How Are We Making Learning Harder for Ourselves (and what can we do about it…)?

 

picture of a van overloaded with bags and a mattress

I was talking with a friend today who is a therapist and she was telling me how surprised she is by the number of adult clients she has who fit the criteria for ADD. Individuals who haven’t been previously diagnosed with it, who struggle with anxiety as well. As is my wont, I wondered aloud how much of that has to do with the way we have set up society and the expectations we have of people – many of which have been exacerbated in the last two years. She stopped walking, poked me in the shoulder, snort-laughed and said, “All of it. 100%.”

We both laughed and continued walking and talking, but this is something I’ve been thinking about a great deal lately – not ADD specifically, but the way we have work and school set up in direct opposition to the way the human brain is designed to learn.

Our brains aren’t supposed to be like empty vessels, primed and ready to dump vast amounts of information in, and immediately turn them in to meaningful connections. We aren’t trash-compacters, but that’s how we have set things up for ourselves in the name of “efficiency” and “productivity.”

In a workshop this week, I was speaking with parents about screen time and how we can manage it for our children so that it isn’t overwhelming or harmful. One parent lamented that her child has a hard time transitioning from screen time to other things – bedtime or naps or outside time – and that it often becomes a power struggle or fertile ground for a tantrum. Many other parents nodded their heads vigorously. This is a prime example of how we aren’t honoring our brain’s need for processing. Even when it looks like we aren’t doing anything (watching YouTube videos or TikToks or bingeing episodes of our favorite show), our brains are taking in information, and for kids, that’s a lot of stimulation. Especially for young children (under the age of ten or so), their brains are designed to be soaking up input on a vast scale, but in order to learn, they need time to integrate that information. Watching four episodes of Dora the Explorer back to back before having to dash off to school or soccer practice or bed doesn’t give them the opportunity to find context, make meaning, process the information they just stuffed in their head.

While I don’t have the same brain as a five year old, my brain needs that, too. I told the parents at the workshop that I don’t ever schedule back-to-back meetings anymore for that very reason. [I realize what an enormous privilege that is, and also, I really want more companies to normalize that as a practice] If my calendar is full of one meeting after the next all day long, the group of folks who I see at 2:30pm are going to get a shell of my former self. They will get someone who has massive decision-fatigue, whose head is buzzing with ideas and information from all of the other interactions I’ve had that day, and the things that happened in earlier meetings are likely to get shoved out of my head before I have a chance to really fully process and integrate them. If, instead, I have time in between meetings to talk to folks casually about what I learned (learning happens in relationship, after all), doodle, make notes and dig a little deeper on my own, I am much more likely to have creative ideas about how to implement things or understand how they apply to other contexts.

This is why I think middle and high schools are getting it wrong with kids on a massive scale. Asking kids to spend an eight-hour day switching from one subject to the next with only a five or ten minute break to physically move from one place to the other is not conducive to deep contextualizing. It doesn’t allow them to really sit with the history lesson they were just presented with (even if your school is one that has a “block schedule” with longer periods that happen fewer times per week) or talk to a peer about what it means that the Fibonacci sequence shows up everywhere in nature. The way we have set up schools, we have virtually guaranteed that kids won’t retain or be able to frame much of what they’re taught, at least not until they are in college where classes are spaced out in time somewhat.

My oldest daughter noticed when she went to college that if she studied until ten or eleven pm and then went to work out or take a bath and get rest the night before a test, she did much better on the test than her peers who stayed in the library until four in the morning, cramming as much as they could into their brains, and then took the test at eight am. That’s because rest allows us to daydream, it allows our minds to wander and make connections we wouldn’t otherwise make while we’re busy stuffing more data into them. Many of us know this already. The studies have been done. And yet, we continue to prioritize meeting after meeting as though that is some evidence of productivity.

