nancylebov (nancylebov) wrote,

When the instructions don't work

I thought I was almost done with the posts about self-hatred. I'm still thinking about how the self-nurturing impulses appear that lead to at least partial solutions-- it seems to be a difficult topic.

However, that recent post about carmelizing onions has a surprising amount of bearing on the topic, since there seems to be a great many people who followed instructions which gave an inaccurately short cooking time, didn't get carmelized onions, and concluded there was something wrong with them, and I mean their capacity to make things work (though I don't know at what level of generality), not the onions.

It took me a lot of years to realize that when my calligraphy wasn't working on the basic "get the ink to make a nice clean-edged stroke" level, it didn't mean that I was somehow defective and if I just kept trying, I'd get the result I wanted. The right thing to do is check pen point, ink, paper, temperature, and humidity. They're defective. They should try harder.

Well, actually, a calm and steady attitude works better than blaming my tools.

I'm still blaming my mother. I don't think she had the foggiest idea of what effect she was having, but her impatience and possibly her belief in my intelligence led to her giving me the impression that I should just be able to get things right without having any process of learning. I'm still working on that one.

It's not just onions and calligraphy, of course. Here's Eric Raymond's account of his epic quest to get a printer installed on his home network. The reason this is relevant is that Eric has enough self-assurance and knowledge that he could be sure the documentation was inadequate. He got email from readers who'd had similar difficulties, but assumed it was some personality defect of their own which made it hard for them to get their printers to work.

Of course, sometimes things aren't working because you've read the instructions carelessly or don't have some piece of background knowledge. I think the thing to watch out for is a belief that you know why something isn't working, and the reason is a personality defect.

More on the subject-- Errors vs. Bugs and the End of Stupidity:
I had never thought about wrong notes that way. I had thought that wrong notes came from being "bad at piano" or "not practicing hard enough," and if you practiced harder the clinkers would go away. But that's a myth.

In fact, wrong notes always have a cause. An immediate physical cause. Just before you play a wrong note, your fingers were in a position that made that wrong note inevitable. Fixing wrong notes isn't about "practicing harder" but about trying to unkink those systematically error-causing fingerings and hand motions. That's where the "schizophrenia" comes in: pretending you can move your fingers with your mind is a kind of mindfulness meditation that can make it easier to unlearn the calcified patterns of movement that cause mistakes.

And also...
Thing is, I've worked with learning disabled kids. There were kids who had trouble reading, kids who had trouble with math, kids with poor fine motor skills, ADD and autistic kids, you name it. And these were mostly pretty mild disabilities. These were the kids who, in decades past, might just have been C students, but whose anxious modern-day parents were sending them to special programs for the learning disabled.

But what we did with them was nothing especially mysterious or medical. We just focused, carefully and non-judgmentally, on improving their areas of weakness. The dyslexics got reading practice. The math-disabled got worksheets and blocks to count. Hyperactive kids were taught to ask themselves "How's my motor running today?" and be mindful of their own energy levels and behavior. The only difference between us and a "regular" school is that when someone was struggling, we tried to figure out why she was struggling and fix the underlying problem, instead of slapping her a bad report card and leaving it at that.

And I have to wonder: is that "special education" or is it just education?

And a little something about enjoying your life by shaking off irrelevant comparisons. Actually, I'm not sure it's got enough about getting rid of the comparisons, though it certainly does a great job of describing the problem.

Lately, I've been posting comments about the common and poisonous idea that only the extraordinary is good enough-- it's a way of denigrating almost everything and everyone, since the extraordinary is rare by definition.

This doesn't mean there's something wrong with ambition and/or admiration, but there is something wrong with letting them take over.

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