Guest Post: Greg Swann and Resolving to Master Something Difficult in 2012

Greg Swann, a real-estate broker in the Phoenix area, is a long time friend of mine. And actually, he’s the real writer behind the Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie stories I posted about last week. He also blogs about the human condition at I hope you enjoy the challenge he poses to all for a more fulfilling 2012 and the years to follow.

Want to become a better, more-perfect version of yourself? Master something difficult in 2012

I always love to read about the outrageously nefarious bad guys who are doing all the things we hate. Doesn’t matter who “we” are, since the bad guys afflicting every “we” are always blindingly brilliant, amazingly competent masterminds of evil.

I guess it’s useful to exaggerate your opposition, but here’s the thing:

Everyone I remember from school was a fuck-up.

Start with a good solid two-thirds compliant drones, dutifully going through whatever motions seemed to be required. Maybe half of the rest were glib and lazy. Even the straight-A apple-polishers were just phoning it in, doing the minimum necessary to get the grade from the glib-and-lazy grown-up teaching the class.

Am I misrepresenting the world of education? Is there anything you can think of that you did in school that you’re truly proud of now? Away from athletics or the school play, was there anything in your academic life that you gave everything you had? Was there anyone else who did that?

Was there any class that you took—ever—where you had to bust ass every day or risk get hopelessly lost? And when you got to that class, was that the end of your forward progress in that discipline?

The kids from the hard side of the quad—the maths, the sciences—know what I’m talking about. The kids from the soft side of the quad—the arts, the social sciences—may be recalling a graceless exit from the maths and sciences.

But the truth is that virtually all of us were denied the kind of education that was a matter of expected routine for our grandparents. Partly this is our fault: Too often we were grade-greedy glib-and-lazy fuck-ups. But mostly it was the fault of our teachers—and their teachers.

Were they outrageously nefarious bad guys, hell-bent on depriving us of a decent education? Were they blindingly brilliant, amazingly competent masterminds of evil, conspiring to enslave us in a state of perpetual, unsuspected ignorance?

No. They were just cash-greedy glib-and-lazy fuck-ups. For a second thing, teachers generally intend to do nothing more than the minimum necessary to get the money from the glib-and-lazy politicians who employ them. But for the first thing, they are themselves glib-and-lazy know-nothing fuck-ups skating through life on a frozen river of knowledge a mile wide and a micron thick.

Belay that testy comment, at least for a moment. I absolve myself of nothing in these charges. I know how ignorant I am. I know how much of the time that I could have spent acquiring an education was wasted on trivia instead, or on tendentious cant, or on outright lies. But the fault for that is no one’s but my own.

When our grandparents went to high school—if their families were prosperous enough for them to get that far in school—they were expected to conquer the maths through calculus. It was understood that they would master biology, chemistry and physics. Their curriculum demanded a thorough grounding in the arts, including the ability to play an instrument while sight-reading musical notation. To call themselves educated, to graduate, they had to attain fluency in a foreign language—very often classical Latin or Attic Greek.

To have graduated from high school in the United States in 1880 or 1910 was to have acquired an education far beyond that attained by all but the smallest few college graduates today. All hail the math gods, but how many of them can play a Beethoven sonata on the piano or violin? How many of that cohort can translate from Seneca? How many people reading this are not quite sure who Seneca was?

But: I don’t want you to feel bad about yourself. To the contrary, I want to show how to feel better about yourself—how to have more self to feel better about.

Yes, you were cheated of an education. And, yes, you were complicit in cheating yourself—with every daydream in class, with every gossipy note you passed, with every sneer, every snicker, every spitball you shot at a clueless teacher. With every half-assed, half-stepping, half-hearted effort you turned in, hoping it was just enough to get by—you cheated yourself of an education.

But that’s over. The past can’t be undone, but the future is yours to make of it what you will.

‘Tis the season for New Year’s Resolutions, and that’s a good thing. Join that book club. Remodel that kitchen. Lose that unwanted weight. But you can make this a landmark year of your life with just one resolution:

Resolve to master something difficult in 2012.

There is no shame in knowing how to say, “¿Dónde está el baño?,” but you are fluent in a foreign language when you can read and admire its poetry, when you get the jokes, when you can twist that language into clever witticisms. That’s mastery.