Creativity is where innovation comes from, but if we don’t give ourselves time to daydream and contextualize, we can’t be creative. Letting your child watch one episode of Dora and then asking them to draw a picture of what they watched or build a Lego representation or simply tell us about it – all of it; the colors, what struck them the most, what made them laugh or worry, how it compares to other episodes – provides their brains space to make meaning of it, to learn from it in a much more holistic way. And, because learning happens in the context of relationship, it means the impact of that one show will be much bigger. The bonus is that they won’t need to “relieve” their nervous system of the sensory overload of bingeing four episodes in a row by throwing a tantrum. This works with older kids, too. Encouraging them to talk to us about the video game they love or the YouTube account they follow can help build a deeper understanding of what’s exciting about it, where their own passions lie, and place it firmly within the realm of the human.

Perhaps the most beneficial part of all of this is that it builds relationship. Taking time to talk with others about the things we’re experiencing – especially our kids – normalizes these kinds of conversations and allows us to see life through different perspectives that add dimension to our lives. And honoring the way our brains were designed to absorb new information means that we are more likely to be able to pay attention to the next thing that comes along and be in the habit of thinking about it more deeply.

I am beginning to believe that people who struggle with ADD are often fighting against the systems that expect us to be able to rapidly switch between tasks without contextualizing them, and for good reason. There is a way in which we’ve socialized ourselves from a very young age to believe that multi-tasking is a good thing (and that it is even possible) and that we should be able to absorb vast quantities of information in any given day. We don’t teach children to focus and we don’t set up systems to enable focus, but we growl in frustration when they can’t. What if a person’s tendency to switch their locus of attention mid-stream is the brain’s attempt to protect itself from sensory overload? There is no doubt that the world in which I grew up was much less overwhelming than the world in which kids are growing up now. I am lucky enough to be able to put systems into place that help me avoid being bombarded with too much input that I can’t process, but most people aren’t.  As parents, how can we create some of this for our kids? As employers, how can we do this for the people we work with?

Shame Rebel Podcast Interview

 

I had such a wonderful time talking with Katie for her new podcast, Shame Rebel, where she explores different ways we carry and inflict shame on each other people. We talked about relationship, parenting, teaching, and how to stop shaming yourself. Check out all of the episodes and stay tuned for more news about the book that’s forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield for parents and educators of teens.

SEL and Online Learning: Some Tips

Online school is hard for everyone in one way or another. Parents, teachers, administrators and students all find aspects of online learning they struggle with. While this is something I put together for an SEL conference, it also applies to all online education spaces if we have any hope of making learning meaningful for students right now.

  1. Know Your Students – get to know who they are, how they identify, what the barriers and challenges are that they face with regard to online learning. If this is the only thing you do, it will be important.
  2. Engage Students – Create opportunities for students to be part of the learning process. The more our students are empowered to be the architects of their own learning spaces, the more they will learn and the more they teach their peers. Be willing to acknowledge the unique perspectives and talents every student has that can enrich the learning environment for everyone.
  3. Vary Access Points – Make sure you aren’t just catering to students who are comfortable with online school. Provide links to videos, models they can hold in their hands, music and other forms of information they can engage with. Even students can be surprised at what sparks their interest and understanding.
  4. Use Social Media – this can feel a little concerning; creating relationship with students outside of the school learning platforms, and I get it. But students learn best from folks they’re in relationship with, so even if you just create an Instagram account where you post memes that are relevant to what you’re teaching, it’s a way to connect with students where they are already spending time.
  5. Prioritize Relationship – I know we all have specific things we want students to learn about, but remember, students learn best in the context of relationship. Make sure you’re giving them lots of opportunities to connect with you and others – smaller groups or 1:1 time with a peer or giving them tasks that will spur creativity and bonding outside of the subject matter.
  6. Know What’s Important – and express it to students. Competition and assessment are not important when it comes to SEL. This is about creating connections for students and helping them understand how to know themselves and find their tribe. You can’t challenge them to do that, you have to empower them to do it.
  7. Share Power – Make sure you communicate clearly to students how they can share their ideas and contribute. This can mean thoroughly explaining the “raise hand” feature on an online meeting platform or letting them know that feedback can be anonymous or submitted “offline” if they feel intimidated by sharing in the larger group. Build in time for feedback about which lessons and ideas resonate and which fall flat as well as generating thoughts about what would work better. Do it every session. Convince your students that they are part of the process and help them feel confident sharing their ideas.

