How Children Succeed – Grit, Curiosity, and the hidden power of Character

Paul Tough‘s conclusions can be summed up very briefly:
- the biggest obstacle to academic & life success is a home & a community that create high levels of stress, and the absence of a secure relationship with a caregiver that would allow a child to manage stress;
- non-cognitive skills, like conscientiousness, grit, resilience, perseverance and optimism are more important than cognitive skills for young people to succeed in life;
- character matters; as the author points out, conservatives are right about this. But character is molded by the environment and as a society we can do a lot to influence its development in children; as the author points out, liberals are right about this. “We now know a great deal about what kind of interventions will help children develop those strengths and skills, starting at birth and going all the way through college.” (p. 196).
To get to those conclusions the author takes the reader on a very interesting journey, and that is what makes the book superb. It is well written and a treasure throve of scientific insights and cutting edge research, with moving stories about students, teachers and schools that make the science alive. Mr. Tough introduces the reader to innovative interventions for children and adolescents while painting insightful portraits of the people at the forefront in the quest to develop (or at least not squander) the human capital of this nation.
I felt the author’s position was very balanced. While looking for successes in his reporting, he does not shy away from highlighting the difficulties and the unknown: e.g., he puts the early successful KIPP’s results into perspective, with the good, the bad and what can be done differently; you got a sense this topic is still a work in progress; he makes it very clear that “No one [author’s emphasis] has found a reliable way to help deeply disadvantaged children, in fact.”(p. 193).
But overall there is a sense that, in the end, we will figure it out. A sense of possibility.
For passion and for work I read a lot of books about psychology, neuroscience & leadership / personal development. I always learn a lot.
But this book is different. Not only did I learn a lot. I was also moved.
I was totally absorbed and emotionally involved in the stories of the kids the author features in his narrative.
Mr Tough says that when he spent time with these young people he felt “a sense of anger for what they’ve already missed.”
I felt the same way – and that goes to his credit. I almost feel as if I personally know little James Black  or Kewauna. I did get mad on their behalf.
Mr. Tough also says he had a second reaction: “a feeling of admiration and hope when I watch young people making the difficult and often painful choice to follow a better path, to turn away from what might have seemed like their inevitable destiny.”  (p. 197).
That is what I felt as well – again, to Mr. Tough’s credit.
I am already doing some volunteer work with Big Brothers, Big Sisters.
But you get sucked in the local situation and your horizons get narrower.
Reading this book widened my perspective and made me fully appreciate the depth of the problem but also the promise of better days to come if we embrace a new way to tackle it.
So I made the resolution to get more involved next year.
Here is my recommendation: read the book.
You will learn a lot – about neuroscience, about parenting, about teaching and about what makes people successful.
You will meet some young people who deserve all of our respect and admiration.
Hopefully, you will be moved as well to do something, even a little tiny bit, to make a difference.

Note: this book review was originally posted on Amazon, here –>

Nine Brain Myths

Here is my rule-of-thumb regarding “social media”:

– I use this blog to share observations, thoughts, reflections about (Solution-Focused) Coaching, Training and Consulting.

– I use my business FaceBook page to post daily links to articles or blog posts that might be relevant to Coaches,  Therapists, Trainers and Consultants. If interested, just “like” the page and the links will appear in your FB newsfeed.

I decided to break my own guidelines and post here the following link —>

And here is the summary:
Nine Stubborn Brain Myths That Just Won’t Die, Debunked by Science
Brain games will make you smarter! The internet is making you dumber! Alcohol is killing your brain cells! The brain is a mystery we’ve been trying to solve for ages, and the desire to unlock its secrets has led to vast amounts of misinformation. Many of these false notions are more widely believed than the truth. We took our healthy skepticism and a bunch of brain research to find the truth behind some of the most common myths about intelligence and our brains. Here’s what we learned.

it is too important to weed out superstitions that get in the way of effective change strategies!

PS: if you want to learn more, read “50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology“, highly recommended!

Michael Shermer – The Believing Brain

Michael Shermer‘s “The Believing Brain” is a gem: a treatise on the brain as a “belief engine”.

I strongly recommend it: Shermer shows how “dependent our beliefs are on a multitude of subjective, personal, emotional and psychological factors”; how belief systems are “formed, nourished, reinforced, changed and extinguished”; how belief systems operate ‘”with regard to belief in religion, the afterlife, God, extraterrestrial, conspiracies, politics, economics and ideologies”; and finally how we know which beliefs are true and which are false.

Here are a few selected quotes – I hope you find them intriguing enough to make you want to get the book and read it.

On how we form beliefs:

“The first process I call patternicity: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data.

The second process I call agenticity: the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency.

These meaningful patterns become beliefs, and these beliefs shape our understanding of reality. Once beliefs are formed, the brain begins to look for and find confirmatory evidence in support of those beliefs..”

On belief- dependent realisms:

“In fact, all models of the world, not just scientific models, are foundational to our beliefs, and belief-dependent realism means that we cannot escape this epistemological trap. We can, however, employ the tools of science, which are designed to test whether or not a particular model or belief about reality matches observations made not just by ourselves but by others as well.”

“What you believe is what you see. The label is the behavior. Theory molds data. Concepts determine percepts. Belief-dependent realism.”

On the relationship between “believing weird things” and intelligence:

“A common myth most of us intuitively accept is that there is a negative correlation between intelligence and belief: as intelligence goes up belief in superstition or magic goes down. This, in fact, turns out not to be the case, especially as you move up the IQ spectrum… once people commit to a belief, the smarter they are the better they are at rationalizing those beliefs. Thus: smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for nonsmart reasons.”

