Learning How to Learn

My daughter is studying for her SAT—her college admissions test. I never took the SAT because I got a D in Algebra in high school, twice. I took the class again, to advance to geometry, but got the same grade, forced to take it from the same teacher that didn’t explain anything the first time. No, it isn’t “just the way it is,” Mr. Mulvaney. Even algebra has a reason for why it works the way it does.

I didn’t take the SAT because I was afraid I’d fail it with no math background. In fact, every time I even thought of math, I felt anxious. I was a failure, stupid if I didn’t get it, as most of my classmates seemed to. I couldn’t apply to a California university, or any four year college worth attending without taking the SAT. Instead, I attended Jr College for two years before transferring over to CSUN. I studiously avoided math classes, as they were not required after high school.

Fast forward 5 years, and I want to apply to graduate school to study Education. Not only will I have to take GRE, which will have math, but before that, to apply to the best colleges, I have to have teaching experience, in a real classroom, which will require I pass the CBEST, which has math. Panic. How was I supposed to pass any standardized test when I never passed algebra, and never advanced to higher levels of math that was sure to be on these tests?

Enter my friend, Bert. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll teach you algebra, and geometry, and any other basic math you need. You’ll pass the tests.”

He had to be kidding. “I failed algebra twice! I’ll never be able to learn all the math I need to pass these tests.”

“Don’t be absurd. You are one of the smartest people I know. Of course you can learn math.”

The familiar terror was choking. Did he not hear me. I FAILED IT TWICE, and never advanced. I’m just not a math person. “I suck at math!”

“Not likely,” he said with confidence. “More likely, you got turned off of it by some careless teacher, and the gates in your brain shut down. All you need to do is get out of your own way. Open your brain back up, so you can learn what you need to know.”

“I’m an artist, a qualitative person, not quantitative. I hate math.” I was trying not to kill his delusion that I was smart.

“But you need to know it to pass these tests, to do what you want with your life. You have some worthy goals. Make them happen. I’ll help you.”

I didn’t want his help. I didn’t want to learn math, or, more likely not learn math, prove to him, and myself, how stupid I really was. He was being so kind it was impossible to keep defending myself. But I still did not believe him. I knew I wasn’t smart enough for advanced math.

“Here’s the deal,” he said, when I didn’t jump at his offer. “Remember the show Get Smart?”


“Remember the opening? Max enters that hallway with the thick metal doors that slide open one by one as he approaches them. And each slams shut behind him as he walks down the hall?


“Well, that’s what your brain is doing when you think of math. The doors, or gates to learning are shutting down in your head. You are so freaked out because some lazy teacher made you feel stupid, and you bought it, hook, line and sinker. Stop it! You’ll make a great teacher, or professor, or whatever you want to do with education. Learn math, and move forward.”

“You make it sound simple.”

“But it is. You just have to open the gates in your brain that make it possible to learn, well, anything.” He smiled. I did too, couldn’t help it. With his words, he’d just introduced hope.

We were sitting at Jerry’s Deli, in L.A., at the time. Bert takes the pen the waiter left to sign for our bill, and an unused napkin, and writes out a quadratic equation. I frowned, felt anxious. Here we go. Now he’ll see how stupid I really am.

“I can see by your face, you’re already freaking out.” He laughed. I scoffed. “This is good!” He was clearly excited. I felt pissed off, embarrassed. “Let’s explore that feeling. Talk to me about it, what does it feel like?”

“I feel scared, and stupid.”

“That’s your first two gates. Big, thick, metal doors shutting you out of learning. So, let’s start with feeling stupid, because that’s likely why you’re feeling scared, that I’ll see you, or you’ll see yourself, as stupid.”


“Do you think you’re stupid?”

“With math!”

“Our brains don’t work that way. You can’t just be stupid in one area. Either you have a functioning brain, or you don’t. Most of us have functioning brains. Are you telling me you don’t believe you do?”

I thought about that. Of course I have a functioning brain. I graduated college. I got good grades, even in high school, except for math. “I have an OK brain, I guess.”

He laughed. “So, there goes your first gate. Poof! It’s gone. It was bullshit anyway. Good riddance. Every time you think of math, or we work on equations, notice how you feel. Pay attention to how your brain is operating. Examine the messaging it’s feeding you, and the bullshit it’s telling you. Qualitatively break it down to check if it’s right. Every time your brain says, “I can’t do this. I’m not smart enough,” call BULLSHIT. YES, I AM SMART ENOUGH! Then go back to the problem, and work at figuring it out.” He took a sip of his tea, and smiled at me. “Work at it long enough, and hard enough, and you will.”

The gates in my brain…I could literally feel them all of a sudden. Bert was right. Every time I even thought of math the gates in my brain shut down. And not only with math. Every single time I found it hard to learn something, anything, I now could see it was me, getting in my own way, allowing my brain to convince me of bullshit. All I had to do was examine my own feeling more carefully, embrace the ones that supported my success, and reject those that didn’t.

I learned algebra and geometry in a three week refresher course offered through the CBEST testing program. I passed the test, and subsequently my GRE, and though I never followed through with my graduate degree in education, as my career, and having kids became my priority, I now teach at some of the top universities on the planet.

I now know, with enough hard work, I can learn, well, anything.

An Atheist on Morality

Einstein did not believe in God, as many [mistakenly] claim.

Albert Einstein said, “My position concerning God is that of an agnostic.” He clarified with, “I am convinced that the primary importance of moral principles for the betterment and ennoblement of life does not need the idea of a law-giver, especially a law-giver who works on the basis of reward and punishment.”