When Having a Suicide Prevention Protocol isn’t Enough

wooded area with footpath to a small stone temple

A friend who is a middle-school educator and the parent of two adolescents shared with me this morning that she learned about a student her son’s age who took his own life last week. As expected, it has shaken her and caused her to examine how to respond, both as a teacher and as a parent. She said that the school district has deployed its suicide prevention protocol and, while she is grateful there is one in place, she told me that it feels “mechanistic.” It is definitely important for schools to have a set of tasks and supports available in the event that a tragedy like this happens, but the truth is, it isn’t enough, and without those protocols being grounded in secure relationships that already exist between staff and students and families, it will always feel like a checklist instead of a true, heartfelt response.

We can’t hope to deploy these resources and talking points after the fact in any effective way if we haven’t put in the effort to create strong relationships before something painful happens. Even if we as adults are sincere in our offer to be available for students and families who are grieving and frightened and angry, if we haven’t established – through a pattern of behavior they can trust – a connection before, it is unlikely that those who are in the most pain will feel comfortable coming to us. And if we haven’t processed our own grief and pain, or at least identified them, we will appear to be unsympathetic or simply going through the motions.

My friend noted that, over the years, this particular student had been noticed by many different teachers who wanted to find a way to help him. All too often, protocols and standard practices serve to prevent us from creating caring relationships with students who could use our support. Whether it is a culture that encourages school staff to see certain things as their purview (education and behavior management inside the school setting or hours) and assign others to families (deeper emotional and adjustment issues), or one that encourages them to be hands off for fear of liability, those things stand in the way of building truly supportive connections with students. It may be that class sizes prevent teachers from being able to connect with all of their students or a lack of resources means that there isn’t a skilled, trained staff member who could build a relationship with a student and their family. Whatever the barriers are, if we aren’t working to be in relationship with our students and their families or caregivers, when something like this happens, we won’t be able to provide the kind of support that is most profound and meaningful, even with a list of well-researched actions and scripts in our back pocket.

We know that students learn best when they feel as though they are in connected relationships with their teachers. We also know that they learn best when they are supported at home. Having a suicide prevention protocol might look good from the outside, but if we aren’t using it in the context of foundational relationships with students and families who believe that they can trust us and speak honestly about their struggles, it doesn’t amount to much. It is up to us to do the hard work of creating connections between teachers and students and families so that when there is a tragedy, we can rely on our relationships to hold us all as we grieve.

Going Deeper with Non-Violent Communication

Many parents and educators will have some familiarity with the idea of Non-Violent Communication (NVC), and many will not. It is something that I have drawn on to create both parent and youth curricula through The SELF Project, and I believe it’s an important concept to explore in regards to relationship and community-building. If you’re interested, I recommend checking out The Center for Nonviolent Communication‘s website where they offer basic training, information, and opportunities to connect with others exploring this work. For now, though, I’ll simply include their definition of NVC here:

Nonviolent Communication, (NVC), is based on the principles of nonviolence– the natural state of compassion when no violence is present in the heart. NVC begins by assuming that we are all compassionate by nature and that violent strategies—whether verbal or physical—are learned behaviors taught and supported by the prevailing culture.

NVC also assumes that we all share the same, basic human needs, and that all actions are a strategy to meet one or more of these needs. People who practice NVC have found greater authenticity in their communication, Increased understanding, deepening connection and conflict resolution.

The NVC community is active in over 65 countries around the globe.

The most basic rule of NVC asks that we try to focus our interactions around conflict and disagreement on our needs, rather than the tactics we’re using to get those needs met. Meaning, that you and I might be arguing about a political idea but what lies beneath our opposite positions is that we both want to feel safe and taken care of by our society. If we can peel back the layers of conversation so that we are able to acknowledge that we actually both want the same thing, the idea is that we can begin to connect on a more human level and expand our ability to have compassion for each other. But sometimes, that concept is trickier than others and here is why I think that happens:

Even if you and I both have the same basic need (ie. feeling safe and heard), it is important to recognize that what that looks like for each of us may be very different. You might feel safest if I don’t challenge you or disagree with you, while I might only feel safe if I am allowed to challenge your ideas or disagree with you. This generally happens in situations where one person has more power or agency than the other – say, in a classroom or a home where the disagreement is between a teen and their parental figure. If there is a power imbalance, it is important to address that before we can expect an honest conversation to happen.

