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Month: January 2013

Vulnerability is (becoming) sexy

Vulnerability is (becoming) sexy

The other day, my beautiful friend Sara posted on Facebook: Vulnerability is sexy.

The post got a lot of likes and comments agreeing with it. This is just the latest in a series of episodes I’ve seen stressing the importance of vulnerability:

  • I was recently invited to a Facebook group that’s all about showing vulnerability and expressing what you really think and feel.
  • A couple of nights ago, I had dinner with some a group of high school friends (we’ve been having these dinners for over 8 years), and one of them said “we’re never going to get to the next stage until we really become vulnerable with each other.”
  • Having lunch with a new acquaintance a couple of days ago, we talked about how we present ourselves on social networks, carefully constructing our images to show only what we like and hide our more shady parts.
  • In his recent book on meta-learning, best-selling author Tim Ferris says that if you could summarize the findings of the last 100 years of behavioral psychology, it would be that logic fails, because we are learning that the human mind is full of limitations and simple process that aren’t suitable for dealing with everything that’s happening around us.

We seem to be finally be coming to terms with our fragility. Even science, the “secular religion”, is telling us “wait a minute, we’re not that great.” The human-centeredness of our secular world is starting to let in some new ideas: that we’re not as prepared to face today’s world as we thought. This is what Alain de Botton means when he says that we need a gentler vision of success.

This may be why novels have exploded in recent decades: to have a way to express our loneliness, in the case of the writer, and to feel less lonely, in the case of the reader. Ben Casnocha explains in a recent post:

“[…] Relief comes when the reader recognizes in a character elements of the human experience rarely articulated with complete honesty and vividness.. Upon recognition, you feel less alone for having thought those thoughts too, experienced those things too. Often these recognizable elements in a novel are the features of human nature we hate about ourselves and are most private about: dishonesty, greed, lust. Just as often, though, the recognizable elements include more benign complexities such as love, purpose, the afterlife.”

What’s interesting is that for a long time, the stories that would present our deepest and most common flaws and fears were told to us by religions. On Religion for Atheists, Alain de Botton’s most recent book, we are told why even in a world where we have no one to worship but ourselves, we should be careful to dismiss religions until we understand what role they played in our well-being in the past. Even if we believe religions are just a fairy tale, we should still see why they were “made up” in the first place.

Our need for community and vulnerability seems to be why.

There’s also something to be said about the role technology plays in our fear of exposing our wounds (I’m sure there’s a connection between the rise of secularity and the rise of connectivity, although I’m not willing to establish an opinion on such a complex topic). Not only it seems to be harder to find a place to open up in our usual contexts, but the idea that we can “be ourselves” online seems to be a myth as well. On a recent lecture (documented by Blake Masters, Peter Thiel addresses the problem that online transparency brings to what we feel we can say:

“The Internet probably makes people more alike than different. Think about the self-censorship angle. If everything you say is permanently archived forever, you’re likely to be more careful with your speech. My biggest worry about transparency is that it narrows the range of acceptable debate.”

We are now living in a cage (that we built ourselves) of what Scott Peck calls “rugged individualism.” Here’s Peck on the problems with that culture:

“Of all variants of vulnerability the one most difficult is the revealing of some imperfection, problem, neurosis, sin, or failure—all of which tend to be subsumed under the heading of “weakness” in our culture of rugged individualism. It is a ridiculous cultural attitude, because the reallity is that, as individuals or nations, we are all weak. We all have problems, imperfections, neuroses, sins, failures. And to attempt to hide them is a lie.”

Peck says that to transform ourselves, we need to break down:

“It may seem strange in our culture of rugged individualism that this transformation begins to occur precisely when we begin to “break down.” As long as we look out at each other only through the masks of our composure, we are looking through hard eyes. But as the masks drop and we see the suffering and courage and brokenness and deeper dignity underneath, we truly start to respect each other as fellow human beings.”

This paradox is the key to move forward. There is a good side of trying to be invulnerable, which is striving to be better, stronger, wiser… However, we can do that only if accept that in the end, we are fragile, that perfection is unreachable, and that we need real community and support. To endure life properly, we need to be willing to open up to each other. Letting go and loving fully (that is, giving all we have) is the only possible defense.

Clarity Leads to Default Decisions

Clarity Leads to Default Decisions

There’s a wonderful piece on The American Interest about the future of universities and how online education is about to do to traditional education what MP3s did to record labels. The whole article is worth reading, but one excerpt stood out to me:

“In their research for their book Academically Adrift, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that 45 percent of the students they surveyed said they had no significant gains in knowledge after two years of college. Consider the possibility that, for the average student, traditional in-classroom university education has proven so ineffective that an online setting could scarcely be worse. But to recognize that would require unvarnished honesty about the present state of play. That’s highly unlikely, especially coming from present university incumbents.”

This relates to something I’ve been noticing in the past few years when people talk about their decision to go to college: there’s no analysis of the downside of the decision. There’s no acknowledgement of the problems and limitations of universities. This is something I’ve only seen when people discuss college education, as if colleges enjoyed some privilege of not being analyzed in terms of pros and cons. It’s all assumed to be positive.

However, there’s a reason for this, and it’s the fact that there’s no clear alternative. When we believe that college is the default, there’s no process of “choosing” in our minds, it’s just “the next logical step.” The reality is that it’s not our only choice, but the blurriness and confusion of anything outside the framework offered by universities makes most people gloss over the possibilities outside traditional education. Crafting a professional path that doesn’t include a college degree, though not impossible, is fucking hard. Trust me, I know.

Universities have a lot of problems and a lot to figure out if they don’t want to fade away in the upcoming decades, but they still play a very important role in taking care of people’s emotions, providing a clear framework (even though their promised outcome, a job, is no longer a guarantee), and in hosting millions and millions of young people that don’t really know what they want to do.

What’s the challenge for those wanting to disrupt and improve education, then? The challenge lies in offering clarity, not just new methods, content or technology. There needs to be a bigger focus on understanding why people feel they need to go to college, and offer them a framework that includes those benefits. Much of the “educational revolution” has been about delivery and improved efficiency, and they’re completely ignoring how important the emotional side is, and why it’s still the main reason people default to universities.

It’s the only place where they feel safe (for now).

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