Main Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential

Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential

Mindshift reveals how we can overcome stereotypes and preconceived ideas about what is possible for us to learn and become.
 
At a time when we are constantly being asked to retrain and reinvent ourselves to adapt to new technologies and changing industries, this book shows us how we can uncover and develop talents we didn’t realize we had—no matter what our age or background. We’re often told to “follow our passions.” But in Mindshift, Dr. Barbara Oakley shows us how we can broaden our passions. Drawing on the latest neuroscientific insights, Dr. Oakley shepherds us past simplistic ideas of “aptitude” and “ability,” which provide only a snapshot of who we are now—with little consideration about how we can change.
     Even seemingly “bad” traits, such as a poor memory, come with hidden advantages—like increased creativity. Profiling people from around the world who have overcome learning limitations of all kinds, Dr. Oakley shows us how we can turn perceived weaknesses, such as impostor syndrome and advancing age, into strengths. People may feel like they’re at a disadvantage if they pursue a new field later in life; yet those who change careers can be fertile cross-pollinators: They bring valuable insights from one discipline to another. Dr. Oakley teaches us strategies for learning that are backed by neuroscience so that we can realize the joy and benefits of a learning lifestyle. Mindshift takes us deep inside the world of how people change and grow. Our biggest stumbling blocks can be our own preconceptions, but with the right mental insights, we can tap into hidden potential and create new opportunities.
Year: 2017
Publisher: TarcherPerigee
Language: english
Pages: 304
ISBN 10: 1101982853
ISBN 13: 9781101982853
File: EPUB, 1.56 MB
Download (epub, 1.56 MB)

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Advance Praise for





Mindshift


			“Significant change is possible. With those four hopeful words, Barbara Oakley opens the door to an entirely new way of seeing and reaching our potential. Don’t hesitate, it matters.”





—SETH GODIN,


			New York Times bestselling author of Linchpin

			“The message of Mindshift is utterly convincing—you can learn, change, and grow, often far more than you can imagine. Read, learn, and enjoy!”





—FRANCISCO J. AYALA,


			professor at the University of California, Irvine, and former president and chairman of the board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science

			“Mindshift is a fantastic book about how we learn and how we can use our talents (or learn new ones) in order to create a more satisfying career for ourselves. If you’re stuck in a rut and don’t know what to do next in life, this is a phenomenal resource to help you find your way. Dr. Oakley is a master of storytelling and of sharing ideas that can help inspire you to get out of your comfort zone and learn!”





—NELSON DELLIS,


			four-time USA Memory Champion

			“Brace yourself: This book will change your entire perception of what you thought was possible. Barbara Oakley will make you realize that you can change—and change quite profoundly—by making just a few tweaks to how you learn, and she will show how these methods are becoming increasingly available to everyone. Upgrade your mind, upgrade your life, with this book.”





—SCOTT BARRY KAUFMAN,


			scientific director of the Imagination Institute and coauthor of Wired to Create: Unravelling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind

			“Mindshift is essential reading for anyone seeking a reboot, reset, or reinvention. As Oakley trots around the globe and across disciplines, she explains the power of taking a ‘pi’ approach to your career, why worriers often get ahead, why negative traits can house hidden advantages, and why it’s smarter to broaden your passion than follow it. Jammed with inspiring stories and practical tips, Mindshift is a book that can change your life.”





—DANIEL H. PINK,


			New York Times bestselling author of Drive and A Whole New Mind

			“Following your passion is easy. Finding it is hard. This book is full of examples to help—people who have found their way around roadblocks or just plowed right through them.”





—ADAM GRANT,


			New York Times bestselling author of Originals and Give and Take

			“Oakley’s work is remarkable for its breadth and depth . . . fascinating.”





—JAMES TARANTO,


			The Wall Street Journal

			“Open this book to open your mind. In Mindshift—both a collection of inspiring stories and a field guide to creating change—Barbara Oakley shows how deep learning, deep practice, and deep transformation work and drive progress and possibilities.”





—GURU MADHAVAN,


			author of Applied Minds: How Engineers Think

			“In an age when more and more Americans find themselves changing jobs and careers, Mindshift provides indispensable advice and help.”





—GLENN HARLAN REYNOLDS,


			Beauchamp Brogan Distinguished Professor of Law, The University of Tennessee





			An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

			375 Hudson Street

			New York, New York 10014

			Copyright ©2017 by Barbara Oakley

			Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

			Tarcher and Perigee are registered trademarks, and the colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.

			Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

			Names: Oakley, Barbara A., 1955– author.

			Title: Mindshift: break through obstacles to learning and discover your

			hidden potential / Barbara Oakley.

			Description: New York: TarcherPerigee, 2017.

			Identifiers: LCCN 2016041190 (print) | LCCN 2017002428 (ebook) | ISBN 9781101982853 (paperback) | ISBN 9780399184086

			Subjects: LCSH: Self-actualization (Psychology) | Continuing education. |

			Adult education. | BISAC: EDUCATION / Adult & Continuing Education.

			Classification: LCC BF637.S4 O25 2017 (print) | LCC BF637.S4 (ebook) | DDC 158.1—dc23

			LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2016041190

			Cover design by Alex Merto




Version_1





Contents


			Advance Praise for Mindshift

			Title Page

			Copyright

			CHAPTER 1

			Transformed

			CHAPTER 2

			Learning Isn’t Just Studying

			CHAPTER 3

			Changing Cultures: The Data Revolution

			CHAPTER 4

			Your “Useless” Past Can Be an Advantage: Slipping Through Back Doors to a New Career

			CHAPTER 5

			Rewriting the Rules: Nontraditional Learning

			CHAPTER 6

			Singapore: A Future-Ready Nation

			CHAPTER 7

			Leveling the Educational Playing Field

			CHAPTER 8

			Avoiding Career Ruts and Dead Ends

			CHAPTER 9

			Derailed Dreams Lead to New Dreams

			CHAPTER 10

			Turning a Midlife Crisis into a Midlife Opportunity

			CHAPTER 11

			The Value of MOOCs and Online Learning

			CHAPTER 12

			MOOC-Making: A View from the Trenches

			CHAPTER 13

			Mindshift and More

			Acknowledgments

			Illustration and Photo Credits

			References

			Notes

			Index





Chapter 1


			Transformed





GRAHAM KEIR’S CAREER was charging forward, unstoppable as a bullet train. He wasn’t just following his passion—it was driving his life.

			 				 					 					Graham Keir’s career switch from the music he adored to the math and science he had loathed came as a shock even to him. Nowadays, he couldn’t be happier.





			Or so he thought.

			Even in grade school, Graham was obsessed with music. An upbeat child, he played violin from the time he was four, then nimbly expanded his repertoire by picking up the guitar at eight. In high school, the smoky world of jazz beckoned, and he began practicing this new freeform rhythm with nearly every breath he drew.

			Graham lived just outside Philadelphia, once the home of jazz greats like Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Ethel Waters, and Dizzy Gillespie. In the evenings, he would slip away from the spacious yard of his family’s old Victorian house right next to a train station and onto the clanking Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority R5 train. Disembarking onto the stained concrete in Philadelphia, he’d step into the magical world of jazz clubs and live jam sessions. It was in listening to jazz that he came alive.

			Eventually, Graham would train at two of the best conservatories, the Eastman School of Music and the Juilliard School, and he would be featured in DownBeat magazine as Best Soloist at the college level.

			This wasn’t to say that Graham was a success in every area of his life. Far from it. Pretty much anything that wasn’t music-related was given short shrift. Math was a frustration—he blundered through algebra and geometry and never touched calculus or statistics. His high school science record was lousy. After his final exam in chemistry class, he came home and burned all of his work in the fireplace, thrilled to have passed. The night before the SAT, while other college-bound students lay awake nervously reviewing proofs and Advanced Placement history, Graham, flaunting his academic mediocrity, went to a jazz concert.

			Graham knew that he wanted to be a musician and that was that. Even the mere thought of math and science made him uneasy.

			But then something happened. Not an accident, or a death in the family, or a sudden shift of fortune. It was something much less dramatic, which made the change all the more profound.





Mindshift


			For decades, I’ve been fascinated by people who change career paths—a feat most often seen among the well-to-do, who have ample social safety nets. Even with plenty of support, however, a major career change can be as fraught as jumping from one high-speed train to another. I’m also interested in people who decide, for whatever reason, to learn the unexpected or the difficult—the expert in Romance languages who overcomes his deficits in math; the floundering gamer who finds a way to soar academically in competitive Singapore; the quadriplegic who shifts into graduate-level computer science and becomes an online teaching assistant. In an age when the pace of change is ever increasing, I’ve become convinced that dramatic career changes and attitudes of lifelong learning—both inside and outside of university settings—are a vital creative force. Yet the power of that force often goes unnoticed by society.

			People who change careers or start learning something new later in life often feel like dilettantes—novices who never have a chance of catching up with their new peers. Much like wizards who think they’re Muggles, they often remain unaware of their power.

			Like Graham, I had a passionate contempt for math and science and did poorly in both from an early age. But unlike Graham, I didn’t show any early talents or special abilities. I was a goof-off. My father was in the military, so we moved a lot, often landing at the rural margins of suburbia. Acreage on the edges, at least back then, was cheap, which meant we could have animals—big animals. Each school day ended with me dumping my books, leaping bareback onto my horse, and hitting the trail. Why would I care about academic learning or a lifelong career when I could be galloping through the afternoon sunshine?

			Our household was monolithically English-speaking, and I floundered in seventh-grade Spanish class. My wise father listened to my whining and finally said: “Have you ever considered that the real problem isn’t the teacher—maybe it’s you?”

			After we moved again, my father, surprisingly, was proven wrong. The new high school language teacher inspired me, making me wonder what it would be like to think in different languages. I learned that I liked studying languages, so I began to study French and German. Motivating teachers matter. They not only make you feel good about the material—they make you feel good about yourself.

