This one is dedicated to my dad for father’s day.
This being Father’s Day and me being well into my 40’s, the time is right to develop a conjecture about some of the influences my father has had on me. I’ve put this in conjectural terms because there is no way to tease out with any certainty the various causes of one’s current state: genetics (too oft underestimated), parents, siblings, the media, society, teachers, role models, friends, and ultimately our own selves. Furthermore, our own state is largely also conjectural — a “self-concept”.
I hope this rather personal post will incite the reader to ask himself or herself: Why did I think, act and feel the way I did? Why do I think, act and feel the way I do? How do I influence others? I also hope it will also lead them to explore possible answers to these big questions with which psychology in general and personality theory in particular are concerned.
Some of the influences a person has on another are positive, but some are negative. In this article, I use the terms positive and negative in an arithmetical, not a moral, sense. That is to say a negative influence can be good or bad. An influence is a reaction that need not lead to greater similarity, it can create or accentuate differences. For example, when I was young, my parents led me to believe that Santa Claus existed. I repeated this untruth to my friend. When I discovered that this was just a myth I was quite embarrassed. Something very good came of this realization I had been duped: I became a Skeptic.
What we learn from each other depends partly on our meta-effectiveness, a concept elaborated in Cognitive Productivity, namely our propensity and abilities to learn. You may be surrounded by the wisest owls in the woods, but if you are not listening or inclined to develop yourself with their knowledge, you won’t be the better for it. Having said that, it can take a long time for words of wisdom to take effect. For example, for many years, my father urged me to exit an unhealthy relationship. Following that sage advice earlier would have saved me considerable grief and enabled me to celebrate father’s day with a child or step child of my own.
However, had I listened to him sooner, I would not have had occasion to pass on the most important advice I have to give to younger people. When the people who know and love you the most —friends and family — tell you that you are making a big mistake, don’t be so arrogant as to think you are necessarily right and them wrong. In my experience, people generally do not like to give meddle with other peoples’ lives. Who wants to run the risk of giving advice that turns out to be wrong? So when they do give you advice, pay heed. And for those inclined to give advice: wait till what you say really matters otherwise you will lose your credibility.
When I was 12, an extremely bright interesting, interested, boy named Jack was one of my best friends. Alas, his parents were alcoholics, he was neglected, and he did engage in some behaviours that my parents considered unacceptable. So, they forbade me from hanging out with Jack. I disregarded the injunction. Perhaps their erroneous stricture, which effectively punished Jack and myself for his parents’ negligence, was another negative lesson (a non-Freudian reaction formation) that led me to disregard the aforementioned similar advice my father later gave me.
My Paternal Grand-Father: Meta-Effectiveness, English, Doors and More
My paternal grand-father has always fascinated me, though he died when I was only six. The brilliant son of an alcoholic, he was raised by a poor (and apparently mean) uncle in rural Québec. His uncle put him to work on his farm, depriving Léo of an education. At the age of 16, Léo set off to work in the prairies in order to learn English, gain skills, make some money that he’d use to gain skills and knowledge. And he did!
With a carpentry trade under his belt, my Léo sought work with the government. They offered him a wage to frame doors. He asked them how many doors per day they expected him to frame. He quickly computed how much it would cost them per door to employ him. He told them: “Look, it would cost you x $ per door to employ me as a carpenter. Why don’t you let me do the work as a contractor, and it will cost you half as much?” He expected in fact to be able to go four times as quickly as their estimate, and then to hire others to help him out. Apparently, he was right.
That is how my grandfather got his start as a contractor and gradually became one of the biggest general contractors in all of Ottawa. He built his family a beautiful large house at 111 Ivy Crescent in Rockcliffe Park (Ottawa) and a wonderful resort in Kazabazua, Quebec. I am told the address was not a coincidence. Léo was approached by Robert Campeau to form a partnership. He refused the offer and retired young (by today’s standards) for health reasons, giving the business to his oldest son. Throughout his adulthood, Léo tried to make up for his lack of a formal education through self-directed learning. I inherited some of his books and perhaps some psychological traits.
Léo’s influence on me was mainly through my own father of course. However, my own love of learning and my decision to use English as my working language are atavistic. Further, I’ve mainly chosen to work for startups and on small but ambitious projects.
Also, I’ve inherited a fascination with doors. They have tremendous symbolic value.
On the negative side, I don’t have any skills in the trades. A drawback of growing up with purchasing power. My father and I have the same attitude that John Seminerio, former president of Abatis Systems, expressed to me at lunch one day in 2000: Better to hire someone and focus on building a business. Time proved it was a good thing that we focused on building Abatis Systems rather than fixing our houses ourselves.
My father is a football fan. He had four season tickets for the Ottawa Roughriders. I attended regularly. I also played middle linebacker and (when my colleagues refused to stop growing), defensive halfback for the Minto Colts (using the Ivy Crescent address as if it was my own because Gatineau did not have a team.)
From football, I developed
- the belief that hard work and hard play are one,
- an appreciation for being a team member and a leader,
- a belief that smart effort is required for success and enjoyment,
- an understanding of disciplined competition and fair play.