We are victims of Art Appreciation and Film Studies classes, glib-and-lazy time-wasters in which we learned nothing but how to pretend to know something. But there is no class called Geometry Appreciation. In the maths, you can either do the work or you can’t. This year you can pick up where you left off in math and push yourself as far as you can go.

And tell the truth: Every time you see a musician performing—popular music or classical—don’t you wish you could do that, too? The good news is, you can. All it takes is commitment and effort—and time.

Mastering a demanding new skill will take a while. The desire for instant results is how all New Year’s Resolutions get abandoned. But to learn a serious discipline will require your time every day—an hour or more a day of serious, dedicated effort. I like the idea of working every day, since, if you take no breaks from the work, you won’t have to resist the temptation to extend a break by one day and then another and another.

But the benefits to be realized are huge—far beyond anything you might be expecting. In Art Appreciation class, everyone participates in the group discussions, there are no right or wrong answers and the class is graded on the curve. That is, everyone, including the teacher, is wasting time on a pantomime of education.

But mastery of a truly difficult discipline can only be done alone. Your teacher can help, and, as always, we stand on the shoulders of giants. But it is only your brain, working all alone, that can distinguish educere from educare in Latin. Only you working alone can solve that quadratic equation—and prove your work. Even if you’re playing in an ensemble, the music will jar unless you yourself are competent to play your part.

You’ll be better for having improved your mind. But your mind will be improved for having learned something you may have overlooked in school: Only an individual mind can learn and master any branch of human knowledge. You’ll be a better scientist, a better mathematician, a better musician, a better linguist. But you’ll be a better person, too—more independent, more competent, more whole.

How much progress can you make on any resolution in a single day? Almost none. How much progress can you make in a year’s worth of serious, daily effort? You’ll be amazed. It may take you more than a year to get the education your grandparents had by the age of eighteen. But, unlike them, you have instant access to all the world’s knowledge at your fingertips—most of it for free.

And once you’ve mastered something truly difficult, you can take a second look at those outrageously nefarious, blindingly brilliant, amazingly competent masterminds of evil and see them for what they truly are: Glib-and-lazy fuck-ups doing the minimum necessary to get by.

In Latin we can say, “Educere est educare”—to bring up is to bring out—to cultivate your mind is to liberate it, to lead it forevermore away from the slavery of ignorance. No matter what your pedigree, unless you were very lucky you were cheated of an education when you were young. This is the year you can begin to amend that deficit.

You’ll be better for the effort, and wiser, and more confident. But you’ll be more independent, too, more indomitable. And you’ll be more admirable—to your spouse, to your children, to your family and friends—and to yourself.

You weren’t just cheated of an education when you were young, you were cheated out of the full awareness of your own humanity. Not by outrageously nefarious bad guys, but by glib-and-lazy fuck-ups.

The year 2012 is your chance to break the chains of ignorance forever. And in the process, you just might find that you have also broken the imaginary chains that bind you to supposed masterminds of evil.


So what are you going to resolve to master in 2012 and beyond, and how will you go about accomplishing that objective?

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  1. Jorge on December 28, 2011 at 10:38

    I guess we all had different experiences in school as well. You’re correct, academia is in trouble, & you did admit to some exaggeration, but one can still get a ‘cracker-jack’ ed here in the good ol’ USA. It may not be quite what you expected…. but :-)

    Yup, California Community Colleges!

  2. Jorge on December 28, 2011 at 10:26

    So glad my dad kicked my ass into the sciences & then into flight school; thanks Dad!
    2012? Gonna learn (master?!? You’ve GOT to be kidding) the drums.

  3. Jeremy Voluntaryist on December 28, 2011 at 11:15

    Teaching a child to teach them-self is better than sending them to a government indoctrination camp. Many of us have learned more after High School because we chose what we were learning and therefore had more interest in it.

    Big brick and mortar schools will probably go the way of the dinosaurs as more people realize that their kids are not getting an education at school but are simply being baby sat. For the cost of a Kindle and a few minutes downloading mostly free books you can teach your kid at home easier, and cheaper than at school, and they’ll get a better education.
    Not what we use but what got us looking at the idea, Google the Robinson homeschool curriculum.

  4. Greg Swann on December 28, 2011 at 11:22

    > Yup, California Community Colleges!

    I think this is a fine idea, particularly two-year schools set up to feed the more-serious departments of four-year schools. You can matriculate with very smart teachers who are desperate to work with motivated students.