			My father urged me to earn a professional degree grounded in math and science. He wanted his children to be able to make their way in the world. But I remained convinced that math and science were outside my playbook. After all, I’d flunked my way through those subjects in elementary, middle, and high school. I instead wanted to study a language. At the time, there were no readily available college loans, so I bypassed college to enlist in the military where I could get paid to study a language. And I did learn a language—Russian.

			But against all odds—and despite my early plans—I’m now a professor of engineering, firmly planted in the world of math and science. And with Terrence Sejnowski, the Francis Crick Professor at the Salk Institute, I teach the most popular online course in the world—“Learning How to Learn”—for Coursera/UC San Diego. The course is a MOOC—a massive open online course—and there were a million students from more than two hundred countries in the first year alone. By the time you read this book, we’ll be accelerating well past the two million student mark. Educational outreach and impact like this is unprecedented—it is clear that people are hungry to learn, shift, and grow. My lifetime list of jobs and careers is eclectic, to say the least—waitress, cleaning lady, tutor, writer, wife, stay-at-home mother, U.S. Army officer, Russian translator on Soviet trawlers on the Bering Sea, and radio operator at the South Pole Station. I discovered, more or less by accident, that there was more power within me to learn and change than I had ever dreamed. What I learned in one career often enabled me to be creatively successful in the next phase of my life. And often, it was seemingly useless information from a previous career that became a powerful foundation for the next.


				A “mindshift” is a deep change in life that occurs thanks to learning. That’s what this book is about.



			Now, as I watch millions of learners all over the world awakening to their potential to learn and change, I realize it’s time for something new. We need a manifesto about the importance of mindshifts in producing vibrant and creative societies and in helping people to live to their full potential.

			A “mindshift” is a deep change in life that occurs thanks to learning. That’s what this book is about. We’ll see how people who change themselves through learning—and who bring prior seemingly obsolete or extraneous knowledge with them—have enabled our world to grow in fantastically creative and uplifting ways.

			And we’ll see how we all can be inspired by their examples—and by what we now know from science on learning and change—to learn and grow and achieve to our fullest potential.





Discovering Your Hidden Potential


			People have unexpected twists in their career paths all the time. You sit down at your desk one morning, lean in to the day’s work—and see your boss, flanked by security guards, ready to escort you from the building. Out of the blue, you’ve been let go, after two decades of hard-earned experience and mastery of the company’s systems—systems that, like you, are being dumped.

			Or . . . maybe you work for a jerk, and suddenly a joyous opportunity arises to escape the dungeon—if, that is, you’re willing to learn something new and challenging.

			Maybe you don’t feel like you have a choice. Perhaps you are the obedient child who always followed your parents’ admonitions, so you feel trapped in the luxury of your high-paying salary, nose pressed up against a window of longing for the career not chosen.

			It might be that you eked your way through to a professional career in a place where good jobs were hard to come by. You wouldn’t dream of taking a risk to shift careers, especially now that you’ve got children who will pay the price if you screw up.

			Or . . . maybe your mother died the night before a critical exam, and you were one of the myriad students who failed the program in a system that seems purposefully designed to eliminate everyone possible. So you’re stuck in a low-paying job.

			Or . . . it could be that you graduated with your shiny new degree that you pursued like a zealot because you were determined to follow your passion. (That’s what your friends always told you to do, after all.) And then, suddenly, you realize that your parents were right—the pay’s lousy, the job’s even worse, and to top it off, you have a career-change barrier in the form of a boatload of student debt to pay off.

			Or . . . maybe you love your work, but you just feel there’s something more.

			Now what?

			Different societal and personal situations place varying obstacles—some insurmountable—on learning new skillsets and on changing careers. But the good news is that worldwide, we’re moving into a new era, in which training and perspectives that were once available only to the fortunate few are becoming available to many—with smaller personal and financial costs than ever before. This is not to say that a mindshift is easy. It’s usually not. But the barriers have been lowered—in many cases and for many populations.

			This availability of new ways of learning—new tools for a mindshift—is so overwhelming that the reaction has often been a collective No, no, no, the older systems of career development and learning are fine. They’re the only ones that matter! This new stuff is a flash in the pan. But slowly—often unnoticed—the mindshift revolution grows. Such mindshifts don’t just involve learning new skills or changing careers, but also changing attitudes, personal lives, and personal relationships. A mindshift can be a side activity, or a full-time occupation, or anything in between.

			There’s good evidence that our abilities to be successful in any given area aren’t at all fixed. Stanford researcher Carol Dweck’s “growth mind-set” centers around the idea that a positive attitude about our ability to change can help produce that change.1 As adults, though, it’s hard to know how this attitude plays out in real life. What kinds of changes can people really make in their interests, skillsets, and careers? What are the latest practical suggestions from research? And what role do new means of learning play in these processes?

			In Mindshift, we’ll follow people from all over the world who have made unusual career changes and overcome enormous learning challenges. There are profound insights from these “second chance” learners that are valuable no matter what career you might be shifting to or from or what you might be interested in learning. We’ll watch people make difficult shifts from the humanities to the sciences or from high tech to the fine arts. We’ll see how overcoming depression shares attributes with starting a new business; how even the world’s most brilliant scientists can be forced to hit career reset buttons; and how being not so smart can turn out to be an asset when you are learning tough topics.

			We’ll examine people’s motivation and learn the tricks they use to keep themselves on track during the often disconcerting process of major change. We’ll hang out with fascinating adult learners and see how, especially in this digital age, you actually can teach an old dog new tricks. (Hint: video games can help.) We’ll see what science has to say about the fresh perspectives that career changers and adult learners provide, and we’ll learn practical ideas from neuroscience that can allow us to better understand how we ourselves can continue to grow mentally even well after we’ve reached maturity. We’ll also meet a new group of learners—“super-MOOCers”—who use online learning to shape their lives in inspiring ways.

			Mindshift is so important that countries are even devising systems to foster its growth. So we’ll travel to Singapore, one of the most innovative of those countries, to learn of new strategies that can enhance our careers. Insights from that tiny Asian island will allow us to see innovative new ways around the passion versus practicality conundrum that often bedevils us.

			Through this book, we’ll also travel around the world to share a fun insider’s perspective on learning, as seen from my perch at the top of the world’s most popular course—a course devoted to learning. What does it look like to peer into a camera lens with millions of learners on the other side? You’ll find plenty of practical advice about how to select the best ways to change and grow through learning, both online and in person.

			But it isn’t all just high tech; simple concepts like mental reframing and even taking advantage of some aspects of a “bad” attitude can do a lot to get us past the hurdles that life throws our way. Unconventional learners can give us unusual ideas to get around seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

			This book tends to emphasize changes from artistic to mathematical or technological skillsets, rather than the other way around. This is because people often don’t think an “artistic to analytic” change is possible. And, whether we like it or not, there are more societal tugs at present toward technology. But whatever you are interested in, you will find plenty of inspiration here—from the bus driver who overcomes depression, to the electrical engineer who converts to woodworking, to the publicly tongue-tied, mathematically gifted young woman who finds within herself a talent for public speaking.

			Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential—the subtitle of this book—paints a broad canvas. But that canvas is your canvas. As you’ll see, the scope of your ability to learn and change is far broader than you might ever have imagined.

			For now, though, let’s return to Graham’s story.





Graham’s Shift


			It was a simple thing, really, that kicked off Graham’s career shift. One day, he was invited to play his guitar at a local pediatric cancer center. He hoped that his beloved music might boost the children’s spirits. The brief visit turned into another visit, and then another. He found himself drawn to the courageous little patients, some of whose stories broke his heart. He was so moved by them that he eventually started a concert series for cancer patients.

			As this unfolded, he began to discover something surprising. Playing music all day, every day, wasn’t fulfilling him as a person. Somehow, the thought of caring personally for patients when they were at their most vulnerable began to feel more meaningful to him than performing for people he might never talk to or see again.

			Suddenly, something clicked. Something impossibly scary: Graham decided that he would become a doctor.

			He felt like a fool—there was nothing in his past to indicate that he could be successful in math and science. What made him think he could do this now?

			Like many who struggle to reinvent themselves, he decided to start small in acquiring the mental tools he’d need. He signed up for a calculus class.

			But he didn’t just jump right into it. Several months before class began, he bought a precalculus e-book on his iPhone so he could run through the concepts while traveling to performances or commuting to school. At first, he found it disheartening. There were so many basic math concepts he had forgotten or poorly understood to begin with—you mean there are rules for exponents? He couldn’t help but think, Oh my God, what am I doing? I am at the top of my field in music, and I am about to start at rock bottom in medicine.

			However, he was well aware that one of his strengths—one he had built through years of practice in music—was the simple skill of persisting at difficult tasks. If he could practice for all of those hours to get into Juilliard, well, there was no reason he couldn’t learn this new material. It would just take hard work and focus.

			Knowledge of his strengths didn’t remove his doubts—and didn’t change the fact that his studies were often really, really difficult. Most of the people taking the calculus course were Columbia premed and engineering students who had taken it in high school and just wanted to boost their science GPA by retaking it. Graham felt like he was in a go-kart competing against seasoned race car drivers. When he mentioned to the professor that he was a musician, the professor couldn’t figure out why Graham would want to take his class. But in the end, he fought his way to an A-minus. Not bad for a math-and-science loather’s first college calc class!

			A bit of Graham’s doubt began to recede. But his own words convey the struggle he continually faced:

			I remember losing sleep before almost every exam because I thought, “If I don’t get an A, I won’t get into medical school. I just threw away my music career, and if this doesn’t work, what will I have?”

			And there were reminders everywhere of what I had given up. The night of the Super Bowl, I was studying for a double whammy of biochem and organic chemistry tests on the following Monday. I wasn’t watching the Super Bowl, but I knew in the back of my mind that one of my friends was playing saxophone with Beyoncé during the halftime show. I had to stop looking at Facebook, because all I would see was fun things my friends were doing, be it tours or high-profile performances. I had made my decision and I needed to stand by it.

