My biggest challenge this week: keeping students chugging along on the AP train that included a test on Monday (a stupid idea on my part) and a new study guide on motivation and emotion. Come May they’ll be glad we pushed. This week though they weren’t so sure.
I did get to teach one of my favorite psychologists, Abraham Maslow, best known for his theory on a hierarchy of needs. When he was a boy, according to a fine biography by Edward Hoffman, his father would introduce him like this: “This is Abe, ain’t he the ugliest kid you ever seen?” His mother, not exactly the model parent herself, would lock the refrigerator with a thick chain to keep him out. She was literally a refrigerator mom, a name coined decades ago by psychologists to explain, incorrectly, the causes of autism and schizophrenia and other maladies suffered by children. Imagine leaving the doctor’s office with that diagnosis. On top of that, Maslow would get beat up by the neighborhood toughs in Brooklyn.
And yet. Maslow emerged as one of the main proponents of humanism, a branch of psychology that examines human potential. Who would have thunk?
His theory inspires all sorts of questions. How does it feel when we do our best? If it feels so good, why don’t we do our best more often? Part of the answer lies in our self-efficacy, or our belief in our competence. Not our actual competence! Our perception of our competence. Which raises further questions. Why do some maintain robust self-efficacy, even when faced with multiple rejections? Why does a writer like William Styron for instance put aside a safe career as an editor and spend nearly four years of his life working on a first novel without a single guarantee of success? According to his daughter Alexandra in Reading My Father, a wonderful biography, “Without faith, talent is a fugitive thing.” You can probably easily think of a dozen other examples. But where does that kind of faith come from? On the other hand, how do some delude themselves into believing they have talent in a particular field when they clearly don’t? Think American Idol auditions. It’s painful to watch. In some cases, it might be wiser not to chip away at those protective layers of sediment that hide reality. A little delusion is fine. Yeah, yeah, sure, you’re a fantastic singer. But if you are going to let others chip away, maybe don’t let it happen on national television.
Happy holidays. Peace and goodwill.