Atheist don’t believe in God, either. Not any god/s. Ever. Unlike Agnostics, open to the possibility of a ‘higher power,’ or ‘collective, sentient being,’ Einstein believed in neither.* Agnostic is more politically correct, less threatening, especially during his time, born a Jew, and existing on federal funding.

As an Atheist, I do not recognize the Old/New Testament and related works illuminating the adventures, restrictions, reprimands or absolution of a divine being as anything more than fiction—parables by some wise, some ignorant, partisan scribes with an agenda to dominate and regulate human behavior. (The introduction of organized religion being necessary when Human was still running around in small, warring tribes is arguable.)

So, when I need money, why don’t I go rob a pedestrian. Or shoplift?

When I’m attracted to my neighbors husband, why don’t I just hit on him, get intimate if he’s into it?

When I get pissed at the driver on their cellphone that just cut me off, why don’t I shoot her?

Snatch & Run, even drive-by’s these days, and the odds of getting caught for either crime is somewhat nominal if I’m discreet. Fear of being busted, going to jail is not the main motivation that prevents me from committing these, and ‘lesser’ crimes like lying, cheating and others most would agree, religious or not, are moral infractions.

If I believe I answer to no higher power, where do I get my morality, much of which is similar (often seemingly the same) to that of Judeo/Christian doctrine?

Einstein said, “We have to content ourselves with our imperfect knowledge and understanding and treat values and moral obligations as a purely human problem—the most important of all human problems.”

Believer or not, what is your ‘Moral Obligation?’

Mine, as an Atheist and Human, is to support our continued evolution. It is my Moral Obligation to nurture reproduction—to extend the magnificent, wondrous, glorious feelings of being alive to someone else, as it has been gifted to me.

I am born owing Humanity that existed before me, and this planet that supports us. We all are. My moral conscience asserts we all must work at insuring life continues long after our own time, and that humans evolve to our spectacular potential of creativity, ingenuity, kindness, and learn to fully embrace our amazing capacity to love.

Notable Facts:
Murder rates are actually lower in more secular nations and higher in more religious
nations where belief in God is deep and widespread (Jensen 2006; Paul 2005; Fajnzylber et al. 2002; Fox and Levin 2000).

Within America, the states with the highest murder rates tend to be highly religious, such as Louisiana and Alabama, but the states with the lowest murder rates tend to be among the least religious in the country, such as Vermont and Oregon (Ellison et al. 2003; Death Penalty Information Center, 2008).

Rates of most violent crimes tend to be lower in the less religious states and higher in the most religious states (United States Census Bureau, 2006).

The top fifty safest cities in the world, nearly all are in relatively non-religious countries, and of the eight cities within the United States that make the safest-city list, nearly all are located in the least religious regions of the country (Mercer Survey, 2008).


* “The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.” —Albert E.

The Butterfly Effect

The other day a friend emailed me freaking out that she’d entered the stairwell at her job with a well-known start-up and saw the married CEO of her company sucking face with an employee. She has a right to be upset. The CEO is putting the company, its pre-IPO stock value, and its almost 300 employees at risk by displaying his extra-marital affair publicly. His sloppy behavior can not only get him fired, but eventually lead to the demise of the company with scandalous press chasing away customers and business associations alike. And, of course, there are his two kids and a wife at home who will suffer, possibly lifetime scars from his selfish indiscretions.

When a butterfly flaps it wings in Central Park, it does NOT cause a typhoon in India. But the Butterfly Effect is very real, and very personal, for all of us.

Monica Lewinsky sucked Pres. Clinton’s cock, getting George W. Bush elected, which lead to the 2008 financial meltdown with the Republican’s anti-regulation policies, and left not only millions of people without any retirement, but my father without enough money to care for himself, compelling us to use our little savings to help him. This investment into my father’s care comes out of our kids college funds, and will most likely effect them down the line.

We all engage in this effect one way or another. When my DH and I fight, I’m more apt to yell at our kids, causing them to snipe at each other. Continual fighting over time may result in fierce sibling rivalry, and instead of self-confident, productive people, they grow up isolating and angry, learn to self-protect and become CEOs and Presidents who seek physical contact over emotional intimacy to combat their gnawing loneliness.

The Butterfly Effect is an unalterable phenomenon of the human condition, but that doesn’t mean we must be doomed by it. Our ability to perceive the future, and then adapt our behavior in response is uniquely human, dramatically separating us from every other life form on this planet, and one of our greatest strengths.

Had President Clinton been thinking with his brain instead of his little head, or Ms. Lewinsky had stopped to consider the possible ramifications of Pres. Clinton’s solicitation, perhaps either would have made a better choice. Why do I sight Monica? Those who cheat are culpable for their actions, but those who are party to cheating are equally culpable.

The Butterfly Effect is neutral, and can generate productive outcomes by simply starting from a positive position. Awareness that no man, or woman, is an island is the key to directing the Butterfly Effect to consistently positive outcomes.

Every day we touch the lives of many others, whether we’re at home, on the internet, at work, or shopping at Target. We effect those around us, our environment locally, even globally with our consumption of resources. Choosing a Prius over an SUV, and the appropriate sexual partners; helping someone in need, not just during the holidays but any day improves all our lives collectively. Be acutely aware of your connection to others, and the cascading Butterfly Effect, and it may just be the lives you touch in your home town today will indeed lead to the cure for cancer from someone on the other side of the world tomorrow.