			One of the hardest parts was well-meaning friends and family who tried to discourage me. They knew how successful I had been in music and couldn’t see why I was doing what I was doing. Others suggested different careers that might not be as difficult. These friends planted seeds of doubt in my head that made it very hard to make it through the most difficult moments. I had to reaffirm why I was making the change by remembering specific moments of clarity that had steered me in this direction. At the same time, I didn’t tell most of my musician friends what I was doing. I wanted to leave things ambiguous because it was important to maintain my connections in the jazz scene and be hired for performances. I was essentially pretending to be two different people.

			At first, I limited my performing because I thought I needed to really buckle down and get to work. However, my second semester, I started playing a lot more. I got the exact same GPA as the semester before, but I was enjoying life so much more because I had a release from the daily routine. Performing was my socializing, income, and release all wrapped up into one activity.

			The science classes were hard. When I first started, I had to get over the nausea that I naturally felt from math and science. Once I got into it, the material was fun and interesting. I actually started to enjoy the process of drawing organic chemistry figures and puzzling over math problems. I would smile or chuckle to myself when I saw a particularly clever solution in a textbook.

			Still, I was not accustomed to the level of detail required in science classes. I would convince myself that the tests were unfair or that I really understood something but didn’t show it on the test. I quickly realized, though, that someone in the class was surely getting those questions right that I wasn’t. They must have certainly had a better understanding than I did. It wasn’t the teacher’s fault, but my fault.

			I found that it wasn’t enough to understand something once. I had to practice, just like I had on the guitar. I met with professors and asked questions in class. In high school, I never went for extra help because I was in denial that I was struggling with the material. I thought only the “slow” kids went for extra help. I realized, though, that I had to put my pride aside. The goal was to do well on the test, not look like a genius all the time.

			I was fortunate enough to have read Moonwalking with Einstein just before taking these classes. I used several memory techniques such as loci, memory palace, to commit information to memory. I know that some people have naturally good memories for numbers and abstract ideas, but I wasn’t one of them. It was important to figure out my limitations early on. Once I knew what I was working with, I could do what I needed to overcome them.

			Graham decided to take the rest of the science requirements in a year and a summer. The first class was his old nemesis—chemistry. “Believe it or not,” he noted, “I came out with an A. I had gotten a C+ in the easier high school version, but now that I had committed myself to learning the material, I had become a completely different student.”

			As he progressed, he found himself with A’s in organic chemistry, biochemistry, and other tough classes that he would never have seen himself taking ten years before. Graham took the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) one week after his last final. He is now in his third year of medical school at Georgetown University. I met him online after he took “Learning How to Learn” to further improve his medical school studies.

			Graham’s background in music has proven to be a boon to his medical career in both large and small ways. For example, in auscultation—diagnosing through listening to heart sounds—he found that his trained ear, which is sensitive to very fine differences in timbre and timing, allows him to pick up on those differences much faster than other people.

			However, it is the general benefits of his background in music that have had the most impact. It is essential, of course, for physicians to have a solid understanding of the science and physiology of medicine. But Graham has found that it is perhaps equally important to be able to listen to patients and be empathetic. Playing in ensembles with other musicians, Graham learned to listen to the musicians around him and not just immediately interject his own musical thoughts. In a similar way, he found that giving patients space to talk and not immediately talking over them can lead to a better diagnosis as well as a better patient-physician relationship.

			More than that, Graham has discovered that the characteristics needed to perform as a musician are surprisingly similar to those needed to “perform” in a patient encounter or procedure. He is coming to appreciate how his years of practice with musical improvisation spill over into his new life in medicine. He finds himself coping well with unexpected situations or emergencies in which he must use his growing expertise in new ways. The difficult switch from music to medicine has also allowed him to grow more comfortable with being pushed out of his comfort zone.

			Physicians often tell medical students that in medical school, so much must be memorized that it can inadvertently set an expectation that medicine will be a cut-and-dried science. However, in practice, medicine is much more mutable and often relies on intuition and the “art” of healing. Graham already has the sense that his medical career will feel much more natural to him than to many medical students because of the time he has spent performing music.

			But there is more. Graham wrote me:

			In my first year of medical school, I still faced struggles studying. One of the reasons I started taking your course on Coursera was because I knew something about my studying was inefficient. I was spending so many more hours than most people but not necessarily learning the material any better. Your course helped me realize that it is important to make studying an active process. I would spend hours rereading slides, but half the time I would just space out and lose focus. By using the Pomodoro technique and frequently testing myself, I am already seeing improvements.

			So there you have it. It’s possible to make enormous changes in your life—your “preprogrammed” passions or what you think you’re good at don’t have to dictate who you are or what you ultimately do. Along those lines, it’s worth noting that people don’t just want to change to go into medicine. Doctors have also slipped out of medicine into completely different fields. For example, despite his Harvard MD, Michael Crichton, the bestselling author of Jurassic Park and the television show ER, never bothered to obtain a license to practice medicine. And Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the Republic of China, gave up his medical studies in Hawaii to become involved in the revolution.


				The Pomodoro Technique





				 The Pomodoro technique is a deceptively simple, extremely powerful focusing technique developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s. Pomodoro is Italian for “tomato,” and the timers Cirillo recommended were often shaped like tomatoes. To do the Pomodoro, all you need to do is turn off all potentially distracting beeps or buzzers from your cell phone or computer, set a timer for twenty-five minutes, and then focus as hard as you can on what you’re working on for those twenty-five minutes. When you’re done (and this is equally important), allow your brain to relax for a few minutes—do a bit of web surfing, listen to a favorite song, walk about, chat with friends—anything to comfortably allow yourself to be distracted.

				This technique is valuable in dealing with procrastination and keeping on track—even as it also has built-in periods of relaxation that are equally critical for learning.



			You might say, “Hey, wait a minute. Graham was obviously a pretty bright guy—he just never put his effort into math and science before.”

			But how many of us are like that, with whatever subjects, skills, or areas of special expertise we’ve never seriously tried to tackle?

			How many of us, for whatever reason, go off track in our lives? And how many of us eventually find ways to turn things around through learning new skills and approaches? How many others seem to be on track career-wise, but have an itch for something new and sometimes scarily different?





Key Mindshift

			The Value of the Beginner’s Mind

			Learning something new sometimes means stepping back to novice level. But it can be a thrilling adventure!

			Many ordinary and extraordinary people have made fantastic changes in their lives by keeping themselves open to learning. You’ll see how previous expertise in very different subject areas doesn’t need to be a shackle to a past you are trying to escape. Instead, it can serve as a launching pad for creative career pathways in your present and future. And, as we’ll discover in the chapters to come, science has much to say about why we choose the fields we do, how we can slip the bonds of biology, and how we can continue to learn effectively, even as we age.

			Welcome aboard the new world of mindshift.


				 Now You Try!

				Broaden Your Passion

				Have you unnecessarily limited yourself by heeding common advice to follow your passion? Have you always done what you’re naturally good at? Or have you challenged yourself with something that was really hard for you? Ask yourself: What could you do or be if you decided to instead broaden your passion and tried to accomplish something that demanded the most from you? What skills and knowledge could you bring with you from your past that could serve you as you really challenge yourself?

				Surprisingly often, capturing your thoughts and putting them onto paper can help you discover what you really think and help you take more effective action. Grab a piece of paper, or better yet, a notebook you can use for this book, jot a header of “Broaden your passion,” and then describe your answers to the above questions—whether your answers result in a couple of sentences or several pages.

				We’ll have plenty of brief active exercises like this throughout this book—as you’ll discover, these exercises form outstanding ways to help you synthesize your thinking and learn at a very deep level. Reviewing your notebook or papers when you reach the end of this book will give you invaluable overview perspectives about yourself, your learning lifestyle, and your life’s goals.





Chapter 2


			Learning Isn’t Just Studying





IT ALL BEGAN to change when Claudia couldn’t pee.

			Life before that pee-based turning point hadn’t been pleasant. In fact, it had been really tough. There she was, in her sixties, and she could rarely remember ever feeling good for more than a few weeks at a time.

			The problem was depression. All of her life, she’d suffered from a major depressive disorder. Despite that, she prided herself on acting “normally” in front of others. This meant she would sometimes think, I’ve got to get up . . . got to get up off this couch. But this wasn’t enough. It took saying it out loud—“I can move my legs”—to do the job.

			But fighting that voice was another: What does it matter? It’s just not worth it.

			Her depression wasn’t triggered by anything in particular. And although the signs were there early on, she was first diagnosed when she went off to college at age eighteen. This didn’t come as a surprise. Depression spread its tentacles through her family—her father had also been severely depressed, as were some of her siblings.

			It was in the genes. What could she do?

			Claudia could usually get herself to her part-time job—she worked as a rush-hour bus driver for Metro King County in Seattle. She could also cook dinner and care for her family, whom she loved very much. From time to time, her doctors would prescribe a new drug. The drug might work for a while, but the result was always the same. Within a matter of months—a year at most—its effects would peter out and leave her as before: vacant.

			 				 					 					Claudia has lived in Seattle for more than fifty years—she considers herself a native of the lush, green “Emerald City.”





			She felt the urge to get out of the rat race—but then remembered that she was such a loser, she wasn’t even in the rat race. What she was in was a kind of pervasive, ever-present pain. Still, she knew she couldn’t kill herself. Her family meant too much to her. She would not—could not—hurt them. As her therapist, Paul, said, it would be “devastating” to them. In any case, raised with ironic guilt in the Catholic tradition, she realized that her death would just make a mess that other people would have to clean up.

			On the job, Claudia drove either a forty-foot or a sixty-five-foot accordion-in-the-middle bus. Bus driving worked well for her because it paid decently and she could do it even when depressed. Her job was protected by the U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993; substitute drivers were built into the system. She mostly drove either morning or evening commuters. These working people formed a very different clientele from those who rode midday or late at night. The reading, dozing, functional, working-day crowds did not trigger her depression, and in any case, she avoided routes that were known for trouble and troubled people.

