The Traditional Calculus

In a trend largely predicated on the notion that (1) starting earlier and working harder will yield better testing outcomes and that (2) achieving better test scores will prepare children for a more productive and successful life, many American elementary schools are now offering programs for younger children such as K3 and K4. This is a grand social experiment predicated on the popular notion that more is better. But is it?

To begin with, I’m not so sure that focusing so narrowly on cognitive development is healthy or productive in the long run, especially at such a young age and especially at the expense of other equally important and valuable non-cognitive developmental needs like character building. Some might argue that the process of becoming successful testers teaches character, but I must say that from my experience I learned more about life outside of the classroom than I ever did inside of it.

To my mind one of the greatest challenges we face in educating the next generation is to find the way to overcome the lethargy of having been raised in a time of relative plenty that has been practically devoid of adversity. Sure the economic uncertainties of late have been dramatic, but how much has really changed? We’ve had much harder times on earth and when measured against those, what we’ve experienced of late is little more than a blip, a moment of mild discomfort.

While I don’t believe that true grit is only developed under times of pressure, uncertainty, adversity or scarcity, such restrictive circumstances do tend to force the issue. In the absence of these factors, what can be done? Plenty! For starters, we have to be willing to take our hands off the process and let our children experience difficulty and yes, even failure on a controlled basis.

Small challenges and little failures are like dumbbells to the weightlifter. They build muscle and prepare you for larger trials and tribulations. Such knowledge and experience cannot be gained by means of traditional cognitive development. It comes from practical, personal contact. If we shield children overly from that personal struggle, we deprive them of that opportunity.

There is, of course, a balance. Such experiences must, as much as possible, be on a controlled basis. And that is the responsibility of parents, teachers, mentors and the like. In summary, I believe that test scores are an important indicator of cognitive development, but if we rely on that as the primary means of shaping the minds and hearts of those into whose hands we’ll be placing the reins of humanity in the days to come, we’re missing the point!

Character of the Happy Warrior

Character development is a deeply personal matter. Others can provide guidance and go a long way in setting the conditions conducive to healthy development, but at the end of the day your character is built in the little choices you make from moment to moment.

Character is not built overnight and it does not come automatically by virtue of your station in life. It must be fought for, won honestly by open means as you labor with head and hand while guided by your inner light.

As you venture forth today and in the precious hours of your tomorrows, never abandon reason and always meet that which comes your way honestly and courageously. Do this and you, too, will soon possess the character of the happy warrior.

Character of the Happy Warrior by William Wordsworth

Who is the happy Warrior? Who is he
What every man in arms should wish to be?
–It is the generous Spirit, who, when brought
Among the tasks of real life, hath wrought
Upon the plan that pleased his childish thought:
Whose high endeavours are an inward light
That makes the path before him always bright:
Who, with a natural instinct to discern
What knowledge can perform, is diligent to learn;
Abides by this resolve, and stops not there,
But makes his moral being his prime care;
Who, doomed to go in company with Pain,
And Fear, and Bloodshed, miserable train!
Turns his necessity to glorious gain;
In face of these doth exercise a power
Which is our human nature’s highest dower;
Controls them and subdues, transmutes, bereaves
Of their bad influence, and their good receives:
By objects, which might force the soul to abate
Her feeling, rendered more compassionate;
Is placable–because occasions rise
So often that demand such sacrifice;
More skilful in self-knowledge, even more pure,
As tempted more; more able to endure,
As more exposed to suffering and distress;
Thence, also, more alive to tenderness.
–‘Tis he whose law is reason; who depends
Upon that law as on the best of friends;
Whence, in a state where men are tempted still
To evil for a guard against worse ill,
And what in quality or act is best
Doth seldom on a right foundation rest,
He labours good on good to fix, and owes
To virtue every triumph that he knows:
–Who, if he rise to station of command,
Rises by open means; and there will stand
On honourable terms, or else retire,
And in himself possess his own desire;
Who comprehends his trust, and to the same
Keeps faithful with a singleness of aim;
And therefore does not stoop, nor lie in wait
For wealth, or honours, or for worldly state;
Whom they must follow; on whose head must fall,
Like showers of manna, if they come at all:
Whose power shed round him in the common strife,
Or mild concerns of ordinary life,
A constant influence, a peculiar grace;
But who, if he be called upon to face
Some awful moment to which Heaven has joined
Great issues, good or bad for human-kind,
Is happy as a Lover; and attired
With sudden brightness, like a Man inspired;
And, through the heat of conflict, keeps the law
In calmness made, and sees what he foresaw:
Or if an unexpected call succeed,
Come when it will, is equal to the need:
–He who, though thus endued as with a sense
And faculty for storm and turbulence,
Is yet a Soul whose master-bias leans
To homefelt pleasures and to gentle scenes;
Sweet images! which, wheresoe’er he be,
Are at his heart; and such fidelity
It is his darling passion to approve;
More brave for this, that he hath much to love:–
‘Tis, finally, the Man, who, lifted high,
Conspicuous object in a Nation’s eye,
Or left unthought-of in obscurity,–
Who, with a toward or untoward lot,
Prosperous or adverse, to his wish or not,
Plays, in the many games of life, that one
Where what he most doth value must be won;
Whom neither shape of danger can dismay,
Nor thought of tender happiness betray;
Who, not content that former worth stand fast,
Looks forward, persevering to the last,
From well to better, daily self-surpast:
Who, whether praise of him must walk the earth
For ever, and to noble deeds give birth,
Or he must fall to sleep without his fame,
And leave a dead unprofitable name,
Finds comfort in himself and in his cause;
And, while the mortal mist is gathering, draws
His breath in confidence of Heaven’s applause:
This is the happy Warrior; this is he
Whom every Man in arms should wish to be.