In relationships that have been challenging or have established a dynamic where one person routinely sublimates their own needs or desires in order to keep peace (ie. feel safe), NVC may not be an option until there is significant repair of the relationship. If I have been told more than once that my needs are frivolous or imagined, it might be unrealistic to expect me to be honest with you about what I think I need in this situation, and if I can’t be honest, NVC won’t work.

Often, attempting to focus on what the other person needs can bring up some difficult emotions and thoughts, and this can happen for a variety of reasons. If it does, it’s a great opportunity to explore the relationship dynamic and look for a power imbalance, whether or not you generally feel safe with that person, and if there is mutual positive regard (ie. you trust each other and think the best of the other person’s intentions). It can take many conversations over a long period of time to establish a relationship dynamic that allows for non-violent communication techniques. It isn’t something you can simply flip on and have it work. Often, the work starts with us and our willingness to get really clear on our own needs and what they look like. For example, we may say we need to feel respected, but we also should be able to describe what that would look and feel like to us – does that mean you don’t interrupt me when I’m speaking? That you don’t try to explain away my needs or ideas as frivolous or over-reacting? That you are able to mirror back to me what I just said so that I know you were actively listening? It turns out that often, our idea of being heard or respected or safe is very very different from what other people think it is.

I do think it is important that educators and parents practice NVC with adolescents, both as a way to strengthen relationship and also to model it for them. I also know that it takes practice and intent and a willingness to spend some time looking at how we’ve managed those relationships in the past and what our needs are before we dive headlong in to challenging conversations.

What I hope students develop and strengthen after working with the self project curriculum

It may feel like it’s a bit late for me to be telling you about my goals for this work now, but better late than never, right? It turns out that there are a lot of ideas about the outcomes of SEL and what they ought to look like, but I suspect my thoughts deviate slightly from the norm. I am really not interested in behavior management or assimilation or “grading” students on their “performance” or demonstration of the identified goals of SEL. Because this work is really rooted in relationship, and because human beings learn best in community and thrive in social contexts, my hopes for individual students are much less “measurable” but no less important.

  1. I hope that this curriculum/this work helps students develop resilience, meaning that they are able to experience adversity in many different realms (work, school, personal relationships, life circumstances) and know that they have support, where to find it, and how to ask for it and receive it.
  2. I want students to develop the ability to form trusting relationships with others, know when it is safe to be vulnerable (and with whom), and know how and when to ask for help and support. Cultivating a network of people with the ability and willingness to offer help that is meaningful and substantial without any expectations is a key part of building resilience.
  3. This curriculum was designed to help students identify, strengthen, and claim their individual strengths in a way that feels natural and purposeful.
  4. Students who work through this curriculum will be able to meet challenges of all kinds with courage. That doesn’t mean they don’t have fear or the occasional doubts about themselves, but it does mean that they know they can ask for help if they need it, and that the outcome of being challenged is learning.
  5. I hope that students who engage in this work will learn to create and maintain healthy boundaries that allow them to be challenged, but not disrespected or harmed, and signal to themselves and the wider community that they have enough self-love to demand that they are treated with respect and reverence.
  6. I want this work to expand the capacity of young people to experience joy.
  7. Because this work is done in community, it should give students both opportunities to feel supported in community and know that they are vital to their community because of their unique voice.
  8. This work should also help ground students in a solid notion of who they are as an individual at their core, even as they grow and change.

Adults who take on the task of doing this work with students should keep these goals in mind and identify for themselves what it means to support students without co-opting their ideas and feelings for a different agenda, and understand that this work’s importance lies in creating a culture of interdependence, of community, of fostering a space where we can have conversations about difficult subjects without needing to come to a tidy conclusion.