			Still, she was living at the edge. Most people don’t realize how hard it is to be a bus driver in a major metropolitan area. Buses are big, wide, and heavy. Other drivers—not to mention cyclists and pedestrians—often don’t understand that it takes a lot longer for a bus to stop than a car, so they dart blithely into harm’s way. There are bus-related fatalities every year in every major city. The bus drivers are almost always held responsible and usually lose their job after a serious accident.

			On the morning of her accident, Claudia turned off the alarm, put on her uniform, had a quick breakfast with yesterday’s coffee, and headed into the sunshine.

			She signed in at work, was approved for duty, got on her assigned bus, and did a safety inspection. Drivers drove the same route, but a different bus every day. This morning, Claudia was to drive Route 308 in a forty-footer.

			Once on the route, it was easy to move into the cadence of the job. Stop; open the door; wait for riders to clamber on; collect fares. . . . The bus shudders forward. Scan for passengers while watching the road. Brake, pull into a zone. Repeat.

			Soon the bus was filled to capacity, with passengers standing in the aisle. Claudia steered with practiced hands onto the express lanes of the I-5 freeway. Traffic was heavy—her bus kept pace with the flow.

			She was approaching the Stewart Street exit to downtown Seattle when it happened—so fast that Claudia could barely understand the sequence afterward.

			Abruptly, the car in front of Claudia’s bus skidded to a stop. The driver pulled toward the edge of the freeway shoulder—a narrow strip of pavement. Claudia could have swerved and barely avoided the car—except for one thing.

			For no reason that Claudia was ever able to discover, the driver of the stopped vehicle opened his car door directly into Claudia’s lane of traffic and began stepping out. Right in front of the bus.

			Claudia glanced in her driver’s-side mirror, signaled, veered left, and braked hard. It was like trying to turn and stop a twenty-ton whale balanced on a shopping cart. She found herself in the next lane—in which another car had just stopped.

			She plowed into that car.

			Claudia’s swift reaction in slowing the momentum of her bus meant that, remarkably, none of her passengers were hurt. But after climbing down from the bus to check the car she’d hit, she realized there would be fallout to come.

			Hundreds of drivers and passengers were seething in stopped cars behind Claudia’s bus. After the police came, Claudia mechanically went through the procedures required after an accident. Bus drivers are supposed to drive defensively, ready to face any contingency—even bizarre contingencies like people jamming on their brakes and getting out of their car in the middle of traffic—so she was ticketed for “unsafe following distance.”

			It felt like a gut punch.

			Claudia had been managing her depression, but she realized that this incident would knock her off the narrow ledge she’d fashioned for herself, dropping her to even darker depths. The thought was excruciating.

			Meanwhile, she was hauled off by one of the bus company supervisors for drug testing. Despite the fact that she was “clean” (so clean she could have squeaked), Claudia was so stressed by the accident that she simply couldn’t urinate into the little plastic cup that the lab tech from the drug-testing company had put into her hand.

			After the third try, the lab tech noted in the record that Claudia “refused to produce a urine sample.” Terrified, she begged for another chance. The lab tech grudgingly agreed and Claudia crept back into the stall. Desperate, she urged her body to let go.

			This is it, she realized. I am through with bus driving. I will deal with the ticket in traffic court. It’s over.

			With those two realizations, Claudia’s urine came, filling the plastic cup.

			So Claudia avoided the legal imbroglio of a failed drug test. She followed through on her vow and quit her job. But there was a flip side to quitting her job: It meant she didn’t have a job.

			As predictable as the tides, severe depression rolled in. Claudia was experienced—she knew herself, and she knew exactly what lay in the months to come. The thought of so much pain, without even a job to distract her, was agonizing.

			This was it. Claudia’s Waterloo.

			It was at this point she realized that if she wanted to escape the pain, she was going to have to change. Not simply vary her medicines or jobs or the little world she lived in. She was going to have to transform her brain, her body, her habits, and her beliefs.

			Claudia was desperate, and she meant business. She told herself that she had no choice but to take her life into her own hands, since medicine and therapy weren’t making life bearable. She was going to experiment with whatever she could—self-help books, teachers, coaches, cognitive neuroscience, and sheer common sense. She realized she was being melodramatic, but she was going to learn to get healthy unless it killed her—in one last big desperate effort at life. She was going to go through a process of discovery, experimenting on herself and keeping at it until she could see faint glimmers of light where the end of the tunnel was supposed to be.





Perky Is as Perky Does


			About a month before she quit her job, Claudia was on a therapist-induced excursion to a coffee shop when she ran into an old friend who was sharing a table with another woman. The coffee shop was busy so she asked if she could join, and they readily agreed. Her tablemates had just attended their daily Jazzercise class nearby and were on an exercise high. To Claudia, exercise sounded about as fun as hammering a nail into her foot, but the women’s demeanor planted a seed.

			The day after the accident, instead of going to work, Claudia went to an exercise class. For the Catholic perpetrator of a bus accident, it seemed like an appropriate guilt-induced punishment.

			To take part in that class, Claudia had to pay $38 for the whole month. She vowed to get her money’s worth—by attending classes on every single day that she would have been working. So, as her first session unfolded, she stood in the back of the room, bopping and dipping limply along, watching as the others danced with perspiration-packed enthusiasm. Afterward, the perky instructor asked Claudia how she liked it. “I don’t really move that fast,” Claudia explained—to which the instructor replied, “Just try to keep up with the class,” and bounced away.

			But the instructor was watching.

			At the next class, they shimmied. Claudia didn’t know how to shimmy—after all, Catholic girls do not shimmy.

			Or . . . did they?

			Claudia had stepped into a new world. The class not only shimmied—they thrust out their chests and swiveled their hips while a loud, lusty male sang “Give it to me, baby.” They pumped their fists in the air to the beat of “Ain’t gonna let nobody get me down,” and sashayed to “It’s a bright, bright sunshiny day.”

			It wasn’t long before Claudia decided she liked it.





Exercise: A Powerful (But Not All-Powerful) Tool


			Claudia had tried exercise before to ward off depression, and it hadn’t worked. What made her think it would work before—and why should this time be any different?

			Neuroscientists used to think that you were born with all the neurons you’d ever have, and then, as you aged, neurons gradually died off. Now, of course, we realize that this is just plain wrong. New neurons are born every day, particularly in the brain’s hippocampus, a vital area for learning and memory.

			Kinesiology researcher Charles Hillman notes, “We’ve found exercise has broad benefits on cognition, particularly executive functioning, including improvements in attention, working memory and the ability to multitask.”1

			“Exercise is stronger than any medicine I could ever prescribe,” Claudia’s psychiatrist had told her. Indeed, exercise seems to serve as an all-purpose restart button for the brain. It does this in part by stimulating production of a protein, BDNF, which nurtures the growth of both preexisting and newly born brain cells. This effect is so powerful that it can reverse the decline of brain function in the elderly. Neuroscientist Carl Cotman, who did the initial breakthrough work in the area at the University of California, Irvine, has likened BDNF to a brain fertilizer that “protects neurons from injury and facilitates learning and synaptic plasticity.”2 Exercise also spurs the production of neurotransmitters—chemical messengers that transmit signals from one cell to another and one part of the brain to another. (Remember when Claudia found it so hard to get herself to move from the couch?) The simple improvement in blood flow that results from exercise may also have an effect on cognitive abilities as well as physical functioning.

			As humans age, we naturally lose synapses—connecting points between neurons. It’s a bit like corroding pipes that spring leaks and eventually can’t bring water to where it’s needed. BDNF seems to slow and reverse that “corrosive” effect. More than that, exercise seems to improve our ability to form long-term memories, although we’re not sure precisely how it takes place. This, as it turns out, is a key aspect of the ability to learn. Thus, for aging brains in particular, exercise can perform the magic of a fairy godmother waving her wand.3

			But it’s important to balance the reporting here. If exercise were the only thing you needed to learn better and think more optimistically, then Olympic-level athletes should all be cheerful geniuses. Also, many people who can’t exercise as a consequence of physical ailments can still learn and reason quite nicely. (Stephen Hawking seems to have done pretty well for himself.) For older individuals, walking briskly for 75 minutes a week seems to have the same positive influence on cognition as walking for 225 minutes a week.4 (Actual fitness improves more with higher levels of exercise.) So what are we to make of this?

			It seems that exercise can kick-start a cascade of neurotransmitters, along with a host of other neural changes that can shift your mind when you’re trying to learn something new or think in different ways. What exercise does is set the scene to potentiate other changes in how your mind works. You can learn more effectively, in other words, if you’ve got an exercise program going on. This means, if you’re serious about making a mental shift in your life, it can be invaluable to incorporate exercise into the picture.

			Exercise was part of what Claudia knew she needed to do to get her out of her depressed mind-set. But she knew she needed more.





Key Mindshift

			Exercise

			Exercise is a powerful enhancement for any mental shift you want to make in your life. Commitment followed through with exercise has great benefits for learning and mood.





An Active Role in Changing Her Brain


			 				 					 					Claudia Meadows seemed fated for a life in the shade of depression. But her active role in reshaping her thinking changed her destiny.





			Claudia had been through the drill of depressive episodes so many times. This time, she realized that if she really wanted to get herself out of the pattern, she would have to dig much more deeply than she’d ever dug before. What she’d read of how her brain worked, what she’d heard from her therapists—bits and pieces of it all resonated. She needed a mindshift to truly rewire her brain. Paradoxically, she had to be herself—but also to change in a fundamental way. To do that, she needed to make her mindshift all-important in her life.

			A dear friend of Claudia’s once told her, “I’ve had lots of things happen that I could have gotten depressed about. I just chose to not get depressed about them. End of story.” Yeah, right, was Claudia’s reaction. I wish.

