I am a self-professed ‘late bloomer’; in the academic sense, anyway.
In the early nineties, I was a single parent trying make ends meet. I worked 2+ part-time jobs to keep my daughter and son fed, clothed, healthy and happy. My story isn’t much different than many out there. I leaned on the ‘system’ for a while (yes, had to). As an extension of that, I attended an administrative bookkeeping course sponsored through the provincial government’s social assistance program. I even took advantage of a provincial milk program offered for low income families. Believe me, an extra two gallons of milk a week makes a big difference when you have growing kids. I even made the odd trip or two to the local food bank to stock up when the cupboards echoed their food-thin song (usually around the holidays).
Times were tough. But always there was this niggling little voice at the back of my mind saying: “Cami, if you want to get ahead you really need to go back to school. You need to get a degree.”
I knew that getting an education would help me and my family out. So, every year, from 1993 onwards, I filled out an application to the University of Saskatchewan. Every year. The sad part is that every year that envelope would sit on my dining room table – unmailed.
Change is hard. Sure, we are pretty good at identifying problems (and we are great at complaining about them). But how good are we at acknowledging and acting on potential solutions?
A colleague of mine shared an interesting article with me a few weeks ago: “Solution aversion: On the relation between ideology and motivated disbelief”. The solution aversion model – introduced by Duke University scholars Troy Campbell and Aaron Kay – is tested as an explanation for why people are so often divided over (in particular) evidence. The study suggests that “certain solutions associated with problems are more threatening to individuals who hold a strong ideology that is incompatible with or even challenged by the solution…” Thus, people will deny the existence of a problem (a user-friendly overview of the study can be found here)
The human is my favourite mammal. :) As problems present themselves, we humans are more likely to ignore solutions and move onto information or into spaces where our core beliefs are validated. Humans are also social animals. We like to seek protection within the ‘herd’; we are conformists. So we are highly influenced by the networks of individuals that surround us (see Dan Kahan’s take on this here). In Psychology Today, David Ropeik talks about perceptions of risk and the human response to the ‘feeling of losing control‘ (a scary pre-cursor to solution aversion):
“The more threatened we feel as individuals, the more we look to our tribe [or network] to provide a sense of power and control.”
– David Ropeik –
What this means is that solutions to problems that counter our deeply held beliefs will be rejected or ignored in favour of our conveniently-shaped beliefs – no matter how factual, practicable, or moral those solutions are. Rejecting or avoiding solutions helps us to minimize personal social and psychological dilemmas. In other words, it serves the dominant, primal human instinct to survive.
Where was I? Oh yes! It was the 1990s and I was busy passing up opportunities to pursue a post-secondary education (AKA, avoiding a potential solution). I steered clear of those opportunities for a long time mostly because of self-doubt and fear. I was afraid of failing. I was afraid that I would have less income (although it was hardly possible at the time). I was afraid of racking up debt. I was afraid I wouldn’t fit in and I felt that I was just too old to go to school (this latter bit makes me laugh now). At the time, I told myself “Things aren’t that bad, the kids are doing just fine!” or “I like the people I work with!”. For the most part, I believed that it was safer to stick with the status quo; to keep my head down and winnow my way through life working at low-paying, unsatisfying jobs. Friends and family did not really encourage the whole “go rogue and be a single-parent-student” thing either. They probably held some of the same beliefs that I did. And, for a long time, I allowed their doubts to reinforce my own fears.
There was a bright light though; an exception. A favorite aunt. Aunt S was one of my biggest fans. She knew me well (all of the faults, insecurities and possibilities). Aunt S applauded me every year that I filled out an application to the University. With her encouragement, I actually mailed in my application in 1997.
Tragically, that bright light was suddenly snuffed out. Aunt S died later that year. As fate would have it, a letter of acceptance from the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Commerce arrived a few days after her funeral.
It was Aunt S’s words of encouragement and her favorite quote “Do one thing every day that scares you” that prompted me to mail the application form that year. But (sadly) it was her death that was the impetus for me to pull myself up by my bootstraps and get on with things. I made my way through and got not one but, two degrees. I worked hard, I played hard, I learned, I networked AND I looked after my kids. They were fed, healthy and happy and they got to their various activities: dancing, hockey, music lessons and school plays. In fact, we all survived. Beautifully.
Even when a solution is staring you right in the face, it can be hard to take the ‘leap’ and grab the opportunity. It often takes a crisis before you re-evaluate where you are at, who you are and what you believe that you are capable of doing. I lost someone very important to me. This was a definitive point in my life; one where I had to hold the mirror up to my face, face my fears and decide what I really wanted for me and for my children.
The ‘road less travelled’ presents a bumpy ride. Acting on opportunities and following through with solutions can represent huge investments in time, energy and resources. But the rewards can be huge. Today, my children are happy, active adults working at what they love and contributing to their communities. When my kids tell me how proud they are of me, of what I have accomplished, that is reward enough for me.
- Campbell, T.H. and Aaron C. Kay. (2014). “Solution Aversion: On the Relation Between Ideology and Motivated Disbelief.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Volume 107, No. 5. 809-824.
- Kahan, Dan. (2012). “Why we are poles apart on climate change.” Volume 488. August 16.
- Lewandowsky, Stephan, Ullrich K. H. Ecker, Colleen M. Seifert, Norbert Schwarz and John Cook. “Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing.” Psychological Science in the Public InterestDecember 2012 13 no. 3106-131. Available online at: http://psi.sagepub.com/content/13/3/106.full.pdf+html?ijkey=FNCpLYuivUOHE&keytype=ref&siteid=sppsi