Tag Archives: achievement

Old Fame and Insta-Fame


First, let me begin by introducing a quote for our times from David Bowie, dated 2003, published in Performing Songwriter.

“Fame itself, of course, doesn’t really afford you anything more than a good seat in a restaurant. That must be pretty well known by now. I’m just amazed how fame is being posited as the be all and end all, and how many of these young kids who are being foisted on the public have been talked into this idea that anything necessary to be famous is all right. It’s a sad state of affairs. However arrogant and ambitious I think we were in my generation, I think the idea was that if you do something really good, you’ll become famous. The emphasis on fame itself is something new. Now it’s, to be famous you should do what it takes, which is not the same thing at all. And it will leave many of them with this empty feeling.”

Thirteen years on, and just a few days following Bowie’s tragic death, his words on fame remain startlingly appropriate. We now live in a world where fame can be pursued, manufactured and curated without needing any particular talent — social media has seen to that.

This new type of fame — let’s call it insta-fame — is a very different kind of condition to our typical notion of old fame, which may be enabled by a gorgeous voice, or acting prowess, or a way with the written word, or prowess with a tennis racket, or at the wheel of a race car, or one a precipitous ski slope, or from walking on the surface of the Moon, or from winning the Spelling Bee, or from devising a cure for polio.

It’s easy to confuse insta-fame with old fame: both offer a huge following of adoring strangers and both, potentially, lead to inordinate monetary reward. But that’s where the similarities end. Old fame came from visible public recognition and required an achievement or a specific talent, usually honed after many years or decades. Insta-fame on the other hand doesn’t seem to demand any specific skill and is often pursued as an end in itself. With insta-fame the public recognition has become decoupled from the achievement — to such an extent, in fact, that it no longer requires any achievement or skill, other than the gathering of more public recognition. This is a gloriously self-sustaining circle that advertisers have grown to adore.

My diatribe leads to a fascinating article on the second type of fame, insta-fame, and some of its protagonists and victims. David Bowie’s words continue to ring true.

From the Independent:

Charlie Barker is in her pyjamas, sitting in the shared kitchen of her halls of residence, with an Asda shopping trolley next to her – storage overflow from her tiny room. A Flybe plane takes off from City Airport, just across the dank water from the University of East London, where Barker studies art in surroundings that could not be greyer. The only way out is the DLR, the driverless trains that link Docklands to the brighter parts of town.

 “I always wanted to move to London and when everyone was signing up for uni, I was like, I don’t want to go to uni – I just want to go to London,” says Barker, who calls David Bowie her “spirit animal” and is obsessed with Hello Kitty. But going to London is hard if you’re 18 and from Nottingham and don’t have a plan or money. “So then I was like, OK, I’ll go to uni in London.” So she ended up in Beckton, which is closer to Essex than the city centre.

It’s lunchtime and one of Barker’s housemates walks in to stick something in the microwave, which he quickly takes back to his room. They exchange hellos. “I don’t really talk to people here, I just go to central to meet my friends,” she says. “But the DLR is so long and tragic, especially when you’re not in the brightest of moods.” I ask her if she often goes to the student canteen. I noticed it on the way here; it’s called “Munch”. She’s in her second year and says she didn’t know it existed.

These are unlikely surroundings, in some ways. Because while Barker is a nice, normal student doing normal student things, she’s also famous. I take out my phone and we look through her pictures on Instagram, where her following is greater than the combined circulations of Hello! and OK! magazines. Now @charliexbarker is in the room and things become more colourful. Pink, mainly. And blue, and glitter, and selfies, and skin.

And Hello Kitty. “I wanted to get a tattoo on the palm of my hand and because it was painful I was like, ‘what do I believe in enough to get tattooed on my hand for the rest of my life?’, and I was like – Hello Kitty. My Mum was like, ‘you freak!'” The drawing of the Japanese cartoon cat features in a couple of Barker’s 700-plus photos. In a portrait of her hand, she holds a pink and blue lollipop, and her fingernails are painted pink and blue. The caption: “Pink n blu pink n blu.”

Before that, Barker, now 19, wanted a tattoo saying “Drink water, eat pussy”, but decided against it. The slogan appears in another photo, scrawled on the pavement in pink chalk as she sits wearing a Betty Boop jacket in pink and black, with pink hair and fishnets. “I was bumming around with my friend Daniel, who’s a photographer, and I wanted to see if I could do all the styling and everything,” she says. “We’d already done four of five looks and we were like, oh my God, so we just wet my hair and went with it.”