Football was also a great incentive for me to keep in shape. I would train vigorously in the off season. All this I owe to my dad.
YMCA: Ethics and Fitness
Dad had us take courses at the YMCA from the age of 5 or 6 till 14. This organization has had a lifelong influence on me. There, I took judo, gym & swim, and Leaders in Training three times a week. The Y is not just about physical fitness. YMCA inculcates essential values and principles of leadership.
However, the physical fitness component is also of tremendous importance. Dad did not merely take us to the YMCA, he jogged the talk. He exercised there c. 4 times a week. He would jog on a regular basis. I took the YMCA’s lessons and my dad’s example to heart.
I started my own exercise program at the age of 12. I would jog one day ( unless it was below –20), lift weights the next, and take at most one day off per week. I kept this routine up until I started my Ph.D. in 1990. This was in addition to 4–5 days a week of physical education at school, and extracurricular sports. As we now know, there is nothing better for the developing or developed brain than to exercise vigorously. And it potentiates learning!
I exercised on and off until the age of 40; but since then I have been exercising very regularly, sleeping well, and following a “Paleolithic” diet (to the extent possible with modern foods). I’m in top shape, I wear the same size of clothes as I used to when I was 18, and I feel great. Thanks, dad!
Praise and Effusiveness
My dad is an effusive guy. So am I. I seek out people who are worth praising. Readers of this blog have noticed that I write about beautiful minds.
If someone around me does great work, I like to point it out. Why wait till someone is dead to praise them? (That’s partly why I’m writing this post for my dad. Why wait till I have to write a eulogy for him?)
However, dad and I are not the type to dish out hollow praise.
My father was a member of the Optimist club. He lives and breaths their values and instilled them in me. The “Zest” in CogZest speaks to that.
Endurance, Perseverance and Loyalty
My dad held two or three teaching positions at a time when I was growing up. Then he added being a landlord to the mix. And he exercised, as I mentioned, and celebrated, as I will mention. He shows vigour and endurance.
I take perseverance to be my most distinctive trait. Dad reinforced me for my own perseverance. But I’m sure it has a strong genetic component. Regardless of the etiology, I can endure a lot of pain for a worthwhile aim.
However, perseverance is not always a virtue. To paraphrase Aristotle: virtue lies in the mean between a vice of excess and a vice of defect. I persevered far too long on at least one personal project and a couple of professional ones. Also, I once held onto a stock longer than I should have. At the other extreme, for (what proved to be futile) family reasons, in my 20’s, I gave up a tenure track position (at R.M.C.) that in retrospect I should have kept. Life is short. Death is certain. So, I try to keep an eye out for vices of excess and defect here.
Do What You Love, Love What You Do
My dad frequently told me as a child that it was important to love what you do. He gave me an anecdote to support this claim, which, having heard it too often I can’t bear to repeat here.
In 1987, I worked as a microfiche clerk. It was impossible to love that job. I spent my days picking up historical documents that I wanted to read but had to copy on microfiche. Torture! My supervisor would chastise me for glancing at them too long. That job was stultifying in one sense; but it also turned my academic motivation into determination to pursue my studies as far as was required to ensure that I would spend the rest of my life doing what I love to do. That is why I pursued a Ph.D. in cognitive science. That is why I have been working on cognitive science and its applications since 2001.
Mentality of Abundance
It’s not that we were “rich” (whatever that means), but my father, with his unassuming but remarkable generosity and hospitality, always made us feel that we were well to do. For example, dad had a contractor build a fabulous back yard for entertaining. He would have friends and family over most week-ends in the summer. Drinks flowed freely around equally copious victuals.
As a result, he instilled in me both a mentality of abundance (long before Stephen Covey trademarked the phrase) and a desire to create abundance. My parents also developed in me awareness of the necessity to live within my means. I don’t accumulate stuff or spend lavishly.
Dad couldn’t and still can’t stand discord. My sister and I did not always get along very well. I can still hear dad’s exasperated refrain “Get along!” Dad would frequently give me lectures (oh, those dreaded lectures!) on the importance of getting along.
I inherited dad’s complete distaste for discord. I just can’t stand tension. (Compare Gottman’s concept of flooding and the idea that men are more vulnerable to it than women.) So, my life’s design from an early age was explicitly and deliberately to live without interpersonal tension. Ironically, my “previous life” failed to achieve its primary requirement. However, I’ve very successfully implemented this design since the age of 40. Thanks, dad.
Reinvent Yourself at 40
Dad quit his teaching career at the age of 40, with not much money to spare in the bank, and became a successful entrepreneur. The lessons here are that you can reinvent yourself at age 40; and that you should reinvent yourself if you need to.
I have been working on my own projects since 41. And loving it.
“Respect Your mother”, Respect for the Opposite Sex
Dad instilled in us a strong respect for my mother and a respect for the opposite sex. Coupled with the influence of my mother, who has a B.A. in woman’s studies and a law degree, I was bound to emerge with a respectful attitude towards the fairer sex.
“Take Big Bites”
Dad is fond of saying “Take big bites”. By this he means: don’t let life pass you by. Enjoy whatever you are doing. And be sure to have some downtime.