Please reach out to me with questions about any of this. It is more vital now than ever that we begin to dig in to this work with adolescents.

Tips for educators: cultural responsiveness and student-centered work

I spent three amazing, brain-busting days in Chicago at the CASEL SELXChange conference two weeks ago and I know that the lessons and conversations will continue to reverberate in my brain for a long time to come. It was an extraordinary gathering of folks who are interested in the well-being of children and how we can fix the broken education system to serve children better.

There are so many places to focus attention and shine a light, but the one I’ve chosen to dig further in to this week is the idea of cultural differences and what they mean and how they affect the experiences of students every day. The first thing I did was pick up Zaretta Hammond’s book “Culturally Responsive Teaching & the Brain.”

As commonly happens in my world, things started to converge. When I read her explanation of “cultural archetypes,” in particular, the distinction between collectivism and individualism, I was reminded of a quote I’ve heard over and over again from Peter Drucker:

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Of course, he was referring to the culture of a company, but it’s true in the case of schools, too. We can have the best educational strategies around, but if they don’t take in to account the cultural background of the kids we’re teaching, they will fall flat. Hammond talks about the fact that many kids will come to school from families whose beliefs and values center around collectivism, and if we have our classroom norms set up around individualism, those kids will struggle to find resonance.

Even if we put kids in to groups to do projects or explore concepts, our bedrock in most cases is individualism – we talk about leaders (singling out one student in each group) and emphasize grades and don’t take the time to explore what each student is bringing to the table as far as cultural viewpoints.

As my amazing, insightful friend Jen Lemen says, “the way we hold individuality and the idea of contribution to a group puts a lot of weight on our personal preferences and experiences and a lot of weight on the group being a certain way. If the groups aren’t a certain way and I don’t feel good myself, I have to hyper-individualize or hyper-conform or squash some part of myself. After doing that for a while, either you crack or the system cracks.”

Encouraging kids to do group work without really talking about what that means and exploring the responsibility of each member to themselves and the others is asking a lot. As I talked about in my last post, we can’t assume that everyone is coming to the work in the same way, and if our classrooms and systems are set up to reward individualism, then the kids who have been steeped in that culture will naturally thrive while the ones for whom individualism is alien and challenging will not. Simply calling something “group work” or “collective” is not enough. We have to really understand what that means to each student and acknowledge the barriers it throws up for some.

The kids who are coming to us with completely different world views are already working harder. If our systems trigger big questions of values and identity for them, the work they do to conform derails the work they’re doing to learn the material we present. And for some of those kids, behavior issues are a result of hyper-individualizing or cracking. When the system is bigger than you and supported by the dominant culture, it’s more likely that you’ll crack than the system. But as more and more children from diverse backgrounds enter our school system, what we are seeing is the system beginning to fall apart. Rather than panicking and trying to shore it up, I believe we need to see it as an opportunity to radically re-think how we serve kids.

We’ve centered the system for far too long. It’s time to start centering the students and their well-being. There are many ways to do that, and one incredibly powerful one is for folks to find Hammond’s book and hold it up against the practices and priorities we have in our educational systems right now to see where we can do better.

Effective SEL Practices for Educators (and Parents), Part 2

Part 1 is here. This post will explore qualities of effective leaders, expectations of leaders, barriers to functional groups, and what a “good” group looks like.

Qualities of Effective Leaders: First and foremost, it’s important to recognize that there is always always a power differential. As hard as we may work to make kids feel safe, we have to remember that it will take time to earn trust and build relationships, and the more we exert our authority or use it as a tool to manage the conversation and get our way, the harder it will be to build rapport. Trust is an outcome of honest conversation, not a prerequisite for it.

Second, we have to be willing and able to examine our own biases/habits/behaviors. Without judging or shaming or blaming, simply acknowledging our tendency to wield power or assume ill intent or use body language to express our disapproval or disagreement will help us as leaders and parents to think about how those things affect the atmosphere we are trying to create. The more we can do this, the more we are able to choose mindful responses and actions when we’re in tricky situations with adolescents, especially if we are uncomfortable.