  5. Joseph on December 28, 2011 at 11:22

    I spent most of my childhood reading books at home (where my parents sent me after I misbehaved one too many times in second grade, the last formal schooling I had before college). I didn’t quite finish the calculus book, and I went into humanities (Greek and Latin). For me, the end of the road was a class in Ancient Literary Criticism that I just could not wrap my head around. I put in hours of work, more than I did for any other undergraduate class, but I could not get my grade above C/D until the end of the semester, when my teacher let me off with an A-. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t know the material. It was that I was immature, naive, uncultured. You don’t fix that with one semester of hard reading, even if (like me) you study your butt off (I spent my years as an undergrad working, exercising, eating, and sleeping: no dates, no time off, ever). Today, on the verge of achieving the elusive PhD, I am only just beginning to understand what my Ancient Literary Criticism class was actually about. In another ten years, maybe I will be qualified to pass.

    Education is a lifelong adventure. Thanks for keeping it real with posts like this one, reminders of what the human spirit is capable of achieving.

    • Greg Swann on December 28, 2011 at 11:50

      This is me from a long time ago. You can find the full text here:


      Exhibit two

      For young ladies too, it has been the intention chiefly to write; because boys being generally permitted the use of their fathers’ libraries at a much earlier age than girls are, they frequently have the best scenes of Shakespeare by heart, before their sisters are permitted to look into this manly book; and, therefore, instead of recommending these Tales to the perusal of young gentlemen who can read them so much better in the originals, their kind assistance is rather requested in explaining to their sisters such parts as are hardest for them to understand: and when they have helped them to get over the difficulties, then perhaps they will read to them (carefully selecting what is proper for a young sister’s ear) some passage which has pleased them in one of these stories, in the very words of the scene from which it is taken; and it is hoped they will find that the beautiful extracts, the select passages, they may choose to give their sisters in this way will be much better relished and understood from their having some notion of the general story from one of these imperfect abridgments; which if they be fortunately so done as to prove delightful to any of the young readers, it is hoped that no worse effect will result than to make them wish themselves a little older, that they may be allowed to read the Plays at full length (such a wish will be neither peevish nor irrational).


      Exhibit two is from “Tales from Shakespeare”, which was first published in 1806 by Charles and Mary Lamb. It’s tough sledding, so it may help for me to tell you that the topic of that ponderous 250 word sentence is: Easy reading. “Tales from Shakespeare” is the prototype of all the dumbed-down books that infest school libraries; it was the first of its kind. And what is charming about it is that the Lambs produced this book not because children of ten or thirteen lacked the ability to read Shakespeare in the original, but because their fathers might not permit young ladies early exposure to the unexpurgated, unbowdlerized, un-dumbed-down, raw, naked poetry.


      Do you understand? We have schools where eighty or ninety or ninety-five percent of the inmates emerge unschooled, with no hope whatever of unpacking the meaning from the Lambs, much less from Shakespeare. Of the few bright children who escape from our schools able to read and to reason at some ‘level of literacy’, very few are able to think and to write in English. They cannot “find tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones and good in every thing.” Instead, they are ‘educated’, and they can only locate lingual appendages emerging paradoxically from arboreal organisms, recover learning materials inexplicably miscatalogued in limited-flow watercourse environments, audit faith-based oral presentations emanating by undocumented means from mineral compounds and investigate an hypothesized and possibly apochryphal propensity for persistent pandemic praiseworthiness. Words without end, amen.

      Who is more ignorant, the child who cannot read English, or the childish adult who cannot write it? The lambs are silenced and the sheep say only nothing…

  6. Tim Newsome on December 28, 2011 at 11:36

    I’m sick and tired of all the dumping on teachers that goes around. Yes, there are bad teachers, but there are also teachers who work their ass off. Spending nights and weekends grading and lesson planning (after going to mandatory meetings, and having parent-teacher conferences with parents who think their little kid deserves an A, or with parents who can’t seem to grasp that their kids need to study to do well). They call parents, talk to kids, help students get over some breakup that’s ruining their life, and motivate as many of their 150 kids as they can to pay attention. They do all this with almost no resources, often paying for classroom supplies with their own money. (In fact this is so common that they’re allowed to deduct up to $250/year from their taxes for that.) And every year the budgets get ratcheted down, class sizes go up, and everybody blames the teachers.
    You want to master something hard? Become a teacher. (Sorry, it’ll take more than 1 year to get a credential in most states.)