On why it makes sense we evolved to err on the “false positive” side, i.e. believing something is real when it is not

“If you assume that the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator but it turns out that it is just the wind, you have made what is called a Type I error in cognition, also known as a false positive, or believing something is real when it is not. That is, you have found a nonexistent pattern.

“If you assume that the rustle in the grass is just the wind but it turns out that it is a dangerous predator, you have made what is called a Type II error in cognition, also known as a false negative, or believing something is not real when it is. That is, you have missed a real pattern.”

“[our] default position is to assume that all patterns are real; that is, assume that all rustles in the grass are dangerous predators and not the wind.”

“Several psychological studies appear to support [seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher Baruch] Spinoza’s conjecture that the mere comprehension of a statement entails the tacit acceptance of its being true, whereas disbelief requires a subsequent process of rejection,…”

On science vs. anecdotal thinking:

“Anecdotal thinking comes naturally, science requires training.”

On how behaviors that were highly adaptive in the past misfire in today’s environment:

“(A) sweet and rich foods are strongly associated with (B) nutritious and rare. Therefore, we gravitate to any and all foods that are sweet and rich, and because they were once rare we have no satiation network in the brain that tells us to shut off the hunger mechanism, so we eat as much as we can of them.”

On uncertainty and “magic thinking”:

“Uncertainty makes people anxious, and anxiety is related to magical thinking.”

On reductionism:

“All experience is mediated by the brain. The mind is what the brain does. There is no such thing as “mind” per se, outside of brain activity. Mind is just a word we use to describe neural activity in the brain. No brain, no mind.”

On the relationship between creativity and madness:

“The connection between patternicity, creativity, and madness comes from a thinking style that is too all inclusive and that indiscriminately sees patterns everywhere.”

On religious attitudes and genetics:

“approximately 55 percent of the variance in religious attitudes is genetic, approximately 39 percent can be attributed to the nonshared environment, approximately 5 percent is unassigned, and only about 3 percent is attributable to the shared family environment”

On liberals vs. conservatives:

“Liberals are higher than conservatives on 1 and 2 (harm/care and fairness/reciprocity), but lower than conservatives on 3, 4, and 5 (in-group/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity).”

“…a more reflective approach is to recognize that liberals and conservatives emphasize different moral values and tend to sort themselves into these two clusters.”

On being realistic vs. political utopias:

“Good fences make good neighbors because evil people really are part of the moral landscape.”

On libertarianism:

“Ludwig von Mises was first among equals; he taught me that interventionism leads to more interventionism, and that if you can intervene to protect individuals from dangerous drugs, what about dangerous ideas?”

“Principle of Freedom: all people are free to think, believe, and act as they choose, so long as they do not infringe on the equal freedom of others.”

“… a dozen essentials to liberty and freedom that need shielding from encroachment:   1. The rule of law.   2. Property rights.   3. Economic stability through a secure and trustworthy banking and monetary system.   4. A reliable infrastructure and the freedom to move about the country.   5. Freedom of speech and the press.   6. Freedom of association.   7. Mass education.   8. Protection of civil liberties.   9. A robust military for protection of our liberties from attacks by other states. 10. A potent police force for protection of our freedoms from attacks by other people within the state. 11. A viable legislative system for establishing fair and just laws. 12. An effective judicial system for the equitable enforcement of those fair and just laws.”

“Organizing libertarians is like herding cats.”

On science:

“Feynman echoed Galileo’s principle in his observation about determining if your theory is right or wrong: “If it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t make any difference how beautiful your guess is, how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is. If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.”

“Science begins with something called a null hypothesis.

the hypothesis under investigation is not true, or null, until proven otherwise. A null hypothesis states that X does not cause Y. If you think X does cause Y then the burden of proof is on you to provide convincing experimental data to reject the null hypothesis.”

“So many claims of this nature are based on negative evidence. That is, if science cannot explain X, then your explanation for X is necessarily true. Not so. In science lots of mysteries remain unexplained until further evidence arises, and problems are often left unsolved until another day.”

On skepticism:

“A skeptic simply does not believe a knowledge claim until sufficient evidence is presented to reject the null hypothesis (that a knowledge claim is not true until proven otherwise).”


And this is just a sample.

In the book you can also find: a complete and detailed list of cognitive biases; an interesting account of the neuroscience of beliefs; a great (and very respectful) chapter on religion, atheism and agnosticism; insightful stories about Michael Shermer’s own life; well written stories about the emergence of science (e.g. about Galileo and the reaction to his discoveries)… and more!

Your Brain at Work

Your Brain at Work is a pop psych book.

Unfortunately, the category “pop psych” book has been misused and abused in the past, so that classification does not do the book justice.

Your Brain at Work is how a pop psych book should be: well-grounded in research, very well written and offering useful behavioral tips which follow directly from understanding how the brain works. As the cover of the book states: know your brain, transform your performance.

David Rock is really good at making neuroscience’s findings relevant to everyday’s life: each chapter opens with a snapshot of work life (e.g. a person having to make a decision, or dealing with pressure) and how it usually goes (wrong); then the author follows up by explaining why, according to current understanding of the brain, the person in the story behaves as he or she does; the chapter ends with a take 2, i.e. how the story could end differently if the person had understood how his or her brain worked (happy ending). Moreover, at the end of the chapter one can find two paragraphs: one with the title “Surprises about the brain” which summarizes the main points of the chapter and the other one, “things to try”, with some tips to make use of this understanding of how the brain works.

The book is centered around three main insights:
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