“Poco esplicita,” suggests one of her Italian followers beside the photo. Barker rarely replies to comments these days, most of which are from fans (“I love uuuuu… Your style just killing me… IM SCREAMING”) and doesn’t say much in her captions (“I do wat I want” in this case). Yet her followers – 622,000 of them at the time of writing – love her pictures, many of which receive more than 50,000 likes. She’s not on reality TV, can’t sing and has no famous relatives. She’s not rich and has no access to private jets or tigers as pets. Yet with a photographic glimpse – or at least suggestion – of a life of colour and attitude, a student in Beckton has earned the sort of fame that only exists on Instagram.

“That sounds so weird, saying that, stop it!” she says when I ask if she feels famous. “No, I’m not famous. I’m just doing my own thing, getting recognition doing it. And I think everyone’s famous now, aren’t they? Everyone has an Instagram and everyone’s famous.”

The photo app, bought by Facebook in 2012, boomed last year, overtaking Twitter in September with 400 million active monthly users. But there are degrees of Instafame. And if one measure, beyond an audience, is a change to one’s life, then Barker has it. So too do Brian Whittaker (@brianhwhittaker) and Olivia Knight-Butler (@livrosekb), whose followings also defy celebrity norms. Whittaker, an insanely grown-up 16-year-old from Solihull, also rejects the idea that he’s famous at all, despite having a quarter of a million followers. “I don’t see followers as a real thing, it’s just being popular on a page,” he says from his mum’s house.

Yet in the next sentence he talks about the best indicator of fame in any age. “I get stopped in the street quite a bit now. In the summer I was in Singapore with my parents and people were taking pictures of me. One person stopped me and then when I got back to the hotel room I saw pictures of me on Instagram shopping. People had tagged me and were asking, ‘is this really you, are you in Singapore?'”

“I get so so flattered when people ask me for a picture in the street,” Barker says. Most of her fans are younger teenage girls. Many have set up dedicated Charlie Barker fan accounts, re-posting her images adorned with love hearts. They idolise her. “I feel like I have to give them eternal love for it, I’m like, oh my God, that is so sweet.”

Read the entire article here.

Video: Fame, David Bowie. Courtesy mudroll / Youtube.

Focus on Process, Not Perfect Grades

If you are a parent of a school-age child then it is highly likely that you have, on multiple occasions, chastised her or him and withheld privileges for poor grades. It’s also likely that you have rewarded the same child for being smart at math or having Picasso-like artistic talent. I have done this myself. But, there is a better way to nurture young minds, and it is through “telling stories about achievements that result from hard work.”

From Scientific American:

A brilliant student, Jonathan sailed through grade school. He completed his assignments easily and routinely earned As. Jonathan puzzled over why some of his classmates struggled, and his parents told him he had a special gift. In the seventh grade, however, Jonathan suddenly lost interest in school, refusing to do homework or study for tests. As a consequence, his grades plummeted. His parents tried to boost their son’s confidence by assuring him that he was very smart. But their attempts failed to motivate Jonathan (who is a composite drawn from several children). Schoolwork, their son maintained, was boring and pointless.

Our society worships talent, and many people assume that possessing superior intelligence or ability—along with confidence in that ability—is a recipe for success. In fact, however, more than 35 years of scientific investigation suggests that an overemphasis on intellect or talent leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings.

The result plays out in children like Jonathan, who coast through the early grades under the dangerous notion that no-effort academic achievement defines them as smart or gifted. Such children hold an implicit belief that intelligence is innate and fixed, making striving to learn seem far less important than being (or looking) smart. This belief also makes them see challenges, mistakes and even the need to exert effort as threats to their ego rather than as opportunities to improve. And it causes them to lose confidence and motivation when the work is no longer easy for them.

Praising children’s innate abilities, as Jonathan’s parents did, reinforces this mind-set, which can also prevent young athletes or people in the workforce and even marriages from living up to their potential. On the other hand, our studies show that teaching people to have a “growth mind-set,” which encourages a focus on “process” (consisting of personal effort and effective strategies) rather than on intelligence or talent, helps make them into high achievers in school and in life.

The Opportunity of Defeat
I first began to investigate the underpinnings of human motivation—and how people persevere after setbacks—as a psychology graduate student at Yale University in the 1960s. Animal experiments by psychologists Martin Seligman, Steven Maier and Richard Solomon, all then at the University of Pennsylvania, had shown that after repeated failures, most animals conclude that a situation is hopeless and beyond their control. After such an experience, the researchers found, an animal often remains passive even when it can effect change—a state they called learned helplessness.