A Successful Life

I want to see you game, boys, I want to see you brave and manly, and I also want to see you gentle and tender. Be practical as well as generous in your ideals. Keep your eyes on the stars and keep your feet on the ground. Courage, hard work, self-mastery, and intelligent effort are all essential to successful life. Character, in the long run, is the decisive factor in the life of an individual and of nations alike.” – Theodore Roosevelt

I count the opportunity to raise my boys, to encourage them into manhood, as one of my greatest privileges in life. We have succeeded as parents, and as a generation, if we hand over a world which has increased because of our stewardship. Conversely, we have failed if the world is diminished as a result of our presence and influence.

Roosevelt’s notion of the “strenuous life” is one which appeals to me immensely. Nowadays we might say “live hard and play hard,” but so saying draws an unhelpful distinction between work and play. Life is one thing. To live it strenuously, you must be willing to accept the challenge that life brings in every area of your living.

By this I do not mean that you have to try harder to overcome lethargy, bad habits or areas of personal weakness, in fact, I think we have the problems we have as individuals and as a nation because of all this trying, which is simply a manifestation of working harder and not smarter.

Life is inherently intelligent, coordinated and forever burgeoning. The key to building character rapidly, efficiently and sustainably is found in learning to let the stuff of life flow more freely through you in a particular area of function. In other words, you need to learn to let better and while giving up the arduous and often painful attempt to try harder.

We as a species have grown to be distrustful of life, despite its constant efforts to keep us in business. Life will come through if you yield to it, if you turn your back once and for all on the desperate attempts to control it. Life is trustworthy. Character flaws are nothing more than restrictions in the normal flow of life. Once the flow is restored, so too is the quality of character which naturally clothes that phase of life expression.

The Virtuous Mean

“Don’t make friends who are comfortable to be with. Make friends who will force you to lever yourself up.” Thomas J. Watson

Every person you meet has standards. One may shoot for the moon while another might content himself with representing the lowest common denominator, but these relative differences aside, everyone has a standard upon which he bases his decisions in life.

Those with high standards and expectations bring an invisible yet quite tangible pressure to bear on those with whom they associate, while those with low standards effect those within their sphere of influence much like a low pressure weather system. Low pressure systems, meteorologically speaking, tends to spiral inward, producing stable air, low clouds and consequently, poor visibility. Conversely, high pressure systems produce unstable air, radiate outward and upward which tends to lift cloud ceilings.

So it is with the standards to which people live their lives. Standards are often unspoken, but they manifest in relation to the details of living. The overall standard to which a person hews is determined by the mean of his virtues. This standard produces an “atmosphere”, a typically unseen yet perceptible quality which permeates and surrounds the person. So it is that people are described as being refined or coarse, inspiring or discouraging.

You influence the world primarily through the influence of this atmosphere. Your thoughts, words and actions assist, but are secondary. That said, the quality of your thoughts, words and actions, as well as the feelings you choose to invest in generate your personal atmosphere.

Likewise, the personal atmosphere of your friends has an influence on you. If the standard to which you hold yourself is conditional, that is, qualified by your judgments of the nature of your circumstances, you are likely to be lifted up by those with high standards and brought low by those with low ones. If, on the other hand, you are resolute and maintain a consistently high personal standard over time, you have more of a choice in the matter and you are much less likely to be tossed and turned by the atmospheric variations.

