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The Most Untrue Cliches

Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it


This is the ponderous epigraph of many a high school history term paper. And it’s wrong. Like as not, we’re “doomed” to failure not because we forget history but because our leaders perseverate over history and past failings and traumas, and act so as not to repeat them, often with disastrous effects, since real conditions have changed on them. We don’t want “another Vietnam.” We don’t want “another World War I.” Hyper-attentiveness and deference to the past causes as many problems as obliviousness to it, if not more. And, as they say in the stock market, “awareness of past performance is no guarantee of future success.”

There are no second acts in America

Tell that to Bill Clinton!  America is nothing but second… and third…and fourth… acts. That’s the beauty of America. I’ve never understood even the premise of this cliché, in a culture that revels in narratives of sin, downfall, and redemption. From the start we were a country that presented boundless opportunities for people to light out for the territories and reinvent themselves.

Dream as if you’ll live forever; live as if you’ll die today

Go tell this to your financial adviser, and see what he can do with it. Arrive at his office with your stash of cigarettes and a carton of fine Bordeaux that you plan to drink right now, and tell him about the mansion you just rented for the day and put on your Visa that you’ll never have to pay so that you could have a party with everyone that you ever knew, clogging your arteries on foods that you can’t eat if you plan on living past tomorrow, and partying with all the demon lovers that you never should have been with.

See what your financial adviser thinks about this absurd antinomy. This is one of those trite phrases that aspires after a watered down, Zen spa talk about “being in the moment,” and “mindful”—these little drips and drabs of decontextualized spiritualism that substitute for faith and can be conveniently purchased as wee little point-of-sale books at Barnes & Noble.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat

For sheer randonmness, this cliché takes the prize. How many methods are there, and is the 21st-century speaker familiar even with one of them? Whatever larger point the speaker’s trying to make gets lost in the wincing, medieval barbarism of this cliché, as the audience first must try to handle the image of a cat being skinned, and is then asked to imagine multiple techniques for this cruelty, and then must realize that the whole problem at hand is that she’s abiding by an outdated or banal method to vivisect a living creature, when others are available—and finally to see the imaginative creation and embrace of a new technique for skinning and vivisection as a move toward a solution to your PowerPoint presentation or your sales pitch.

There are other fish in the sea

Of course there are, but, as a friend of mine retorts, “I want THIS fish.” This calculating cliché misses the point of human relationships and affections. It substitutes the generic—males and females—for the specific, the lost beloved one. But in what other relationships do we assume that people are casually fungible like this, valuable mostly as members of a generic group and not in their specifics? Would we say this if someone lost their best friend to an argument (“oh well. Plenty more fish where that one came from”) or offer this reductive bromide if a parent had had a serious falling out with a child (“good thing you’ve got other fish-children!”).

This romantically cynical cliché is suggests that any old fish will do—if you just want a McHusband or a McWife, after all, then I guess one fish does as well as another.

All politics are local

When the high school sophomore who put the bromide about being “doomed to repeat history” grows up and enters a Ph.D. program in political science, this will be the cliché that she attempts to prove or disprove in her dissertation. Cliches must be an elegant if annoyingly familiar encapsulation of a visceral truth for them to work. This one is a cliché that’s endlessly contested, and comes inevitably with its cumbersome disclaimers, so it’s a cliché without any of the benefits or elegance of the cliché.

Attitude Determines Altitude

Oh, dear lord.  The Newtonian-Defying Physics of Positive Thinking strikes again, those bromides about how your circumstances can be credited to or blamed on your mood and your sunny or grumpy disposition.

Actually, altitude is determined by a variety of geometric and trigonometric equations that can be mastered in most high school mathematics classes, but that I’ve now forgotten.

In social terms, “altitude” is determined to a depressingly substantial degree by socioeconomic and other material factors that, while far from sealing our destiny and far from being insurmountable (personal effort and hard work do matter) have nothing to do with attitude. This cliché is another de-politicizing move to substitute serious consideration of success and fortune with subtle, self-blaming malarkey. If only you had a better attitude, you’d be president by now.

Live today! Unfiltered lessons of a female entrepreneur

Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT today.

Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

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Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

Sex & Relationships
  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

How meditation can change your life and mind

Reaching beyond the stereotypes of meditation and embracing the science of mindfulness.

Videos
  • There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to what mindfulness is and what meditation can do for those who practice it. In this video, professors, neuroscientists, psychologists, composers, authors, and a former Buddhist monk share their experiences, explain the science behind meditation, and discuss the benefits of learning to be in the moment.
  • "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
  • "I think we're looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution," says ABC News anchor Dan Harris. "Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no-brainers like exercise, brushing your teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you." Closing out the video is a guided meditation experience led by author Damien Echols that can be practiced anywhere and repeated as many times as you'd like.
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