Next, it’s vital that we remain accountable to the larger group or relationship. Getting defensive is not a path to relationship-building. Staying humble and curious and treating everyone as though their perspective is important and deserves air-time (even if we vehemently disagree) is key. When someone lets us know that they feel shut-down or disrespected or triggered, it is our responsibility as leaders to set aside our knee-jerk responses and dig in to really understand. Dismissing another person’s emotional response is a quick way to stifle connection.

Expectations for Leaders: Stay present. Letting past challenges or future worries invade the conversation, or dissociating because the topic isn’t compelling to you or it’s a difficult one to sit with derails the conversation.

Lead with curiosity. We have to be willing to give kids this age air-time, if only to give them practice speaking up about challenging issues. The more they feel listened to, the more they’re willing to engage.

Lead by example. Be honest about your own difficulties, show compassion for everyone in the room, listen carefully. (The one caveat I have here is that it is possible to share too much. Remember that this is about the kids, so while it is helpful for them to see us being human and vulnerable, oversharing can make it feel like a lecture or as if we are comparing our experiences to theirs. The goal is to help them understand that it’s ok to talk about hard things and that there are a range of perspectives that are all valid and important.)

Support and encourage everyone. Acknowledge how hard this work is and praise individuals for sitting with discomfort, for learning to be with it and not run away.

Barriers to Good Groups: Huge power differentials – there can’t be one or two people always driving the conversation or making the decisions.

Norms are habitual and largely unexamined. It’s important to really spend time looking at the expectations for any group through the lens of each participant.

Focusing on consensus or agreement. The goal of SEL is to learn to appreciate difference, see diverse opinions and perspectives as strengths, and encourage everyone to speak up. The tendency of adolescents is to ‘fit in’ and in many cases that means people-pleasing. It may be difficult, but it is vital to remind kids that the goal is not for everyone to conform.

Attributes of Good Groups: Effective groups have a balance of engagement of all voices. They are also self-aware and able to change when necessary – if there are behaviors that are preventing honest conversation such as bias or stereotypes, good groups are willing to stop and address those underlying issues. Groups that are doing the hard work are able to look at systems/policies/norms that are unproductive and center folks whose needs aren’t being served.

Good groups also lead with curiosity and prioritize learning and understanding. They know that their purpose is to get messy and really open up, not necessarily to come to some larger “conclusion.”

All of these things are a work in progress. There is no group/classroom/family that will start out with all of these qualities and hit the ground running. As I wrote in Part One, the important thing is that you begin, and that you are willing to stay curious and make adjustments as you go, thanks to feedback from anyone in the group.

I’d love to hear your comments or questions!

 

Effective SEL Practices for Educators (and Parents), Part 1

You can have a curriculum or a set of ideas in front of you and still not know where to begin when it comes to working with teens on social-emotional health and well-being. Because there isn’t an answer key, it is often intimidating to sit down with an adolescent or a room full of them and talk about hard things – things that most of us haven’t been encouraged to share. I’ve been studying Dr. Craig Elliott‘s work on social justice and racial caucusing and many of his ideas adapt well to this kind of work.

PRE-WORK – Before we start, it’s important to think about some key things that could impact how we interact with kids, especially around difficult topics.

  1. We have to examine our parenting/leadership experiences to find patterns, norms or habits we have, history or traditions we carry forward without thinking about them, and stereotypes and myths we have about teens, kids of color, gender roles, etc.
  2. It is also important to examine our relationship with leading/parenting – did we come to it with enthusiasm or not, have we internalized ideas of what it “should” or “shouldn’t” look like, are we resentful of the role itself?
  3. Next, we need to spend time thinking about our own experiences as teens – were they largely positive or negative, are there things we suffered through that we feel are “rites of passage” and we will perpetuate?
  4. And finally, be very clear on your intentions as you move forward – are you looking to help the adolescent(s) in your life come to their own conclusions or is it more important for you to impose your values and will on them, are you looking to establish your own place as an expert or do you want them to find their own expertise on themselves?

IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER – We learn best in relationship, but only if we feel safe. For teenagers, this not only means that they feel free to share their ideas and thoughts without fear of punishment, but that they feel as though they are part of the group, that they won’t be mocked or shamed for thinking out loud or expressing ideas that may not be fully formed. Belonging = survival in the adolescent brain. This means that it is incredibly important to spend more time and energy investing in community-building, especially in the beginning. Respect, safety, and accountability are all key parts of a strong relationship.

It can be incredibly intimidating to dive in, but there is no Right or Wrong answer. It is most important that we begin. We can always change course, apologize for mis-steps, and learn to do better, but we have to do the work.

Part 2 will look at qualities of effective leaders, strong groups, barriers to productive work, and expectations for leaders. Feel free to ask questions in the comments.

When Competition Brings Out the Worst in Us

  Human beings like certainty. We like rules and order and we especially like it when we can make analogies in order to extrapolate principles from one thing to another as a way to make sense of the world. Unfortunately, sometimes we do this without questioning the basic underlying ideas or thinking about potential consequences. Case in point, the notion that competition is good for us, that it spurs us to greater feats, drives us to do things we wouldn’t do on our own.

The “Space Race” in the late 1950s and early 1960s between the US and the Soveit Union is widely touted as a prime example of competition that benefited humanity as a whole. There are those who say that humans would never have made it to the moon without it, or at least not as quickly.

Capitalism is rooted in the idea that competition for customers means that companies will be held to account, that they will continue to innovate and grow and we will all be better off.

We’ve extended these ideas to our places of work and our schools – reviewing employees and students on a bell curve, creating sales incentives and spelling bees and the like. Some parents even pit their own children against each other in competitions around chores and grades, but are we really benefiting from this culture of competition?

First and foremost, the notion that competition is responsible for bringing out the best in us is based on a pretty dim notion of human nature. It presupposes that we are not internally motivated enough to innovate and create things on our own, which I don’t believe is true. I think that humans are naturally driven to want to create and improve on things and that competition can actually bring out the worst in us.

Left to our own devices and given ample time and space to experiment and work on things we are interested in, we may find that we get blocked or need some outside inspiration. We can also discover that there are different ways of thinking about things and perhaps feel more free to expand our creativity. But when we’re worried about “losing” a race of some sort, we can take shortcuts, fudge data, and become more focused on the end result than we are on the ultimate goal. Our brains react to this stress with a flood of stress hormones that shut down our ability to be creative or think rationally, and the emotional need to triumph takes precedence.

The idea that human beings require some sort of external motivation to perform to our potential is baked in to our cultural narrative, but are we actually training ourselves to eliminate our own internal reasons for acting, thinking, innovating? When we teach kids that they can’t be trusted to come up with their own ideas unless we give them a compelling reason, we are underestimating the human need to challenge ourselves and think creatively.

If our reasons for scientific discovery and product innovation center around competition with other countries or becoming the richest entrepreneur, are we really living up to our potential, or have we simply become slaves to an artificial construct? Does Apple feel like they really need to innovate on their phone technology or are they simply creating new phone after new phone because that’s what is expected of corporations? Is it because their executives want to continue to be the most well-compensated workers in the world or because they want to maintain their place on the NASDAQ or Fortune Magazine’s lists of successful companies?

If human beings are designed to create and be in community -which there is ample scientific evidence to support – then the premise that we are unmotivated slugs who need to one-up each other is contrary to our actual nature. If we have decided that competition is the way to keep moving forward, we have also said that creativity and collaboration are not as important, even though these things are an integral part of what it means to be a healthy human being.

What if our entire economy, educational system and cultural ethos are built on a premise that is anathema to what it means to be human? And what if we’ve bought in to it so deeply that it is creating depression, isolation, and anxiety on an epic scale? How can we begin to shift our view of humanity to acknowledge that people will create, innovate, and grow regardless of whether we challenge them to do so? What if we trust that, even if someone else’s process doesn’t look exactly like we think it ought to, if we give them time and space and support enough to believe in themselves, they will flourish and begin to express their purpose and passion and it will end up benefiting us all?