How much status do you quo?

Consider this a thought experiment.

Awhile back, I wrote about change theory, and the notion that the only way to unfreeze a stable system is to heat it up in some way. This isn’t exactly a new or unique ideology; it’s one held by radicals of whatever stripe, and to a degree it’s been proven by history. Every fallen empire, every long-lasting regime that’s been overturned, every stagnant system that’s undergone a sudden and drastic change, has shown that change is always possible, no matter how ingrained or set-in-stone the pre-change status quo seemed to be.

But systems operate on many levels, and some of the most pervasive, and the most powerful, are nothing you can point to or measure. So. Look around yourself, at yourself. Consider the stable systems that surround you and inhabit you. Micro, macro, doesn’t matter — but it needs to be a system you’re dissatisfied with, and that you want to change. The educational system in your country. The way video games are made. Your relationship with your significant other. The revolution of the planets around the sun.

How ya gonna change it? What do you think it would take?

Seriously. Say you’re absolutely certain that this world would be a better place if we existed within a Dyson Sphere. What would you do, can you do, within your lifetime, to help bring that about?

I ask this because I spent part of my day talking to a college student who was absolutely convinced that there was no way he could learn calculus. He just didn’t get it. Math wasn’t “in his blood”. He wasn’t smart enough. And no amount of effort on his part would change his ability to do it.

I spent an hour telling him otherwise. I roped in another student — an older one whom I knew had overcome the same deadly, corrosive self-flagellation. I gave him simple, change-a-little-a-day strategies that I’d discussed with math professors who’ve been doing this stuff for decades. (“Just do one practice problem every evening. Just one.”) I shared personal stories, because holy crap do I know how brutal those little internal voices can be. But in the end, he couldn’t hear any of us; the little voices drowned us out. Change was impossible, because he believed it to be.

What are the little voices in your head? What are they stopping you from doing? How much more could you do with your life, if you only believed?

16 thoughts on “How much status do you quo?”

  1. Ha ha, millions of things; but one in particular. The little voice in my head is my, ah, internal editor, informing me that there’s no way such-and-such can possibly work, so I might as well ditch it. I know it’s just me defeating myself, and I struggle with it constantly – so many half-started stories that, on later reading, are actually pretty decent, are the unfortunate victims :|

  2. My voice tells me that I can’t write short stories. I can write novels, that’s proven, but something concise and well-crafted and under 10,000 words seems next to impossible. And I didn’t realize until just now that it’s ME who decided that…now you’ve got me thinking. Thanks for the post!

  3. Two sides.

    Side 1:
    I grew up being constantly told I could be ‘anything I wanted to be’. To some extent I internalized it well, but I think I was also aware that it wasn’t quite true. I probably couldn’t, at age 12, start a path to becoming an Olympic gymnast, or a world-class violinist. But still. I understood the /point/ of the encouragement. So I’ve always thought I could achieve anything I was interested enough to work hard on. And if I couldn’t, it was my own fault.

    Side 2:
    I also grew up reading all sorts of professional writing advice. And because I’m me, and I meticulously follow instructions, I also internalized that reading all very heavily. There’s a sort of vibe underlying a lot of writing (and other kinds of) advice: ‘you are not as good as you think you are’. And another: ‘You are not special’.

    I was thinking about this today for other reasons, thinking about how I am unable to accept the idea that I might have done something well. That I might have, say, written something good. ‘Decent’, maybe. ‘Okay’. But ‘good’ is down the road. Far down the road. I suspect I’m not allowed to reach it. And it bothers me intensely when, say, my editor doesn’t have many revision notes for me. Because obviously what I’ve written isn’t /good/. It must be so bad she can’t be bothered. Because I’m not allowed to be good. I’m not supposed to be good.

    Decent, maybe.


    But I have so much further to go. And I know I can reach it. But can I? Because most people aren’t very good writers, and I’m not special.

    So that’s my little voices, warring with each other almost constantly. And I kind of wish I could shut them both up, because they really, really get in the way of getting work done. And when they slip out, I think they kind of annoy my friends. But I can’t figure out what kind of heat to apply to change that system. Maybe one day, if I work hard enough…

  4. I’m kind of the opposite of the mentioned student. I’m generally so utterly convinced in my ability to do anything I set out to do, that I end up working on dozens of grand projects with not enough time to make any significant progress in any of them. (Note to self: build time machine.)

    Seriously though, building a space station and a weather control system are two things that can actually be found on my mental ‘to do’ list.

    Right now my faith in myself is convincing myself that I can find a way to organize my ambitions in a manner that will allow me to get some actual results.


  5. I relate to this far more than I would like to; I have spent years of my life crippled by fear of failure.

    I’m pleased to say that in past few weeks, I have done a number of things I was sure I would fail at, and most of them have worked out just fine. Including singing a solo, and getting something accepted for publication.

  6. “But in the end, he couldn’t hear any of us; the little voices drowned us out. Change was impossible, because he believed it to be.”

    Hoo boy, I remember when that happened to me in 7th grade (for what was basically Algebra!). Eventually that particular discipline clicked, but I spent my whole high school career thinking I was bad at math…until I graduated with the second highest math GPA in my (small) class.