People can learn to be helpless, too, but not everyone reacts to setbacks this way. I wondered: Why do some students give up when they encounter difficulty, whereas others who are no more skilled continue to strive and learn? One answer, I soon discovered, lay in people’s beliefs about why they had failed.

In particular, attributing poor performance to a lack of ability depresses motivation more than does the belief that lack of effort is to blame. In 1972, when I taught a group of elementary and middle school children who displayed helpless behavior in school that a lack of effort (rather than lack of ability) led to their mistakes on math problems, the kids learned to keep trying when the problems got tough. They also solved many more problems even in the face of difficulty. Another group of helpless children who were simply rewarded for their success on easier problems did not improve their ability to solve hard math problems. These experiments were an early indication that a focus on effort can help resolve helplessness and engender success.

Subsequent studies revealed that the most persistent students do not ruminate about their own failure much at all but instead think of mistakes as problems to be solved. At the University of Illinois in the 1970s I, along with my then graduate student Carol Diener, asked 60 fifth graders to think out loud while they solved very difficult pattern-recognition problems. Some students reacted defensively to mistakes, denigrating their skills with comments such as “I never did have a good rememory,” and their problem-solving strategies deteriorated.

Others, meanwhile, focused on fixing errors and honing their skills. One advised himself: “I should slow down and try to figure this out.” Two schoolchildren were particularly inspiring. One, in the wake of difficulty, pulled up his chair, rubbed his hands together, smacked his lips and said, “I love a challenge!” The other, also confronting the hard problems, looked up at the experimenter and approvingly declared, “I was hoping this would be informative!” Predictably, the students with this attitude outperformed their cohorts in these studies.

Read the entire article here.

Building Character in Kids

Many parents have known this for a long time: it takes more than a stellar IQ, SAT or ACT score to make a well-rounded kid. Arguably there a many more important traits that never feature on these quantitative tests. Such qualities as leadership, curiosity, initiative, perseverance, motivation, courage and empathy come to mind.

An excerpt below from Paul Tough’s book, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character”.

[div class=attrib]From the Wall Street Journal:[end-div]

We are living through a particularly anxious moment in the history of American parenting. In the nation’s big cities these days, the competition among affluent parents over slots in favored preschools verges on the gladiatorial. A pair of economists from the University of California recently dubbed this contest for early academic achievement the “Rug Rat Race,” and each year, the race seems to be starting earlier and growing more intense.

At the root of this parental anxiety is an idea you might call the cognitive hypothesis. It is the belief, rarely spoken aloud but commonly held nonetheless, that success in the U.S. today depends more than anything else on cognitive skill—the kind of intelligence that gets measured on IQ tests—and that the best way to develop those skills is to practice them as much as possible, beginning as early as possible.

There is something undeniably compelling about the cognitive hypothesis. The world it describes is so reassuringly linear, such a clear case of inputs here leading to outputs there. Fewer books in the home means less reading ability; fewer words spoken by your parents means a smaller vocabulary; more math work sheets for your 3-year-old means better math scores in elementary school. But in the past decade, and especially in the past few years, a disparate group of economists, educators, psychologists and neuroscientists has begun to produce evidence that calls into question many of the assumptions behind the cognitive hypothesis.

What matters most in a child’s development, they say, is not how much information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years of life. What matters, instead, is whether we are able to help her develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence. Economists refer to these as noncognitive skills, psychologists call them personality traits, and the rest of us often think of them as character.

If there is one person at the hub of this new interdisciplinary network, it is James Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago who in 2000 won the Nobel Prize in economics. In recent years, Mr. Heckman has been convening regular invitation-only conferences of economists and psychologists, all engaged in one form or another with the same questions: Which skills and traits lead to success? How do they develop in childhood? And what kind of interventions might help children do better?

The transformation of Mr. Heckman’s career has its roots in a study he undertook in the late 1990s on the General Educational Development program, better known as the GED, which was at the time becoming an increasingly popular way for high-school dropouts to earn the equivalent of high-school diplomas. The GED’s growth was founded on a version of the cognitive hypothesis, on the belief that what schools develop, and what a high-school diploma certifies, is cognitive skill. If a teenager already has the knowledge and the smarts to graduate from high school, according to this logic, he doesn’t need to waste his time actually finishing high school. He can just take a test that measures that knowledge and those skills, and the state will certify that he is, legally, a high-school graduate, as well-prepared as any other high-school graduate to go on to college or other postsecondary pursuits.

