimes. Especially when I write.
But here are some strategies I’ve used:

First, distinguish between external and internal criticism. External criticism comes from other people. It may be wrong, misguided, actively designed to sabotage you… listen anyway. The more you want to find a reason to ignore or deny it, the more important it is to listen. If it is bad advice, you should be able to explicitly and dispassionately articulate why it is bad. But be careful. There’s a reason why watching for your own cognitive biases is a lifetime commitment.
This post is really about internal criticism. Do you know why an outside copyeditor is necessary to a professional writer? Because you can’t catch your own errors. If you knew how the word was spelled, you would have spelled it right the first time. Yes, there are clumsy finger errors, etc. Quibbles. The point is, you generally don’t make errors you recognize as errors. Almost always, the decision you made in the moment was the one you judged to be best in that moment, with the information you had and the time you had to think. If you think of something better, cool. That’s a learning experience.
One example. Just a synopsis, it would be really long to type. Climbing with a partner. His jumar (ascender) got jammed. Halfway up a slippery cliff. Rope wedged in the same crack as the jumar. Starting to get cold and wet. Only decision I could see was to unhook and free climb to get above him and work from there. Shitty climb on slippery rocks with no protection and a 40 foot fall.
It worked. Six months later I thought of an easier, safer solution, and I was kicking myself for not thinking in a few minutes of something that took a half year of unadrenalized pondering. Sigh.
Examine effects, not feelings. Most people’s problems are second or third order. Writing the essay is the primary problem. Worrying about the grade you might get is the secondary problem. Worrying about what people will say about your grade is tertiary. A big piece of ‘non-attachment’ is ignoring the secondary and tertiary concerns. Which is actually easy, because the primary problem/solution is usually physical and real, as opposed to both emotional and imaginary (and if it’s going to happen in the future it is imaginary in this moment.)
Be in the moment. Related to the last one, but I get very specific about this. I mean to be in your senses. Look, listen, smell, touch, taste. Don’t look and then start an internal dialogue describing what is right there. Look, don’t describe. Listen, don’t judge. Live, don’t interpret. I know that’s hard, but it is really powerful.
With a lot of attention/practice/mindfulness, you can do this with your internal states as well. This lets fear, anger, love, rage, annoyance, self-doubt—all that stuff— move through you without sticking. You can feel anger without becoming angry, and love without becoming stupid.
Think less. The less time you spend thinking in words, the easier the last two points become. Meditation, solitude, hunger and fighting are some of the paths I’ve found. Those are in order, from easiest to hardest, but also from least to most effective.
After Action Debrief. I’ve written about it here XXX link XXX. I f you’re going to have a critical voice in your head anyway, you might as well train it to be useful. In a nutshell, the AAD is just three questions: What happened? What went well? What could I/we do better next time?
That’s it, but you have to be strong enough to say, “That went about as well as it could have.” Let yourself have your wins.

Focusing pain. Sudden sharp pain tends to clarify your mind and order your priorities. Give yourself some pain if you are too much in your head. Snap your ear whenever you catch yourself in your critical head.

There are more strategies that work. Remember that your brain can and should be exercised and disciplined, just like your body.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Math and Passion

One of the things that has been bugging me lately. I have several close friends who are very passionate about certain issues... and they are wrong. Simply wrong. In some cases, the issue they are excited about doesn't exist. In a few, the words they use do not mean what they think they mean. In a very few cases, the words that they use originally meant the exact opposite of what they think they mean. Black has become white; dogs are cats; freedom is slavery.

Where do I get the right to say that they are wrong and I'm right? Fair question. This is the way my brain works: These are people I care about and generally, but not always, that means I admire their intelligence*. If they believe X and I believe Y, I assume I'm wrong. I then, depending on the question go to first sources (like the actual court case). Or go to the data (the Bureau of Justice Statistics, commonly). Or design an experiment (Who is more hateful, X or Y? Let's type "All x should die" and "All y should die" into google and see who is talking about killing most.)

I think that's pretty solid. Confidant that it is far more than the people I am disagreeing with have done.

But here's the question, and it's really two three questions.
1) Should I even bother to tell them I disagree? I know a few sense it, but as long as it stays submerged, the friendship continues fine. Understand, they are usually passionate about their position-- one even said it was important enough it was okay to be wrong. I can't even wrap my head around that, largely because I'm not passionate about the positions. I am relatively passionate about the path to those positions.
2) If I decide to have this disagreement, how? Facts don't actually sway people. For that matter, if we agreed on an experimental design and their position was mathematically proven flawed, my experience is that they would double down. And never forgive me.
Oooh. There's a third question.
3) Most of them are happy being passionate. It may come across in words as feeling outcast and beleaguered and under constant attack, but that belief makes them feel special and gives their life meaning. If someone is wholly invested in their enemies as a core of their identity, is pointing out that their enemies** are imaginary a dick move?

The challenge here is not winning the argument. My ego doesn't need the strokes of winning. The challenge is preserving the friendship and, possibly, helping a few friends avoid a path that will be hard to recover from.