			The notion that medicine alone would do the trick in freeing us from depression is prevalent in both doctors and the depressed—giving a pill, after all, is just so darned easy. Claudia had fallen into that trap herself—she’d once been featured in an article about the positive effects of medication on depression after pills had buoyed her for nearly a year. But soon after the article appeared, her mind shifted itself back to its well-rooted, pessimist take on life.

			So Claudia’s approach toward levering herself out of her bleak pit became multifaceted and determined. Just like making muscular change, making neural change would demand hard work. And lots of it.

			She did some experiments, making herself go out and do things that she knew other people did for fun. You’re not so different, she told herself. Her mind would try to do its old number on her, forecasting a glum outcome for anything she’d planned. However, she knew she couldn’t always trust her mind—sometimes it told her to do stupid things. She began keeping records of her experimentation in a way that allowed for self-monitoring. Before doing something that was supposed to be fun, she would ask herself, On a scale of 1 to 10, how much fun do I think it will be? Afterward, she would rate herself again—and she was often surprised to see how frequently the outcome exceeded her initial expectations. In time, she began to figure out what worked for her—and she repeated what worked, whether she felt like it or not.


				Claudia’s Insights: Fun as a Spiritual Path



			 				Life is full of paradoxes. For example, be authentically yourself, but change. And you don’t know as much as you think you do. Read self-help books. You need all the help you can get.

				 					Don’t always trust your mind. Sometimes it tells you to do stupid things. Find trusted advisers and run any drastic decisions by them.

					Consciously choose and acquire healthy habits. Flossing your teeth doesn’t take willpower if it is a habit.

					It is much easier to imitate than initiate action. So seek advice and follow directions. Adapt it to your own circumstances. Until you can lead, follow the person in front of you. Do what they do.

					Pack your bag, purse, or gym bag the night before. You’re likely to feel better about exercise the evening before than you do the morning of.

					Spend as much time outside in nature as possible. The light will do you good, and you will encounter beautiful things like plants that breathe and rocks that are proud to be rocks.

					Bring as much light to where you live as possible. Open the curtains. Use mirrors opposite windows. Use reflectors and colored glass. Be like a crow. Collect shiny objects.

					Keep going to exercise class. Eventually you will look and feel better.

					Surround yourself with lovely little things that you can afford and that make your environment beautiful. Environment counts.

					Make lists. You’ll feel better if you do. And you’re likely to feel even better if you do the things on the list.

					Make and hang inspirational posters, sticky notes, and pictures of people you love on your wall, and cartoons and magnets on the fridge that remind you of good times.

					You never know who is going to be your friend, so act friendly to everyone unless there is a good reason not to. Learn people’s names.

					Stop complaining.





			Claudia continued taking medicine, but she realized deep down that if she didn’t start taking steps to rewire her thinking, her mind would slowly find its way back to the old patterns. Rewiring her brain had to be a continual daily process.

			Because she was very sensitive, one of her triggers was seeing other people’s suffering depicted on newscasts. So, though it was difficult, she made herself stop watching the nightly news and stop listening to the radio if a talk program or music was interrupted by news. News, after all, is primarily bad news. She began getting any necessary news and politics through a trusted friend who understood her problem.

			She knew that her feelings of pain, whether she stubbed her toe or heard of another’s hurt, arose only because of her own brain’s perceptions. Surprisingly often, her pain came from a scary story she was telling herself about events she was viewing. Rather than being consumed by others’ pain, she learned that she needed to work toward seeing the other person’s problem in a rational way and asking herself if and how she could help.

			Three years post–bus accident, a vibrant Claudia, age sixty-six, noted:

			A number of fortunate things came together for me after I quit my job: less stress without the bus driving; more time for sleep and taking care of myself; an opportunity for deep friendships, intellectual stimulation, and—probably most important and most difficult for me—vigorous exercise four days a week through Jazzercise, which includes upbeat music with positive lyrics.

			Three years after the bus accident, I’m pretty proud of myself. I could not have imagined how well I have become. I haven’t gotten rich, climbed any mountains, earned any degrees, or made any momentous discoveries. But now I can get out of bed on a regular basis. I no longer feel disabling depression; I have not had a serious episode of major depression for three years and counting. I can safely say that I have learned to live my life without serious chronic, recurrent depression.

			I do believe that I have learned to change my way of perceiving the world to a less painful way, and that perspective has and does take continued learning and effort. I know it is not in vogue right now to emphasize the effort required to achieve what we want. Unfortunately for many of us, effort and focus is required.

			Living a healthy lifestyle has become my hobby and my job. I live a healthy lifestyle, not because I want to live longer, but to feel better during the time I am alive. I do not want to hurt. How do I know that my deliberate actions have led to increased health? I don’t. As I’ve learned from my reading, it is not easy to rewire one’s brain in the face of entrenched neural loops. How much my conscious effort is affecting my perception is not knowable to me. I choose to believe my actions do make a difference to my experience. Fun has become my spiritual path.

			I think that what depression has taught me is that I need to listen to myself and take care of my own needs first. Today I choose me. Then out of my abundance I can care for other people, other living beings, and then things. The learning was long and painful, but it’s really quite simple. It’s all about the priorities of loving.

			It would have been hard for the old me to believe this, but recently, a close friend told me that I am the most positive person she knows.

			Indeed, I first met Claudia at a meetup in Seattle for students of “Learning How to Learn.” Among the score of learners who congregated in the coffee shop, Claudia’s vibrant, can-do cheerful attitude stood out. We hit it off immediately.





Claudia’s Lifelong Learning


			Claudia has made enormous changes in the way her mind works—changes that many people would think were impossible for someone with her biological underpinnings and her clear, lifelong patterns. Claudia notes that learning is key: “Teach yourself. Learn that getting beyond your current state is possible. Learn to change your brain and your experience of life.” Exercise underpinned Claudia’s ability to learn and change.

			There was one big change that Claudia made, however, that we haven’t really brought out. It was a vital key to her mindshift.

			We’ll get to that.


				 Now You Try!

				Taking Active Steps

				Part of Claudia’s challenge was that the depression she wanted to escape made it difficult for her to want to do what she needed to escape the depression. She was in a cycle of negatively forecasting how pleasant or worthwhile events would be when she was depressed. But she moved toward health by taking active steps. These included monitoring herself and trying out new behaviors, like exercise, to keep herself on a positive self-reinforcing cycle. This allowed her to achieve and maintain a healthier mental outlook.

				What mindshift are you trying to accomplish? How could you use self-monitoring in your mindshift? What thoughts are keeping you stuck? Are you trapping yourself by thinking that you are “genetically predisposed” to being unable to learn languages or math? Do you tell yourself that you are too old to make a career change? Are you inadvertently in a self-reinforcing cycle where it feels more comfortable to just continue as you are—though it leaves you dissatisfied? What positive steps could you take and what self-testing could you do to move to a new self-reinforcing cycle that begins pushing your mind to where you want it to be? What new behaviors could you immediately start to accomplish your mindshift? What do you need to do to “get off the couch and stand up”?

				Jot your answers to these questions on a piece of paper, or in your notebook, under the title “Taking Active Steps.”





Chapter 3


			Changing Cultures


			The Data Revolution





IMAGINE IT’S THE year 1704, and you’re a bright, ambitious thirteen-year-old Comanche brave on the plains of what will later be called Texas. You’re coming of age in a world where everyone—everyone—gets around on their own two feet. No planes, no cars, no horses, no nothing. Life moves in slow motion, but you don’t realize it because you’ve never understood there could be anything different.

			But suddenly, one day, you see outsized, bizarre-looking creatures gallop up on four legs—they look like oversized antelopes with no horns. Odder yet, there are humans seated on them.

			What you’re seeing is what you will come to call a tuhuya—a horse. In an instant, you realize that there are creatures on this earth that can vastly speed up your life and everything in it. Oh, the changes in your hunting! In raiding!

			More than anything on earth, you want a horse.

			After your first horse-snatching expedition, your ride back home feels like a bird’s flight, it’s so fast. Just that few extra feet of height from a horse’s back makes the whole world look bigger. You practice shooting arrows from horseback, and soon, you can zip an arrow down into a buffalo’s chest, right behind the ribcage. Your pony works with you—he seems to intuit just where he needs to be for the shot. You and your friends find yourselves retooling your people’s technology—building shorter bows, which are much more maneuverable on horseback, and cobbling together saddles with stirrups, which give steadier aim.

			With your dazzling new abilities, you can quickly pull down half a dozen buffalo. You can hook a leg over the withers and slip down the side of your horse while galloping past the enemy, your horse’s body shielding you from arrows.

			By the time you are a grown warrior, you and your friends are dazzling masters of horsemanship, in an era and culture where horses mean everything. The Comanches, in fact, took the culture of the horse to one of the highest levels in human history—their equine expertise astonished all who knew them.1

			Eras and cultures change—change is the only consistency. We’re at yet another of the many turning points in human history. The modern-day “horse” that ushers in civilization’s new world is the computer.



			People funneling through the traditional academic degree system often don’t realize how important computers can be, not to mention the mathematical thinking that underlies their operation. They don’t see this, that is, until they start job hunting and understand the skills they’re missing. (Both the United States and Europe are projecting big shortages in software developers.)2

			By the time college graduates recognize they need new skills, though, it’s often all too easy to believe that they can’t retool. Going back to the university to get another degree is often just not possible. Few have the time or money. However, what many still don’t realize is that innovative new software and computers now allow for retraining at low cost or for free.

			Let’s be clear. The point of this chapter isn’t that everyone should become a computer scientist. Instead, the key idea, much like the central idea of this book, is that, whatever you think you are, you are actually bigger than that. You can find a way to go beyond. And you can often get started—or even complete an entire career transition—by reinventing yourself through the constantly updated world of online materials.


					Whatever you think you are, you are actually bigger than that—you can find a way to go beyond.