I’ve not been giving myself enough down time, but I’ve been enjoying my work. When I do take a break with someone, for an hour or an evening, I do tend to be fully present.
The Importance for Children Being Able to Roam and Play
My parents did not overbook us. They knew that kids should learn to manage and use their time. They understood that kids need to learn how to interact with people their own age. My siblings and I were quite free to roam and play unsupervised. Sure, we occasionally messed up. But we learned how to interact with other kids and recover from our errors. This wasn’t just a matter of the times. I’m sure my neighbourhood is just as safe today than it is today.
Stuart Brown has conveyed the importance of play and unstructured time in a very brief and readable book, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul.
Unfortunately, I only realized that unstructured time was super important after my child was 14. My ex-wife and I completely over scheduled the lad. At one point he was in piano, scouts, hockey, piping and choir. The mode of parenting was based on a flawed theory by Gordon Newfeld in his book Hold On To Your Kids, that minimized the importance of peer relationships. I should have known better. You live and you learn.
Ariana Huffington makes a related point in a broader context in her very helpful book, Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder: “the benefits of time affluence outweigh all those trips to soccer and violin practice.”
Church: Some Unexpected Benefits
I couldn’t stand going to church. I resented the precious 90 minutes taken away from my play and project time. Some good things came of it, however.
- There was no Sunday school. Instead, I was given the opportunity (obligation) to sit with the adults and listen to a service that was aimed at them. I think that was a good thing. The priests were not unintelligent. I was forced to listen to sermons, arguments, presentations with a thesis. And I reflected upon them. That helps to sharpen mental powers.
- Religion got me thinking about several important questions. Is there a god? Is the intellect immaterial? Does something about one’s self survive after one dies? In what sense, if any, are we free and responsible agents?
- Because of the The Santa Claus incident, I determined to approach these questions not through faith or theology but with reason (science and philosophy), that is to say with an open and yet skeptical mind.
- A course I took in 1989 on perception and Artificial Intelligence, given by the acclaimed Prof. and 3M Scholar Claude Lamontagne, convinced me that the human mind is, in fact, the product of machines.
- I later discovered that there are in fact immaterial aspects to human nature, but not at all what the ancients or scholastic philosophers thought! The mind is actually a collection of running virtual machines — not to be confused with virtual reality or abstract virtual machines. This is discussed in my book, Cognitive Productivity.
- While I’ve long been an atheist, I discovered through reading Aaron Sloman in the last decade, that there is a stronger argument for the non-existence of God than Dawkins and others expound. The notion of “God” is not a concept at all! Just as the concept of time at the centre of the earth, or the speed of the entire universe are incoherent, so is the non-concept of God. That is to say, I am an analytical atheist. (Compare Sloman’s tutorial on how to use conceptual analysis to identify disguised nonsense.) Some religious scholars come close to understanding this, but I haven’t seen them take the analytical route systematically; they prefer to think in terms of ineffability.
- However, I led a humanist meeting in 2006 on the subject of spirituality, to articulate my own view and get some input and criticism from my friends. We don’t tend to agree on much, but we came to the conclusion that humanism and spirituality are compatible.
- Also, I learned from my father (and Unitarianism) not to let differences of opinion (not that analytical atheism is just an opinion, it’s more like a theorem) vitiate relationships, and so this difference does not prevent us from enjoying each other’s company.
- Being bridled in my pew did build in me a tremendous desire to never again have others interfere with my valued pursuit. (Remember Steve Jobs’s convocation address.) Parenting and family life, being a very dedicated father, interfered with the pursuit of my real passions. But I regained time by forfeiting custody, which is not to say that I wouldn’t enjoy another opportunity to parent.
Give Your Kids a Great Education
My parents gave me the opportunity to study at one of the best high schools in Quebec (Collège St-Alexandre). So it was natural for me to search, find and be admitted to the best cognitive science doctoral programme in the world (the University of Sussex, at the time: 1990–1991).
Love of Canada
I grew up in Québec in an era in which separatism festered. In fact, one of my high school teachers was a separatist who seemed to want to inculcate a feeling in his students that Quebecers had gotten a raw deal. The teacher almost succeeded in converting me. But I came from a family with a deep appreciation for Canada and Pierre-Elliot Trudeau’s vision for it. In discussions with my father, I conceded that the federalist position trumped the separatist one. This has stood the test of my adult cognitive development.
It is also interesting to reflect upon the differences between oneself and one’s father. My parents apparently used to joke when I was a child that I could not possibly have been theirs. They were not inclined towards the pursuit of knowledge. I was quite content to spend hours on end in my room building structures, playing with toys, reading, preparing projects that I volunteered to present to my class, writing thousands of pages of letters, poems and various juvenilia. I like classical music and lyrical music. I meditate. Well, recessive genes, the environment, and my self factored into my development.
Beyond Past Influences
While it’s fascinating and important to look at the various past influences on ourselves, I find it inspiriting to look at our potential to shape our future selves through knowledge that we and others have generated. And that is what CogZest and Cognitive Productivity are about.