Take time to consider your friends, but more importantly, take time daily to review your personal atmosphere. It will tell you a lot about the standards to which you are hewing.

Moral Collection

My wonderful horse, a large and long Hanoverian named Leo, has taught and continues to teach me a great many lessons about life. One of the latest centers around a concept which is just beginning to germinate in the soil of my mind, one that the classical riding masters called rassembler.

Rassembler or “collection” as we typically refer to it nowadays, was defined by Francois Baucher in his work entitled “Méthode d’Equitation sur des nouveaux principes” as being the process of “collecting the forces of the horse in his center in order to ease his extremities, and give them up completely to the disposition of the rider.” As a result of this collection, Baucher notes that “The animal thus finds himself transformed into a kind of balance, of which the rider is the centerpiece.”

For those of you who don’t ride or train horses, it takes time to learn to collect a horse and it takes time for a horse to become sufficiently supple, balanced and strong to come to the point of collection. Many horseman use shortcuts to give the appearance of collection – apparently even in high levels of international competition – but true collection can neither be rushed nor faked.

The same process works out in human beings relative to their moral development. Each time that you successfully handle the inevitable tests of character that come up in circumstance (e.g. temptations, high pressure situations, competition, unfamiliar territory, etc.) your forces are collected, thereby disposing your body, mind and heart to the highest impulses of which we are aware as a species.

Just as with horses, moral collection begins with assouplissement or “suppling.” You are made supple when you learn to relax into, rather than react against, pressure. Many fail to get very far in relation to this. They blow it in when the demands are low, evading the inner calls to higher function. The evasions exacerbate the imbalances and heighten the tension, making them less flexible over time and as a result, less capable of handling the times of high demand.

Again, you are made supple when you relax into, rather than react against, the pressure. Physical, mental and emotional suppleness allows you to gather your forces into your center and brings the outer you into a state of being that is light and available to the subtlest wishes of the inner you.

The next time you face a difficult situation, something that requires you to stretch a little, remember my horse, Leo. Stay supple when you would normally become tense. Gather and collect when you would typically blow apart and fall to pieces. Horses are remarkable creatures whose willingness to yield to the will of an educated rider serves as a remarkable example of the process by which we can more consistently give ourselves to the higher impulses that can and should govern our every move.

Creating Destiny

Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
Watch your words, for they become actions.
Watch your habits, for they become your character.
And watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.

Thinking that you are a victim is enough to make you one, regardless of the straw you drew in life. You are not a victim of your circumstances, neither are you an impotent pawn of some generally loving but occasionally wrathful or perhaps ambivalent God. We all must make our way in the world and the idea that someone owes you a living is a childish notion.

If you wish to mature gracefully, you must learn to put childish things away. In this case, you must grow out of the needy, self-centered state that is naturally a part of childhood and grow into a generative state of being that is characterized by radiance and self-control.

Organic Refinement

If you will think about what you ought to do for other people, your character will take care of itself. Character is a by-product, and any man who devotes himself to its cultivation in his own case will become a selfish pig.” ~ Woodrow Wilson

I cannot think of a section in the bookstore that is more damaging to the lives of earnest men and women than the one placarded “Self-Improvement.” This may sound strange coming from me, given that I have over 750 consecutive daily posts that could easily be mistaken as being tips for self-improvement, but there is an ocean of difference between the self-centered “working on yourself” that is so common today and the organic refinement that comes as a by-product of serving others.

You cannot think your way into the ideal. It must emerge from the inside-out. Your highest and finest expression will come not as a result of something you’ve pasted on. It will emerge naturally as you dedicate yourself in service – or put otherwise as you “lay down your life” – for those within your direct and indirect field of influence.

There is the commonly held belief that you can take the best you’ve seen in others and incorporate it into your being in order to become a better person. I imagine that some improvement can be made using such an approach and I must confess, I relied on this heavily in my late teens and early twenties, but you are not a patchwork quilt. You are meant to be an integrated, dynamic and wholly original web – a resilient and strong matrix of the finest silk produced by means of your spirit finding expression through your service to others, not a mishmash of borrowed, copied or recycled material.

There is no textbook per se for this type of living, though the principles that lead to its manifestation are no secret. The trick is that knowledge of them is not enough. You must reveal them in your living to truly understand them. The only means I know of shortening the learning curve (and as the more advanced in years of my readers will attest, the time we have on earth is relatively short) is through serving others. Helping others to become better people by providing encouragement and inspiration at every turn is, in my book, the shortest way to becoming a better person yourself.