			By watching prototypical career changers, you can get ideas about how you can go about reframing yourself. And you, too, can discover possibilities beyond the boundaries you’ve unwittingly set for yourself.





Ali Naqvi and Math: “It’s Complicated”


			 				 					 					Ali Naqvi is a business partner at Neo@Ogilvy, which is the global media agency and performance marketing network for marketing giant Ogilvy & Mather.





			Ali Naqvi grew up in Pakistan, where he was at the top of his class through most of elementary and middle school. He reveled in English literature, history, and social studies. But there was more—Ali’s father introduced him to golf at the age of seven, and he was instantly hooked. His amateur golf career soared—he won Pakistan’s national amateur championship while in middle school and began representing Pakistan in international tournaments. He started to dream of playing professional golf on the PGA Tour—the main series of golf tourneys in North America.

			But there was a shadow over part of Ali’s learning. Math had always been his weakest subject—and he didn’t do much better in chemistry and physics. By middle school, Ali’s grades in math and science slumped below average. Ali tried to get help from his teachers, but their only response was “do more practice problems” and “work harder.” His parents sent him to tutors in the evenings, but Ali found himself just imitating the solutions to the problems his tutor set out; he didn’t truly understand the underlying concepts.

			Ali was genuinely trying as hard as he could. But one of his biggest problems was that he simply couldn’t see any connection between what he was learning in math and what he saw around him in “the real world.” Perhaps as a consequence, nothing sank in. He fell further and further behind his class, and his self-image as a student became compartmentalized: He was a grade A student in English, history, and social sciences, but a C-minus student in math and science.

			By the time Ali got to high school, he was in serious trouble—barely passing math. It was around this time that his father was transferred and the family moved to Singapore. Here, Ali was enrolled in an international school with an American curriculum. (Pakistan follows the British system, a legacy of colonial rule.) There was an initial inching upward in his math—his new math teacher was a heavy-metal-loving ex-hippie who tricked him into learning math concepts using Metallica songs (the chorus “exit light, enter night,” for example, led to balancing out two sides of an equation). But he got a new set of teachers in his sophomore year, and the terrifyingly steep-looking learning curve in precalculus and physics threw him right back into his old tailspin.

			 				 					 					As a youngster, Ali Naqvi would never have believed how his career would unfold, and where it would take him.





			At this point, Ali basically stopped trying. He notes: “I’m not proud of it, but I accepted that I was just one of those people who was never meant to be good at math. I consoled myself by telling myself I was ‘creative.’ I ended up failing math and barely passing physics and chemistry. I couldn’t graduate with my high school class.”

			It would take years for Ali to reach his educational epiphany.


				Insight from Neuroscience



			 				Becoming an expert in something new, whatever the subject, means building small chunks of knowledge using day-by-day practice and repetition. Gradually, these small chunks can then be knit together into mastery. It can seem natural to do this when learning a physical skill, say, how to play the guitar. After all, missing even one day of guitar practice can lead to fumble fingers the next day.

				It may be less obvious that the same practice and repetition applies to learning in math and science. In these more cerebral “sports,” you also need to practice and repeat little mental chunks. For example, after first working through a difficult homework or example problem, you can practice working the problem again from scratch without checking the solution for clues. The next day, you try this “from scratch” practice again, perhaps several times. If the problem is a tough one, you might practice it repeatedly over a number of days. You’ll be surprised that what on the first day seemed completely impossible seems easy after a week’s practice. “Deliberate practice” of the tougher aspects of the material allows you to develop expertise much more quickly.3

				You can’t do this with every problem, of course, but if you pick a few of the key problems to learn by heart, much like learning chords so you have them down pat, they will serve as a foundation and structure for the other material you are learning. Simply doing lots of easy problems instead of systematically stepping back to understand, practice, and repeat the toughest problems is like playing air guitar to learn how to play a real guitar.

				Why is this? Insight comes in the form of this light microscopy image by biochemist Guang Yang of NYU Langone Medical Center in New York. When we learn something and then go to sleep, new synapses—vital neural connections that help us grasp and master new subjects—begin to form.4 The triangles in the picture point toward those connections, formed overnight.

				 					 					Focusing your attention on learning something, followed by sleep, is a magic combination that allows for new synaptic connections (indicated here by triangles) to form. These new synaptic connections are the physical structure that underpins your ability to learn something new.



				However, only so many connections can form in a single night of sleep. This is why it’s important to space learning out day by day. Additional days of practice allow for more—and stronger—neural pathways to develop.

				Advanced practitioners in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines realize that understanding new and sometimes difficult concepts doesn’t just entail an instantaneous aha moment of understanding.5 Moments of insight, which arise from new synaptic connections, can fade away—the connections withering—if they are not repeated soon after the original connections are formed.





Key Mindshift

			Deliberate Practice of Little Chunks of Learning

			Practice and repeat little chunks of learning over the course of several days. This will create the neural patterns that underlie your gradually growing expertise. The more difficult the little chunks are to learn, and the more deeply you learn them, the more rapidly your expertise will grow.





Golf: Ali’s Influential Side Dream


			To this day, Ali can’t remember how he did it, but somehow he managed to pass the test—including the math problems—that allowed him to enter a first-year media and communication studies course in Singapore. This course served as a bridge to Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, where he ended up graduating with distinction in two and a half years.

			Meanwhile, Ali didn’t give up on golf. While in Australia, Ali had the chance to take lessons at the Melbourne Golf Academy from Australia’s number one golf instructor—a man who coaches some of the best players in the world. Help was needed to build up the online portion of his business, and Ali suddenly found himself with a job as a web content manager.

			The perks turned this into a dream job. Since Ali’s office was at the driving range, he could practice his golf before and after work, as well as during lunch breaks. On weekends, he competed. Before long, he was one of the top players at his club, even competing in state championships.

			But to make it to the highest levels in golf, you need to practice constantly and relentlessly. You can’t hold a full-time job, as Ali had to do. Sadly, then, a career in golf didn’t work out. However, Ali was to discover that his knowledge of golf would come in surprisingly handy.





A Scary Career Shift Begins


			It was time for another move. This time, Ali decided to go to the United Kingdom to start a new life and a career in digital marketing—one of the few options he had from earning a media and communications degree. Two months after his move, with savings running low, Ali jumped at the opportunity to join a start-up agency as a search engine optimization (SEO) account executive, despite his lack of experience in the area.

			Necessity provided a powerful push. Of all the marketing disciplines, SEO was probably the least likely for Ali to have chosen. It is one of marketing’s most technical areas—demanding the math and science skills that had proved so difficult for Ali. For example, an SEO executive needs a solid understanding of servers and databases—the bricks and mortar of the Internet. It also requires an encyclopedic knowledge of SEO ranking factors, including page titles, keywords, and backlinks. Also important is knowledge of web analytics—using hard-gleaned statistical data to intuit what customers are thinking and to discover common customer “pain points” that may translate into web searches.

			Most important, being an SEO executive requires knowledge of how search engine algorithms work.





Paradigm Shifts


			Search engine optimization. Coding. Computers.

			Change.

			When it came to the revolution of the horse, we’ve seen how there was something special in the Comanche culture—some unusual openness to innovation and change that allowed the Comanches to seize on the benefits of the horse more quickly than other cultures. Was it a small group of mentally flexible and physically adept innovators who spread the wealth of their new horse “technology” and ideas? Possibly. Was it a pragmatism born of scrabbling at the edge of a difficult existence, where the improvement that horses offered was unusually clear? It’s hard to know.

			But one thing is clear—some cultures and subcultures, for better or for worse, cling more closely to past legacies. This can make it difficult for useful new ideas to scamper through the minefield of propriety and into public use. Other cultures seem more open to new ideas. But even in these more innovative cultures, great swaths of even the most intelligent people can fight off change with every fiber of their being—as evidenced among scientists by the staunch resistance to the notion of neurogenesis in adult humans, and opposition to the idea that bacteria could cause ulcers.6 As knowledgeable academics say, moving a university is like moving a cemetery—you can’t expect any help from the inhabitants.

			The history of science can form a sort of relief map that allows us to see the contours of how new ideas in science, business, and culture in general can form and flow. One of the greatest analysts of the history of science was the bespectacled physicist, historian, and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn. In examining the strands of groundbreaking scientific breakthroughs—what he called “paradigm shifts”—Kuhn noticed a pattern.7 The most revolutionary breakthroughs, he found, were often made by one or two types of people. The first group was young people—those who had yet to be indoctrinated into the standard way of viewing matters. These individuals retained a freshness and independence of thought.

			If you don’t qualify as a “young person,” you’re probably thinking, Well, that knocks me out, then. I’m not in my teens or twenties, so no breakthroughs for me!

			But hang on. There was a second group of people—people who were older, but who were as innovative as young people—people who had switched disciplines or careers.

			It was the change in focus—the career switch—that allowed this second, older group to see with fresh eyes. Often, it also allowed them to bring their seemingly unrelated prior knowledge to the table in new ways that helped them innovate.

			Old or young, you may feel like you have a childlike incompetence when you are switching disciplines. This is typical. But keep in mind that the feelings of incompetence will gradually pass—and the power you possess by virtue of your willingness to change will be invaluable.





Key Mindshift

			Switching Disciplines or Careers Brings Value

			It’s normal to feel inadequate when you might begin trying to understand a new subject or to broaden or change your career. Even though what you are doing is difficult, you are bringing fresh perspectives into your studies and work. This can not only be useful to your new colleagues—it can freshen your own personal outlook. Don’t discount this.





Heading for a New Horizon


			Ali’s story provides an ideal snapshot of career change in midflight, as it’s occurring. As you will see, the process of changing disciplines and exploring new subjects is seldom straightforward.

			Ali and I had first met at a dinner in London with his one-of-a-kind colleague, advertising executive Rory Sutherland—we had admired one another’s work. At that time, Ali had been full-time in digital marketing for about five years. He enjoyed what he did; however, he increasingly had the feeling that he wanted more. He didn’t want to just give superficial advice to clients on how to create better converting websites—he wanted to have some understanding himself of what was going on under the hood. Increasingly, he came to see his day job as a bit of a tease—one that shows him on a daily basis the amazing things that those with at least a modicum of computer programming skills can accomplish.