Mr. Heckman wanted to examine this idea more closely, so he analyzed a few large national databases of student performance. He found that in many important ways, the premise behind the GED was entirely valid. According to their scores on achievement tests, GED recipients were every bit as smart as high-school graduates. But when Mr. Heckman looked at their path through higher education, he found that GED recipients weren’t anything like high-school graduates. At age 22, Mr. Heckman found, just 3% of GED recipients were either enrolled in a four-year university or had completed some kind of postsecondary degree, compared with 46% of high-school graduates. In fact, Heckman discovered that when you consider all kinds of important future outcomes—annual income, unemployment rate, divorce rate, use of illegal drugs—GED recipients look exactly like high-school dropouts, despite the fact that they have earned this supposedly valuable extra credential, and despite the fact that they are, on average, considerably more intelligent than high-school dropouts.

These results posed, for Mr. Heckman, a confounding intellectual puzzle. Like most economists, he had always believed that cognitive ability was the single most reliable determinant of how a person’s life would turn out. Now he had discovered a group—GED holders—whose good test scores didn’t seem to have any positive effect on their eventual outcomes. What was missing from the equation, Mr. Heckman concluded, were the psychological traits, or noncognitive skills, that had allowed the high-school graduates to make it through school.

So what can parents do to help their children develop skills like motivation and perseverance? The reality is that when it comes to noncognitive skills, the traditional calculus of the cognitive hypothesis—start earlier and work harder—falls apart. Children can’t get better at overcoming disappointment just by working at it for more hours. And they don’t lag behind in curiosity simply because they didn’t start doing curiosity work sheets at an early enough age.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

The Cult of the Super Person

It is undeniable that there is ever increasing societal pressure on children to perform compete, achieve and succeed, and to do so at ever younger ages. However, while average college test admission scores have improved it’s also arguable that admission standards have dropped. So, the picture painted by James Atlas in the article below is far from clear. Nonetheless, it’s disturbing that our children get less and less time to dream, play, explore and get dirty.

[div class=attrib]From the New York Times:[end-div]

A BROCHURE arrives in the mail announcing this year’s winners of a prestigious fellowship to study abroad. The recipients are allotted a full page each, with a photo and a thick paragraph chronicling their achievements. It’s a select group to begin with, but even so, there doesn’t seem to be anyone on this list who hasn’t mastered at least one musical instrument; helped build a school or hospital in some foreign land; excelled at a sport; attained fluency in two or more languages; had both a major and a minor, sometimes two, usually in unrelated fields (philosophy and molecular science, mathematics and medieval literature); and yet found time — how do they have any? — to enjoy such arduous hobbies as mountain biking and white-water kayaking.

Let’s call this species Super Person.

Do we have some anomalous cohort here? Achievement freaks on a scale we haven’t seen before? Has our hysterically competitive, education-obsessed society finally outdone itself in its tireless efforts to produce winners whose abilities are literally off the charts? And if so, what convergence of historical, social and economic forces has been responsible for the emergence of this new type? Why does Super Person appear among us now?

Perhaps there’s an evolutionary cause, and these robust intellects reflect the leap in the physical development of humans that we ascribe to better diets, exercise and other forms of health-consciousness. (Stephen Jay Gould called this mechanism “extended scope.”) All you have to do is watch a long rally between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal to recognize — if you’re old enough — how much faster the sport has become over the last half century.

The Super Person training for the college application wars is the academic version of the Super Person slugging it out on the tennis court. For wonks, Harvard Yard is Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Preparing for Super Personhood begins early. “We see kids who’ve been training from an early age,” says Charles Bardes, chairman of admissions at Weill Cornell Medical College. “The bar has been set higher. You have to be at the top of the pile.”

And to clamber up there you need a head start. Thus the well-documented phenomenon of helicopter parents. In her influential book “Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety,” Judith Warner quotes a mom who gave up her career to be a full-time parent: “The children are the center of the household and everything goes around them. You want to do everything and be everything for them because this is your job now.” Bursting with pent-up energy, the mothers transfer their shelved career ambitions to their children. Since that book was published in 2005, the situation has only intensified. “One of my daughter’s classmates has a pilot’s license; 12-year-olds are taking calculus,” Ms. Warner said last week.

[div class=attrib]Read more of this article here.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image courtesy of Mark Todd. New York Times.[end-div]