    But that little voice was one of many, the more resilient of which responded most effectively to cognitive therapy.

  7. What Katchan said, pretty much. I’m an expert self-sabotager. Any time I get close to success, my self-sabotaging instincts kick in and I find any and every way to reassure myself that I will never ever succeed, I am a failure, and here are a thousand reasons why…

  8. Like Chrysoula, I was told by teachers and parents alike I could do or be anything I wanted. Being exceptionally good at rote learning and standardized tests reinforced the idea that I should be immediately good at whatever I set out to do. College and beyond disabused me of that idea. But I didn’t learn the right lessons from my multiple tentative attempts at various arts, crafts and studies. Initially being terrible was just too hard for the A student to bear. Over time this led to my thinking I’d never be good at anything. Eventually I lost heart, although I did do the odd NaNoWriMo or craft project, so the spark wasn’t entirely gone.

    It has taken forever for me to understand that effort and practice–not to mention a little bit of self-respect–are valuable and important and even straight-up useful. It may take a long time to be a good writer, for example, but the rewards will be greater than I ever got from cramming. As the example of your student shows, this has to be internalized. Though I got the seed of this second paragraph from my sister, so who knows, he may be able to turn himself around thanks to your encouragement.

  9. Ohhhh, writing my dissertation. It took years. Years during which I published a number of articles, so it wasn’t writer’s block, exactly. It was large project block. I said to my adviser, “I’m a short story writer, not a novelist!” “So write a series of short stories,” he replied. I could not do it. I knew that if I wrote the first chapter of the dissertation I could then move on to the next, but I could not make myself write that chapter, because I was so fixated on it being the first chapter in a long, long piece of work. Finally I had to start in the middle, and get one of the central chapters written. Not even the most important one, just one that I knew I could get down on paper. And then, and only then, I was able to go back and write the beginning and the end.

  10. As a Latin nerd, I have to correct your post’s title. It should be something like “Quot status accipis?”

    You raise important questions, though. Today after reading about another racial profiling abomination on an American airline, I have pretty much reached the conclusion that I need to boycott domestic air travel until the President apologizes and announces new regulations. Merely complaining about the problem is not nearly as effective as active protest.

  11. Pingback: I’ve been wandering the spec fic & geekery blogosphere September 2011, part I | On a Pale Star

  12. What a coincidence. I was that student a few semesters ago. Mindset and all. The first time I took Calculus and Physics was a whirling disaster of negativity, self-hate, depression, and ultimately, failure after failure.

    People really do not know how much control they have over their reality.

    Funny thing is that–in a wake of some serious divine intervention and perhaps utter craziness on my part–I decided to switch majors due to a change in interest (Meteorology to Computer Science). To my surprise, my first programming class was challenging but quite enjoyable. And I was good at it, too! It also helped that I finally knew what careers I wanted.

    Of course, I have to retake Calculus and Physics. In fact, I’m taking Calculus right now. But it’s so much easier to handle due to new-found determination and aspirations (and heavy studying, attending study sessions, asking questions, etc.) It’s also more bearable when I treat problems like brain-teaser puzzles.

    I don’t know if you’ll see that student again or want to offer him this tiny bit of advice I received from the teacher’s assistant (if this student is somewhat willing to pull himself out of self-flagellation), but here’s the two cents:

    Draw/analyze graphs of basic functions (x^2, 1/x, square-root of x). If you understand these basics of Calculus, more things should start making sense. Did for me. *shrug*

    The next dragon on my hit-list is “completing a novel”. I’m jealous of peers who can throw down 5k words in a sitting, haha.

  13. Your story really resonates with me.
    I work with youth, educating them on their legal rights in the workplace. One of the challenges I face is that youth don’t believe that these rights will ever exist for them. I agree that it can be really hard to get things like overtime pay and the process of accessing these rights may not always get us to the outcome we had hoped for or needed. However, even trying to get them to apply can be a huge challenge – I am constantly giving “we have fought for these rights and need to continue to fight for access to these rights, it was your work and you deserve to be paid.” pep talks while trying not to minimize the very real systemic barriers these youth face in accessing their rights.

    There is something about supporting someone else to be courageous that inspires me to be courageous in my own life. If I ask someone else to take on a challenge how can I do less.

  14. Same as Katchan, where do I start… and in many ways I’m where Beth N. was (imperfect beginner = failure). My bugbear is maths too (switched around school systems, missed parts of the curriculum, struggled badly in secondary school, did okay in exams thanks to an amazing external tutor – my brother blames my maths teachers, but hey, he’s my brother and he has a PhD in maths, he must have got that gene…)

    I have a list of things I can’t do, or on better days, really want to change. I’m trying to focus on one or two at a time, working on them even if I can’t resolve them, to shift the pressure around – and, hopefully, eventually destabilise the whole damn lot so I can get out from under them.

    Just a thought, but maybe if your student got help solving another problem (assuming this isn’t the one thing not going beautifully in his life) the resulting self-confidence/freed-up time and energy would help him tackle this one. And who knows, maybe he’ll come back for another round, when he’s ready. Fingers crossed!

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