Monthly Archives: December 2012

New Year's Resolutions

Long ago when I was young, I used to tell people that the only New Year’s resolution I would make was to not make any resolutions. Maybe I was trying (in a sophomoric kind of way) to be witty; perhaps it was a rejection of what I perceived as a useless tradition. After all, aren’t New Year’s resolutions famously kept for two weeks and then abandoned? Why bother making great promises you know you’re unlikely to keep? What makes people do this year after year?

Well, the end of a calendar has an effect on our minds (see my article on the “Mayan Apocalypse“, which I correctly predicted would not happen: a feat of astrological wizardry as amazing as the ability to predict sunrise tomorrow). The end of one thing signals the beginning of another, and like the old song says, the beginning is a very good place to start. People naturally want to turn over a new leaf with the new year.

So why are New Year’s resolutions notorious for failing? It’s not because they are a bad idea. The problem is that, although hoping and wishing and dreaming come naturally, good planning skills do not. We have to learn those, and long-term project management is not a core subject in elementary school. It should be.

For the last decade or so I have gone back to the tradition of making a set of resolutions for the new year. I am happy to say that they have helped me change my life in good ways! There are several reasons for this, none of which I discovered on my own. You can find plenty of good books and courses very easily, all of which will build on the same basic principles, including (but not limited to) the following:

1. Don’t be afraid to dream. And when you dream of your future, go ahead and make it a big dream. Why settle for anything less? It’s your dream, and it should make you happy. Just remember that it is still only a dream, and it is up to you to make it come true.

2. Reality check. There are two good reasons for this: first, some dreams are less possible than others; and second, it is a good idea to make sure your dream is not disguised as something else. If all this sounds kind of weird, let me explain. It’s OK to have really big dreams. That is how every great achievement begins! Flying, diving to the bottom of the ocean, and walking on the moon were all impossible until somebody had a really big dream. You should be aware that big dreams will require great effort. If you dream of winning the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, or exploring Mars, or being elected President, who knows? Those things are unlikely, but certainly not impossible. If your dream is to rule the world from your orbital space station, you should probably get help. Even if you genuinely desire to rule the world – let’s say from a skyscraper in New York, to keep it simple – is that what you really want? Why would you want to rule the world in the first place? Maybe a dream of ruling the world is really a wish to be respected, or to be in control. You don’t need to conquer the world to have those things.

3. Make a plan. Without a plan, your dream is no more than that – a wish, a hope. What needs to happen for you to fulfill your dream? For example, if you dream of exploring Mars, there is more than one way to get there. You could become a billionaire and build your own spaceship, or you could become an astronaut and be selected for an expedition, or you could wait for somebody to build a colony and sign up as a volunteer. All of these plans might get you to Mars, but they have different requirements. You will need to know yourself first. Are you the kind of person who can carry out your plan? You might need a plan for how to become that kind of person before you can achieve your original goal.

4. Turn your plan into a list of actions that you can take. Work backwards from your final goal to your present condition. This makes it easier to keep focused on what it is you want to achieve. For example, to be selected for a Mars mission, you would have to be an astronaut. To be an astronaut, you would have to work for a space agency. To work for a space agency, you would have to graduate at the top of your class in a science program. To do that, you would have to get into the program and study hard with a high-powered peer group. For each step, you should get a clearer idea of what you need to do today.

5. Break your plan into steps. One step might be getting a certain kind of education, or being in excellent physical condition, or meeting a particular individual, or anything else that helps get you from where you are now to where you want to be. It is useful to break your plan into steps that each have a time limit and a specific goal, for example “this year, I will find the best students in my level, join with them in a study group, and improve my grades by one point.” Once you have a year-by-year plan that will get you to your goal, break it down into smaller, more specific tasks that you can check off monthly, or even weekly. The point is that every day can bring you closer to, or farther from, your dream. It all depends on what your actions are each day. An old proverb says, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Find out what the first step is, and take it. Then take another.

6. Keep going. A journey of a thousand miles does indeed begin with a single step, but there are another 30,000 steps (roughly) after that. Don’t be discouraged; just keep walking in the right direction. Do something every day that brings you closer to your goal.

If you haven’t made a New Year’s resolution, you now have a good reason to do so! Make a plan for the next year that will help you achieve your dream. If you discover new goals and dreams along the way (and you probably will), plan for them too! Life is a journey, not a destination. Enjoy it, and may your dreams come true!

You Can Read Minds!

The quality of our language is the quality of our thought.

Can we read other people’s minds? It depends what you mean by that. If I ask you to picture any object in the world, or think of any number between one and one million, can I instantly know exactly what object or what number you are thinking of, without you telling me? Of course not. Nobody can. Even people who claim to be psychic will tell you that is impossible.