			Ali began to wonder: Why just them—why not me? He decided that he wasn’t going to die wondering; he officially became a part of the popular “learn to code” movement.

			At our first meeting, Ali told me he had been dabbling with online programming courses such as Codecademy, which many learners swear by. But like many who begin retraining themselves, he encountered his fair share of false starts. For Ali, it began to be a familiar cycle, bringing back unpleasant feelings from his battles in the past with STEM subjects: Start with enthusiasm Make good early progress Hit a steep learning curve when things are moving too fast Compare himself to others who are progressing much faster Begin to feel deflated and find excuses to procrastinate Revisit after a while, only to find he had forgotten most of it and was back at square one.

			But then he came across a book—A Mind for Numbers, by Barbara Oakley (yes, that’s me). Ali was struck not only by the insights about learning in the book, but also by my story. I described how I’d gone from mathphobe to professor of engineering by essentially retraining my brain to grasp math and science. As Ali read about my early struggles with math, he felt I might as well have been talking about him. Ali went on to complete the MOOC “Learning How to Learn” on Coursera and gained some perspective on learning with relation to his career.

			Ali’s mastery of the essentials of learning, and then of coding, allowed him to feel much more comfortable with the “insides” of how computers operate. He then moved on to study web development. Perhaps subconsciously, he was building the broad intellectual tool kit he would need to underpin the more encompassing career that he truly desired.


				Ali Naqvi’s Practical Pointers for Effective Retraining



			 				Here are the techniques that have been particularly useful for me:

				 					I have a Pomodoro app on my phone. This allows me to work in twenty-five-minute bursts, followed by a five-minute break. This simple technique is incredibly effective in helping me focus on process rather than results. The feeling of achievement after having completed my planned daily number of Pomodoros is very gratifying. I’m not perfect, but looking at my Pomodoro app stats over many months, I’ve consistently been waging a successful war against procrastination.

					I’ve found chunking—grasping and practicing key mental techniques until I know them like a song—to be the missing link in my search for true ownership of whatever it is that I’m learning. Giving myself a preview of the lesson, key concepts, and summary primes my brain for what is ahead and is like a set of support rails that frame my study sessions. Learning a new concept and then closing my eyes and recalling what I have just learned leaves me with no hiding place. I can’t fake it anymore. If I’ve truly grasped it, I’ll be able to recall it. If not, I go again.

					I have started fitting in my leisure activities around my study schedule. I feel like I am able to enjoy my favorite Netflix shows, playing the guitar, listening to music, etc., guilt-free as long as I have earned it with some focused learning beforehand. The best part about it is that I go into that leisure time knowing my brain is still working toward my goals thanks to the “magic” of the diffuse mode (neural “resting states” where you aren’t thinking about anything in particular). During these “relaxed” times, I’m still learning—my brain is processing what I learned earlier.

					I’ve come to enjoy the practice of applying metaphors to concepts in whatever I am learning. I’ve always had quite a visual brain and a musical ear; coming up with colorful images with a fun soundtrack can even make quadratic equations fun!

					I’ve gotten into the habit of thinking about the new concepts I have learned just before going to sleep. This isn’t a focused study session (or I’d never fall asleep), but rather a relaxed version of recall. I think of it as “softly opening the door to my diffuse mode.” At least twice in the last couple of weeks, I’ve had moments of clarity when some difficult concepts hit me in the morning. I don’t think this is a coincidence.

					Another technique that has worked quite well for me is the practice of teaching myself out loud; that is, explaining concepts to myself as if I were a complete novice. I might look like a madman talking to myself, but you quickly realize how well you do or don’t understand something when you have to teach it in a concise, simple manner.





			Fast-forward a year. Ali has taken a number of MOOCs related to both programming and business development, and his life has made some fascinating leaps. He has been promoted twice at his advertising agency—first to business director and now to business partner. He’s fallen in love with the woman of his dreams and gotten engaged. A key theme in his life now is self-awareness. He says, “I’ll soon turn thirty-two. It’s clear that the best way for me to be successful is to focus on my strengths, while carefully choosing the weaknesses I want to work on. With the wedding and married life on the horizon, I’m also factoring in the added responsibilities I will have as the main breadwinner in the family.”

			Ali has gained a decent knowledge of web development and data analysis by virtue of his on-the-side studies. Now, at last, it has become clear that his real strength lies in knitting those recently acquired skills together with what is perhaps his greatest “value-add”: relationship building. He is committed to motivating his talented team to pull together toward their shared goal. And he has long-term entrepreneurial goals in e-commerce that will meld his sporting experience and skills in digital marketing.

			For a long time, Ali found it hard to forgive himself for what he saw as failures in his earlier undertakings, including his unsuccessful quest to become a professional golfer. He has since come to realize just how lucky he is to have had such rich experiences. The lessons he learned and the skills he gained are useful, not only in his current job, but in his overall career growth.


				Ali Naqvi’s Advice on Career Change



		 			 				There will always be somebody out there who is better than you at something you want to do. You must realize that you are on your own journey, on your own path, and you are being the “best version of you” rather than a bad version of somebody else. It’s normal to compare yourself to your peers; however, I think of it this way: There are a number of graphs representing different aspects of a person’s life—emotional maturity, creativity, discipline, career progression, financial security, etc. These graphs don’t all travel at the same trajectory for everyone. That person who kicked your butt in that golf tournament? They might kill to have your ability to play guitar. That student on the MOOC forum who seems to be able to get the programming problems so easily while you struggle? They might look at your reasoning and creative writing skills with the same level of awe as you do their ability to program. If your focus is your truth, you will get where you want to go when the time is right.





Focusing on the Present


			One of the most valuable lessons Ali’s golf coach taught him was about gaining control over his emotions and attitude. Golf can be an infuriating sport—one unlucky bounce here, one lapse in concentration there, and your chances of winning start heading south. In tournaments, when things didn’t go Ali’s way, he struggled to contain his frustration.

			The best bit of advice his coach gave him was: “The past is the past. You can’t change that. What you can control is your attitude on the next shot. The only thing in the world that matters right now is the next shot.”

			Applying this wisdom to online learning, Ali notes: “Online learning is an incredible privilege afforded to our generation. However, learning a complex subject such as advanced statistics or programming on your own can often be an exasperating experience. I learned this lesson during my coding program: One missed colon here and your code doesn’t run. One false step in your procedure and your numbers are off. It’s at moments like these where I try to follow the same standard operating procedure that I learned in my golf days—that is, acknowledge my annoyance, then take a deep breath, think about what troubleshooting steps I can take, and focus on those.”


				 Now You Try!

				“Chunking” as an Important Learning Meta-Skill

				Cultures are changing, and new skillsets are becoming important. Learning how to learn is an important meta-skill that can help you keep up with rapidly evolving skillsets. Ali found that mastering chunks of knowledge—how to write a brief, readable module of code, for example—was an important missing piece in his ability to gain expertise in a new area.

				What is a good tiny chunk for you to practice with over several days? Give it a try and notice how it grows easier to call to mind! If you’d like, note your improvement day by day with a sentence or two on your papers or in your notebook.





Chapter 4


			Your “Useless” Past Can Be an Advantage


			Slipping Through Back Doors to a New Career





THROUGHOUT HISTORY, SEEMINGLY ordinary people have suddenly emerged from nowhere to seize power and shake worlds. Take Ulysses S. Grant. He was a wood-chopping lowlife, drummed from the army for drinking; yet he became one of the greatest generals of the Civil War. In more modern times, a lowly TV graphics designer in Rhode Island would emerge to become Christiane Amanpour, one of the world’s leading television journalists. An adopted boy named Steve Jobs would emerge from lower-middle-class obscurity to go mano a mano against Bill Gates, who had the luxury of a world-class education from boyhood onward.

			But there are more people with humble backgrounds—hundreds of millions more—who never become famous. Even so, by bringing seemingly useless knowledge from their past into their present, career changers and new learners allow society to move forward, filling needs with initially unrecognized competence.

			Tanja de Bie, a project coordinator at Leiden University in the Netherlands, calls people like this “second chancers.” She should know. She’s one of them.

			 				 					 					Dutch administrator Tanja de Bie slowly realized that her “useless” knowledge from years of experience with her hobby provided powerful insights that helped her land her dream job.





			A dynamic woman with a knowing smile, a halo of hair, and an elegant Dutch lilt, Tanja exudes competence and confidence. But it wasn’t always this way. People fall off the conventional university educational track for many reasons. Tanja had been a successful student, but she eventually dropped out of her history program at Leiden University to support the financial needs of her and her partner’s growing family—a boy and two girls—even as her partner was also pursuing his educational goals.

			I first spoke with Tanja over the clanking sounds of a coffee shop in Southern California—she had been flown there from the Netherlands for the online learning conference we were both attending. Tanja had the same slightly starry-eyed stare I tend to get when I’m jet-lagged and in a foreign country, but her enthusiasm was infectious.

			 				 					 					Tanja works at Leiden University’s branch in The Hague while being a devoted resident of the nearby city of Leiden.





			I am struck by how similar our early life stories are—like me, Tanja had had an early passion for the humanities and a bit of a headstrong approach to life. As a backbone of financial support for her family, she worked in a secretarial capacity in various sectors—a press agency, the municipality, and health care. Though she lacked a college degree, she gradually worked her way up from secretary toward management. She was eventually drawn back to Leiden University, this time in a working capacity, by their forward-thinking philosophy of “it’s what you show, not what you know.” As a part of Leiden’s policy department, she helped carry out various projects. But these still weren’t enough for her active mind. At home in the evenings, she continued a hobby she’d developed a passion for nearly a decade before—online gaming.