*There are other virtues I admire besides intelligence. No one has to be perfect or superior in all categories to be my friend.
** And this is a really fine line because there are always a few real assholes. There are millions of good christians, but the 70 (or less) members of the Westboro Baptist Church make the news. There are tens of thousands of people working to make a better world, but the loudest, shrillest and stupidest two percent become the poster children for 'Social Justice Warriors.' As long as that worse 2 % or 70 individual or whatever exist, the enemies, just barely, miss being completely imaginary.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Criticism ≠ Teaching

The last post was laying the groundwork for this one. I thought starting with the universally acknowledged evils of micromanagement would make this post more palatable. Instead, Danny Martin gave a very capable defense of an unpopular and nearly indefensible position. Truly well done.

Jumping into this anyway, because it is important.

Criticism is a shitty teaching paradigm. Telling people they are doing things wrong, even telling them what they are doing wrong is literally worse than useless: Useless teaching would leave students unimproved. Criticism actually makes the students worse.

This will probably be a hard sell. When I came up through the (primarily Japanese) traditional martial arts, stern criticism was the standard teaching method. I've even had an instructor say, "Only perfect is good enough." And I was cautioned not to praise students because it would make them lazy. In the law enforcement world, right after I was promoted a senior sergeant told me, "Do you know why you'll never be a good sergeant? Because you don't understand that everyone is lazy and dishonest and our job is to catch them and punish them." Her crews were consistently poor performers because they spent more time watching their backs around her than doing the job.

But it's only a hard sell because we are all so used to it. When something is shitty, being the norm doesn't make it less shitty. We know criticism is poor teaching methodology.

Why is it bad? Let me count the ways.

  1. It's all brakes, no engine. Criticism stops behavior. If that behavior isn't replaced with a better alternative, improvement can only happen by luck.
  2. Criticism almost always works off the wrong metric. The instructor judges a strike (for instance) by whether it looked right. In striking, looks don't matter for shit, it's a kinesthetic skill.
  3. Criticism, especially of the wrong metric, is usually arbitrary. The coach may be looking at foot placement one minutes and hand position the next, may focus on a minor problem in stance and miss the big problem (something that would result in injury) in the hands.
  4. The instructor's reaction becomes the student's metric. Not whether the technique worked, not how much energy was delivered, but whether they got yelled at or not. Getting better, when you are measuring improvement by the wrong metric, is nearly impossible.
  5. When the student is anticipating the instructor's reactions, the student is thinking. Cognitive processing is too slow to use effectively in a hand-to-hand conflict and thinking about irrelevant things is worse. Excessive criticism makes your students slow.
  6. When the students are driven to avoid criticism, it pushes them from a gains maximization to a loss minimization strategy. In other words, they are no longer trying to win, they are trying not to lose, and that is usually a very weak, passive and reactionary strategy when the shit hits the fan.
  7. And to compound point six, the game they are trying not to lose isn't even the right game. They are worried about what sensei will say, not working to put the bad guy down.
  8. At the extreme end of this, when everything is criticized, the only strategy left to the students is to do as little as possible, to become as passive as possible. The condition is called, in psychology, "Learned Helplessness." Constant criticism creates passive people, which is another word for victims.
And we know the answer to this. From behavioral psychology or modern teaching theory or MBWA (Management by Walking Around.)

  1. Reward even small improvements. It doesn't have to be anything big, just a "Good job" or a nod. Just as people decrease behaviors that are criticized (punished) they increase behaviors that are rewarded. Rewarding small improvements creates a vector toward further improvement.
  2. Tell the students what to do. Avoid telling them what not to do. "Avoid telling them what not to do" is only seven words but because of the double negations 'avoid' and 'not' it is tons less clear than "Tell the students what to do." Positive statements are clearer than negative statements.
  3. Don't criticize bad techniques, replace them. Instead of telling someone her stance is wrong, show her where her feet should be and explain why.*
  4. Use the right metric. If you are teaching strikes properly, it will show on the heavy bag.
  5. Let nature judge. A lot of the wrong ways to do things hurt. That's why they are the wrong ways. Improper hand positioning hurts your wrist when you punch the heavy bag. A canvas bag will teach you when your punching angles are off. All the wrong ways to do a break fall hurt. If you use the right metrics, you almost never have to criticize because the world takes care of that for you.
One of the most annoying training scars I see are students that are so used to being constantly criticized that they criticize themselves. They handle a scenario brilliantly or snap into a counter-assault technique against multiple simultaneous attacks, and you can see it in their eyes, sometimes even their lips move: They are chewing themselves out for some tiny detail that didn't even effect the outcome. They are so used to being criticized that they have a tiny sensei in their heads telling them they did it wrong. No matter what 'it' is. No matter whether it was wrong or not.

That's bullshit, and if you have that little voice in your head, kill it.

*Quick note on explaining. I find it very useful to explain the underlying physiology or physics that make something work. If the principles are true, they apply everywhere and if the student understands the principles, he or she can adapt them under stress. That said, the principles work. They have visible effects. If you have to explain that something worked when it clearly didn't, you're wrong. You aren't explaining, you're attempting to brainwash.