    • Joseph on December 28, 2011 at 11:51

      Teachers need students. We have forgotten how to be students these days. We know how to receive truth from experts (whom we can fire or sue or at least badmouth when things go wrong), but we do not know how to hunt and gather it for ourselves.

    • Madbiker on December 28, 2011 at 12:04

      Former teacher here. I left to raise my own family, and because I was severely disabused of the notion that I was making one whit of a difference in a kid’s life by teaching. I worked late, tutored, graded papers, attended all the meetings and met with counselors and students to remedy problems.

      But I also raised unpopular points in the faculty meetings, like getting back to basics and teaching grammar and the classical Western literary canon. Like not dumbing down Shakespeare by reducing it to an illustrated Manga Space-Macbeth version of the play, stripped of poetry and meaning. Like challenging kids to write better, and calling them out on plagiarism (and being told to pass the kid anyway, because I must have taught it incorrectly).

      There are good teachers out there. And bad ones, too. I think most of the problems are in the bureaucratic system of schools themselves, and that too often student complaints are put before educational achievement. I complained about school. My students complained about school. But life’s not a breeze, and working hard is necessary. I saw far too much catering to low achievement to consider schools good things for students. And of course, parental involvement in a kids education cannot be overlooked. An involved parent can save a bad education, and a lax parent can ruin a potentially good one.

      Teacher-bashing is really school-bashing. The institution itself is broken, and even though many of its proponents are trying to fix it, they seem to think the answer is more money, not new structures.

      • Sean on December 28, 2011 at 14:32

        I agree that teacher bashing is usually (or ought to be) institution bashing but:

        They were just cash-greedy glib-and-lazy fuck-ups. For a second thing, teachers generally intend to do nothing more than the minimum necessary to get the money from the glib-and-lazy politicians who employ them. But for the first thing, they are themselves glib-and-lazy know-nothing fuck-ups skating through life on a frozen river of knowledge a mile wide and a micron thick.

        That’s just plain old teacher bashing. I disagree with it, as much as my secondary education was mostly a joke.

        The system is really fucked up, and whether or not one is a good teacher, I don’t think it’s such a cushy job. The problem is that all the bullshit that makes it hard to be a teacher has little to do with actual teaching. The people who don’t care are the ones who end up coexisting best in this system of terrible incentives. I’ve seen it first-hand teaching at the community college level for a federally funded school–the actual teaching was the easy part–and this was without having to worry about discipline and all the other crap one encounters in secondary education.

        This is not to say there’s not tons of dead weight in the public school system, not by a long shot, and plenty of it at the teacher level–I just thinking blaming bad teaching for the terrible state of education in the US is like saying that obesity in the US is caused by people eating too many calories.

      • Richard Nikoley on December 28, 2011 at 14:59


        I can see I benefit from years of exposure to Greg’s writing and his was of thinking vis-a-vis Helenic culture and classical eduction.

        I see his indictment as more of a cultural one than on a particular profession. To me, he’s celebrating true excellence and achievement far more than picking on any particular part to bash.

      • Joseph on December 28, 2011 at 20:14

        I don’t see him bashing teachers as individual human beings. I see him bashing the institution of teacher in the modern system of education. He is bashing the mind-numbing, soul-destroying bureaucracy that takes naive idealists and turns them into robots bearing the label “teacher” in front of a class of bored youngsters carrying the label “student” (a label which increasingly inhibits their doing any real work or making anything really useful of their lives).

    • Richard Nikoley on December 28, 2011 at 12:11


      My wife Beatrice is an elementary school teacher and of course, I have heard all of this and more. She just completed her 29th year. She’s always top rated, is always given the toughest kids, parents adore her. Equally, I know of a LOT of teachers who just suck and the school district can do virtually nothing, you know, unless the teacher were to tell an off-color joke or make some racial or otherwise politically incorrect crack. Then there’d be hell to pay.

      For reference, here’s a tribute I wrote about her a few years back when she was one of two selected in the district to go into Middle Schools and essentially, fix the fuck-ups of all the 6-7 teachers who’d come before.