Gaming


			Online gaming is a very different ecosystem from that of the “real world.” It involves an odd juxtaposition of analytical abilities, real-world knowledge, and people skills. Tanja found herself particularly drawn to “play by post”—a form of role-playing that focused on writing narratives in forums. Her knowledge of history gave her storytelling unusual heft—she became a vice president of one of the gaming resource communities. She also created her own online games in history and fantasy, replete with great visuals and exciting historical set pieces. The online world she inhabited was a demanding one, requiring in-depth knowledge of HTML; an ability to navigate the online legal environment; an understanding of spambots; the facility to create polls, lock topics, make global announcements; and much, much more.1

			Tanja could turn to her hobby at home in the evening hours while also being able to drop anything at a moment’s notice to be there for her young children. She found it exciting to interact through forums with people from a dizzying array of time zones around the globe. Sometimes she stayed up until the early hours of the morning, excitedly typing out stories: “You imbecile,” Le Roi muttered. His family members were giving him a headache yet again, wiping away all his hard work to encourage his English royal cousin to join his Catholic quest to the bigger glory of La France and Le Roi du Soleil. . . .

			Online gaming provided the additional excitement and creative outlet that Tanja needed in her life. Tanja is a natural storyteller, and online gaming provided an unusual creative outlet for her combined narrative and analytic talents. Tanja’s excitement and joie de vivre with online gaming spilled over into her work. It was, in fact, the subject of good-natured ribbing around the coffee machine as Tanja would occasionally relate gaming mischief from the evening before.

			A heartwarming aspect of the online world Tanja was involved in is the many nice people. In the real world, these are the sort of people who donate blood, serve on volunteer fire departments, or stop to assist motorists. Online, they post helpful comments on forums, help beta-test new software, and provide insightful product reviews. It’s the kind of thing that reinforces a belief in humanity’s innate decency.

			But there’s a flip side to the online world—the small percentage of people with a malevolent streak. These sinister types can have an outsized impact because of the massive online megaphone. Worse yet, the often anonymous online world has fewer of the social constraints that regulate in-person discourse. Normal people, expecting normal interactions with these more sinister sorts, are like puppies wandering up, tails wagging, in front of grizzlies.

			Types known as “trolls” and “haters” enjoy creating problems in online communities. They take great glee in posting deliberately incendiary materials (“flame baiting”) and in harassing and hounding others. They are also adept at creating false identities (“sock puppets”) who chime in to make it seem that many are supportive of their views. Trolls can gain genuine supporters as well—often by representing themselves as misunderstood victims while praising more empathetic, kindly online users in private chats. “Haters,” on the other hand, are just that—they can rant on spitefully while remaining impervious to counterarguments.

			These activities can have a devastating psychological impact, not only on individual victims, but on entire online communities, which can implode into negativity, causing users to flee.

			It takes a special knack—developed over time—to understand trolls, haters, and others who cause strife, and to deal effectively with them.

			Tanja developed this knack through her gaming.2





The Challenging, Changing Needs of the Workplace


			Despite the sometimes-vicious politics in academia, universities can be enjoyable places to work. Tenured academics inhabit a secure world, reigning over college students who generally understand the benefits of “playing nice” with their instructors. In face-to-face conversation, few students would ever dream of making the types of inflammatory remarks that can be tossed off anonymously online.

			Also, many professors—particularly those in intense and highly technical disciplines such as medicine or engineering—are the modern equivalents of cloistered monks. These fields demand years of total dedication that can leave those in them unaware of important trends in popular culture. This means that academics—including many of the busy, world-class experts who are invited to teach massive open online courses—can suffer from curious blind spots. (We all have blind spots, and highly intelligent professors are no exception.)

			One day Tanja found herself near the office’s coffee machine in conversation with one of the Leiden University administrators.

			The topic? Online discussion forums.

			Discussion forums have long played a benign role in online education. They serve as the electronic equivalent of a coffee machine—a hub where learners can congregate and discuss the meaning of the material. Such forums have been used for decades in simple, local online classes of thirty or forty students, where there was no anonymity.

			The discussion forums of MOOCs, however, are quite different. Instead of several dozen students posting on the forums, there can be thousands—and even tens of thousands—from all over the world. Tiny percentages of these students may behave badly—bullying others, uploading porn, and making threats. Others hide all sorts of vested interests, even fanaticism, that can undercut the free exchange of ideas.

			Tanja was well aware of the potential for MOOCs’ online forums to create incendiary problems for a university. Even a single troll or hater could change the whole tenor of the discussions. And Tanja realized that the size of MOOCs was such that multiple trolls could arise—trolls who could watch other trolls and subsequently band together to give their disruptive behavior a sense of normalcy.

			As Tanja and the administrator spoke that morning by the coffeepot, the reason for the interest in discussion forums became apparent. Terrorism is a vital topic, and Leiden University was acting as a world leader in tackling the topic from an online perspective. But terrorism, especially, can serve as a lightning rod for people with sharp, fixed opinions—people unwilling to listen to any other points of view, who are willing to do whatever they can to smear those who disagree with them. So a terrorism MOOC could serve as an attractor for trolls and haters—like those Tanja had so much experience with in the world of online gaming.

			Tanja couldn’t help but ask—how, in the university’s upcoming course on terrorism, was the university planning to handle trolls?

			She was alarmed by the response: “What’s a troll?”


				A Gentle Aside About Gender



			 				Tanja has an innate love of history and a natural gift for language. But she also has sharp analytical skills that reveal themselves in her love of the mechanics of games and in her participation in the world of online gaming. She’s even able to design online games—a skill that goes well beyond novice levels of computer use. Although she tends to think of herself as a humanities-oriented person, it’s clear that if she’d felt like it, she could have pursued a more analytical career.

				No book that talks about career choice, career switching, and adult learning is complete without touching on the differences between men and women when it comes to “natural passions.” Tanja de Bie’s life, and her bent for the humanities despite her obvious analytic skills, illustrates some of the ways women’s abilities and interests can sometimes differ from those of men.

				Although, overall, boys and girls have largely the same abilities in math, an individual girl frequently finds she is better with her verbal skills than her math, while a boy frequently finds he is better with his math skills than his verbal. These inclinations grow from testosterone, which serves as a developmental drag on children’s verbal abilities. Testosterone-laden boys thus can find themselves with verbal abilities that are somewhat less than those of girls of the same age.3 (Keep in mind that this is just an average—individuals can vary quite a bit. And while boys can catch up later, by then, their self-image has already begun to solidify.)



					(Left) There is little developmental difference between girls’ and boys’ skills in mathematics as children mature. (Right) Boys in general lag behind girls in their verbal development—in toddlerdom, boys start talking later and are less talkative than girls of the same age. (This image exaggerates the average differences to make them more clear in the next figure.)



				The image on the left is meant to give a sense of the developmental difference in boys’ and girls’ math abilities. Obviously, there is no real difference. But the image on the right gives a sense of the average differences in verbal abilities. Here, it is clear, boys lag behind girls.4

				So, from toddlerhood on, girls are—on average—more verbally advanced than boys. The average boy, on the other hand, often finds that his math skills substantially outpace his verbal skills. If you put the two charts together, as below, you can see why boys frequently claim they’re better at math, and girls claim to be better at verbal abilities. Both are right—even though both have the same ability, on average, for math!

				We often develop passions around what we are good at. As it turns out, it often seems easier for girls to get good at subjects requiring strong verbal skills. For boys, quantitative subjects can seem easier than those involving verbal skills. Of course, testosterone can aid in muscle development, making sports seem attractive as well.5

				Unfortunately, women’s frequent big advantage—their advanced verbal skills—can inadvertently also serve as a disadvantage. Women sometimes come to believe that their passions lie solely in language-oriented areas when they also could have considerable math and science skills—on par with those of men—if only they also chose the seemingly steeper (for them) path to develop them.



					Seen together, it’s clear: although boys and girls have largely the same abilities in math, an individual girl frequently finds she is better with her verbal skills than her math, while a boy frequently finds he is better with his math skills than his verbal. These inclinations grow from testosterone, which serves as a developmental drag on verbal abilities. Testosterone-laden boys are affected more than girls. (Keep in mind that this is just an average—individuals can vary quite a bit.) Although these differences fade away as children mature, early perceptions linger.





Tanja Is the Expert


			“What’s a troll?” Tanja couldn’t believe what she was hearing. The university was about to do a MOOC on terrorism, and they were clueless about trolls?

			Suddenly, the tables were turned: Tanja was no longer the lowly administrative assistant, there to support academics with years of hard-won expertise; Tanja herself was the expert.

			That morning, Tanja began to give the administrator a feel for the dynamics of online communities, and how interactions in them are similar to and also different from those in face-to-face interactions. Tanja’s concern was for Leiden University, the oldest and, in many ways, the most prestigious university in the Netherlands. She knew that without moderators overseeing the forums, the actions of just a few trolls and haters could cause these spaces to degenerate into cesspools that not only reflected poorly on the university in the press, but could also drive prospective students away.

			Fortunately, Leiden’s administrators knew better than to be picky about finding an academically credentialed expert. They just wanted answers—from somebody who really knew the arena. In short order, Tanja became the go-to person for questions about online forums for MOOCs. Soon, she found herself asked—as an important role in her job—to serve as the community manager on Leiden’s MOOC forums. This meant bringing on volunteer mentors and training them to ensure that the tens of thousands of students in Leiden’s MOOCs had a quality learning experience. Professors began to rely on her expertise as well. One of her first bits of advice to them? Don’t feed the trolls. In other words, don’t respond to inflammatory messages meant to provoke. And if the comments are really bad, eliminate them before they spread bad vibes through the community.

			In doing this job, Tanja was influenced by the attitudes of her grandmother, a classic grand lady of the 1930s who had received an exceptional education—something quite extraordinary for that era. Her grandmother once told her, “I do not care if you get into trouble. I expect you to from time to time, as you know how to speak your mind. But let me never hear you were i