But if we spend a few minutes talking to each other, you can get a pretty good idea of the kind of person I am, and of the kinds of thoughts that occupy my mind most of the time. The things I talk about, and the words I use to talk about them, give away a lot of information about me. You can, in a limited way, read minds by paying attention to the things people say. Uncomfortably, others can read your mind in the same fashion!

There’s more. The words you use determine the thoughts you are able to think. This is why building your vocabulary actually makes you smarter – when you have more words to think with, you have a greater number of ways you can combine them to make new ideas. For the same reason, thinking logically is impossible without words to define concepts. Infants cry because they feel hungry, or wet, or itchy, but don’t know what hungry or wet or itchy is – they just know they don’t like it. Two-year-olds are famous for throwing temper tantrums, because they can identify what it is they don’t like but are unable to express themselves in a way that helps solve the problem. Once they learn the words to define and describe and express what they need, they are more able to get help – and the tantrums become less frequent. (It also helps when they start learning to accept that there are things they cannot control – a lesson we keep working on throughout life.)

Learning to speak another language is good because it forces you to learn new ways of describing things. It’s like being able to see something from a different – and unfamiliar – point of view. This makes your mind more flexible and, consequently, more powerful.

We cannot think of beautiful things using only ugly words. We cannot reason effectively if our language is sloppy, imprecise, poorly defined. It is impossible to think about things for which we have no words. All the more reason to pay attention to the words we use! The quality of our language is the quality of our thought.

More About Calendars

It is December now, the twelfth month and the last of the year. But something is wrong with that sentence. “December” comes from the same root as “decimal” – referring to the number ten, not twelve. This becomes more obvious when we recite the last four months of the year in order: September, October, November, December. Seven, Eight, Nine, Ten.

We got our calendar from the Romans; how could they have messed it up so badly?

Well, they didn’t exactly mess it up. More precisely, the calendar has changed along with our way of keeping time. To begin with, the Roman calendar goes back to prehistoric times; in other words, it was being used since before people began writing to keep track of events. It started out as a lunar calendar, tracking the moon’s cycle through ten months, when the calendar would start over again. The first four months were called Martius (after the Roman god – and planet – Mars), Aprilis (which means “opening”, probably because the flowers and leaves were opening around April), Maius (after Maia, the Roman goddess of growth and growing things), and Iunius* (after Juno, the Roman goddess of marriage; they believed June to be the best month for weddings). The next six months were simply called by number: Quintilis (fifth), Sextilis (sixth), September, October, November, and December.

So why did they change the calendar? The old Roman calendar had a serious problem. It had ten months of 29 or 30 days, so the years were between 60 and 70 days shorter than a solar year. The seasons are caused by the Earth’s position in its orbit around the Sun, so with the old lunar calendar, next March would come after December, which would bring April (the month of flowers and buds opening) in the middle of winter. How could the Romans fix it? At first, they just added about 60 days to the end of the calendar without assigning them to any month. You can imagine some of the problems this must have caused! Later, they split the extra days into two new months called Ianuarius* (after Janus, the Roman god of doorways and transitions) and Februarius (from februum, “purification”, because it was used as a time of religious purification ceremonies). Since the two new months were originally at the end of the calendar, the months still had names that went with their numbers: Quintilis to December were still the fifth to the tenth months. This changed by 450 BC, when January and February became the first and second months: now all the other months were two numbers off. The final major change to the Roman calandar happened in the first century, when Quintilis and Sextilis were renamed Iulius and Augustus in honor of the first two Roman emperors, Julius and Octavian. At that point, our calendar was complete, although minor changes would still be made to improve its precision.

Happy December!

* The Romans did not use the letter “J”. When a Latin word begins with “I” followed by a vowel, we usually change it to “J”, as in JupiterJuno, Julius, and January.

Early Memories, pt.3

I am very small, and my father is very big. I sit on his shoulders with my fists clenched in his hair as he wades into the pool. The water is deep; I do not know how deep. As he walks farther out, the water rises over my feet. It is not cold, but I am afraid of going under. I hold on as tightly as I can; my chest is pressed against the back of his head as I pull the hair above his ears. He laughs. I know he wants me to feel safe, but I am still afraid. I cannot speak, but clutch my father’s head as it – and I – slip farther below the water’s surface. I am terrified that he will submerge completely. I do not want to be under the water. End of memory.

From pictures in the family album, I know this event took place before my first birthday. While I am not supposed to remember anything from that early stage in my life, before I had words to distinguish one thing from another, the memory is so clear, the emotion so powerful, that I cannot doubt its veracity.

Since that day, I have learned to walk by myself through deep water. I have sons of my own now, and know the joy and the burden of carrying them on my shoulders. In times of weariness and pain, my father’s strength within me – his gift, my birthright – keeps my back straight and my head high. I pass it on to my sons as best I can; as they ride on my shoulders, I am still somehow riding on his.

In all these years, through all the deep water, you never dropped me. Thank you, Dad.