Monday, June 20, 2016

Yup, you can learn to be helpless

Opportunity: learn from failure
However, you can also learn to help yourself and learn you are capable of improving. Let yourself fail; let others fail. Then give yourself and others the opportunity to learn from that failure.

I read this great article about how people learn to be helpless through experience and environment. The piece was tweeted by Cash Nickerson (@cashnickerson). The article "Don't Give Learned Helplessness a Chance" was written by Patrick Willer who first explains how the process occurs in animals and then relates it to human behavior.

Why did I connect so quickly to this article? I have been battling this phenomenon in my students for nearly 20 years now. I hear "I don't know (IDK)" and the ever popular condition of "I'm bad at that." They have become convinced that they are helpless. Willer's article though brief offers great insight into how this behavioral response can become embedded rather quickly.

Willard brings up a common example that I have found students to feel: " A classic example is that of a child failing a test at school. The child may think he or she is dumb, which is not necessarily the case." A true assessment or not, the belief can set the child into a pattern of failure through actions that prove the belief correct.

Freedom to fail and learn from the experience without recrimination is important. Freedom to ask questions and be given answers that validate the concern or confusion open up opportunity for change and the belief that things can be changed. Knowing that others are finding this to be true is just as important, so interpersonal engagement must be encouraged.

Willard was applying "learned helplessness" to the business world, but it certainly fit the start of each year in my classroom and the push to giving my students the opportunity to change their negative perceptions of themselves both individually and as a group through their own actions and how I received them.

But it's more useful knowledge than that, though increasing confidence in employees and students is worthy enough. It applies just as well to writers working on character development. I have two characters who have been effected by the feeling of not being able to change what has been a major part of their lives. The opportunity to challenge the belief helped them both change over time and take control over their lives and their perceptions of self. Choices that destroyed their friendship held two characters back from rebuilding it until both had the motivation to break out of their past and the belief that it was possible.

excerpt from The Sharded Boy

   Jahl tried to imagine how he would work on the type of items the Marsons tended to do. It would mean Jahl would have to take a stone in most cases to their shop which would either take away time that he could be earning from proper clientele or he would have to rent a stone an additional day if he was taking it for the evening.

   Rouen hung his head. "I'm sorry for never sticking up for you. I should have. We were best friends and I did nothing."

   Jahl hadn't wanted to think back to those days. The two boys had been best friends. But it had been more than that. Until Jahl was nine he had been friends with all the children. And then one day a new kid in town had pointed out Jahl's crippled leg and his slowness in play. Crimlo had made fun of him until the children were rolling on the ground giggling, gleeful over the creativity of the barbs Crimlo had flung. No day after was ever like the days before that child had come to town. Rouen and Jahl never spoke again.

   Anger from the treatment had long since been overshadowed by the general pain of living. Jahl didn't know what to say. But he knew he wanted the work. "Why can't anyone know?"

   Rouen’s face looked relieved that Jahl had not wanted to talk about their days as children. But his answer to Jahl’s questions pained him. "What if my father never returns to work? People will stop coming to us. We'll lose our livelihood. Please Jahl, do this for us. I wasn't the best friend I should have been, but you have always been a good person. We know we can trust you not to tell anyone. Say you'll do it. I have a week's worth of work backed up. I'll never get it done. And new work is coming in every day. I’ve not turned anyone away."

   Often those who most seem to be out to help us, intentionally or accidentally encourage these negative beliefs.

excerpt from The Sharded Boy

   “I have always looked forward to seeing you at the mercantile. When I didn’t spy you out front as usual, I worried. What happened? A couple of day’s illness wouldn’t do this.” He gestured at Jahl’s thinness.

   “I tripped on the stairs and was knocked unconscious. Rouen found me. By then I had caught a chest cold and been without food a couple of days, and then I couldn’t eat what with being sick. Today is my first really good day.” Jahl wondered if he had laid that on a bit thick and if perhaps Bragg had seen him answer the door earlier. But that would have been okay. Mom wasn’t here being a mother hen yet. “Actually, Mom is just being a bit overzealous. I was moving about the house earlier. But she doesn’t believe me.”

  “Loving mothers are like that.”

   Jahl caught the sourness again in Bragg’s tone and wondered if the man had been aware of his mom’s rough mothering. “I suppose.” Jahl attempted to put the same degree of dissatisfaction in his voice. Over the big man’s shoulder, he saw his mother wince.

   “Overzealous or not, it is best not to overdo.” He surveyed the room again. “Take it slow getting this old house together. You have time.” He grinned. “But I, though willing to come to your rescue, which I am happy to see is not needed, am rather short of time. Ona is home preparing supper and wondering where I am, so I’ll be off.” Bragg laid his hand on Jahl’s shoulder and squeezed the thinness. “Mahre, feed this boy. Get some meat on his bones before he shrivels away. And, young man, conserve your strength. You’ve not been strong, and overexerting yourself will only pull you down further.”

   “I’ll take things easier.”

   Bragg pointed to the closed door of the workroom. “Perhaps you should turn one of these rooms into a bedroom so you don’t have to go upstairs at all. Your room at home was downstairs, wasn’t.”

   “True, but I won’t get stronger if I don’t push myself.”

   “But you have limitations that can’t be altered.” Bragg turned to address Jahl’s mother in the hall. “Right, Mahre, he shouldn’t go beyond what his body can take, should he?”

Allow yourself to fail, allow others to fail, allow your characters to fail, but also give yourself and others the opportunity to rise out of that failure. 


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