Feb 23, 2012

Redeemed By The Social Animal

David Brooks spoke at a TED conference last year. I listened online & was impressed so I picked up his book "The Social Animal" & flipped to page 111.* And wouldn't ya know it? Eric Turkeimer's name LEAPS off the page. Turkeimer is a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia.

Eric Turkeimer is the reason I don't have a PhD.**

I'd taken his statistics class & I flunked when I earned a C (& I'm sure that was generous on his part because I really was "C"lueless). I'd have to retake his class. No big deal. Just a simple fact.

The result? DEVASTATION.

That situation spelled "FAILURE" to me on every level. And that tells you how much of my identity & shallow self-worth was tied to effortless academic excellence. After Turkeimer, all I could think to do was leave. Which I did.

And now... I'm a stay at home mom. PTA President. Blogger. Writer. yadda yadda. My husband the shrink lists me as a "therapist" with his business (yeah, you can laugh... I know I did). But the cold truth is - I'm a grad school drop out. The reason I dropped out is I didn't pass Turkeimer's required stats class. You want to take the PhD in Psychology, ya gotta know stats.

Thing is, I can vividly remember a lingering sense back then that what I was doing & what psychology as a discipline was working toward... was all bullshit. There are some things you'll flat out NEVER be able to capture using a pencil & paper instrument. On some level, I couldn't imagine anything more mind numbing or more futile than trying to measure, carve up & quantify every known phenomena under the sun in a vain attempt to control & predict human behavior. 

My favorite quote for years after grad school came from Clint Eastwood's movie In the Line of Fire. John Malkovich's character taunts Eastwood on the phone: "A man's actions don't equal the sum of his psychological parts... It doesn't work that way." 

Hot damn, you can say that again.

A successful psychologist's career culminates in grant-funded research & tenure & articles published in peer- reviewed journals that no one but you & your colleagues read. I wondered: didn't you go into this field because you wanted to help improve people's lives? Are you sure those articles you wrote that no one reads is really going to improve the lives of those single moms you collected data on?

I wasn't convinced then & I'm even less convinced now.

What flipped the switch for me about Brooks' reference was how Turkeimer's study was used to illustrate the FAILURE of statistics to determine the causes of Black poverty. Victory bells went off in my head. I could've told him that 17 years ago... and I didn't need a fricking PhD to do it either! 

According to Brooks: "Turkeimer had spent years tring to find which parts of grown up with a poor background produced the most negative results... but when he tried to measure the impact of specific variables, he found there was nothing there." Wow, what's that like to dedicate decades of your life on this approach to problem solving, to have a career based on dissecting & measuring psychological motivation to predict human behavior & have one of your greatest efforts turn up... nothing.  

Brooks explained: "It means you don't try to break down those effects into constituent parts."  No kidding.

According to Brooks, I entered the grad program contaminated with what Turkeimer calls "The Gloomy Prospect", because I was already convinced there's no way to pin down & clarify the causes of human behavior or trace the sources of behavior. Damn straight.

In Brooks' unique narrative, "the lesson was: Fixate on the whole... no specific pieces..."

I couldn't have said it better myself unless I was a villain starring in a Clint Eastwood movie.

* 111 is "good" number for me by the way... whenever I see it, it's like the universe is giving me a nudge

** I'm overstating his role, I admit. Truth is, I quit. But the main reason I quit is I didn't pass his class. I guess that makes him the catalyst if not the cause

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