      And yes, parents are highly culpable as well. When I met Bea she taught 5th grade at a school in a high Asian and Latino immigrant area, many kids being not only illiterate in English, but even in their own languages. When she moved on to a new school in the area of the district that had multi-million dollar homes, gated communities and a heavy population of Chinese and Indian immigrant computer hardware and software engineers and entrepreneurs, everything changed. For virtually ever day over the 4 years or so she worked there she had one or two “teacher’s assistants,” i.e., wives of these engineers and entrepreneurs who made their kids and the kids of their friends getting a good education their job.

      I did a year with Junior Achievement in her classroom, on entrepreneurship. Here’s some of the letters I got:

      I should note that I saw Bea reading this post earlier and it didn’t seem to bother her. Maybe she read this one too?

      • Tim Newsome on December 28, 2011 at 14:01

        I’m glad you wrote the tribute, and that your wife is still involved in teaching. She sounds like one of the good ones.
        My wife decided she didn’t want to deal with the stress of teaching anymore (after 7 years) and part of that stress was the teacher-bashing that goes on everywhere. Reading that all teachers are “just cash-greedy glib-and-lazy fuck-ups” just rubs me the wrong way. Call it what you want.
        I’m not sure how to fix/improve education in this country, but I’m fairly sure that complaining about teachers isn’t it.

      • Richard Nikoley on December 28, 2011 at 14:07

        “Yes, you were cheated of an education. And, yes, you were complicit in cheating yourself—with every daydream in class, with every gossipy note you passed, with every sneer, every snicker, every spitball you shot at a clueless teacher. With every half-assed, half-stepping, half-hearted effort you turned in, hoping it was just enough to get by—you cheated yourself of an education.”

    • Jeff on December 29, 2011 at 05:12


      The teachers are not the whole problem. Your statement that budgets get ratcheted down was presented without facts. Spending per student has doubled every 20 years according to the CATO institute. Average spending per pupil was over $12K in 2008-9 according to US Census data. New York spent over $20k per student without much to show for it. Data from: Revenue cannot keep up with this rate giving the drastic increase in college costs, unemployment compensation, food stamps, and medicaid/medicare. For the fiscal year of 2010, just social programs, education, and medical assistance took up 84% of the budget. The education system (primary, secondary, and college) WILL collapse as the costs spiral out of control (college tuition doubling every 9 years and local school spending doubling every 20 years). Something will come out in the end (web based, very local, homeschooling).

      A bigger part of the problem is administrative/support staff bloat as at least in our school district (suburban Indianapolis, not the rich north side) has more non-teacher staff then teachers. Another problem is dumbing down of courses to lift the bottom, particularly in elementary and middleschool as they spend significant time in review in the beginning of the school year and a month before standardized tests. Leaving less time for other students to learn. I would agree that parents are a big portion of the problem.

      • Tim Newsome on December 29, 2011 at 08:45

        I’m afraid I only have anecdotes about lack of funds available to teachers:
        1. When my wife taught in a poor district, she would have to buy her own pencils, and teachers were encouraged to use the photocopier as little as possible because they were running out of paper.
        2. Another teacher I know (in a poor district) felt she had to paint her own classroom because it was so dilapidated. (Then the next year they moved her to a different room, where she did it all over again.)
        3. Class sizes are increasing, which I think is only done to save money. It’s definitely not done to improve the quality of the education.

        The data I could quickly find about class sizes is from New York:
        The numbers I spot checked all increased (by about .8 student/class over 2006-2009). It’s possible that I’m misreading the data.
        Again, anecdotally class sizes only go up. claims “[i]n lower secondary schools, the average American class size is 24.3 students.” I don’t think my wife has ever had a class that small. At the poor district she taught at average class size was 30, and at the rich district it was 32.

        I don’t know where all the money goes, but it sure doesn’t go anywhere where it’s helping out teachers (although teacher pay, at least in CA, is pretty good).


  7. Khaled on December 29, 2011 at 03:23

    I always felt that we were just getting off with being mediocre when history and my own sense of my abilities said there was a lot more to be accomplished. But at my college, covering vast amounts of material quickly was more important than learning anything. As long as you passed the tests, there wasn’t much concern with actually grasping or mastering anything. I spent college trying to master guitar, and then trying to master martial arts, because those were two disciplines where the only acceptable level of performance when anyone cared was mastery. Anything less than that and nobody even wanted to watch.

  8. lynn on December 28, 2011 at 13:45

    Great post.

    I am going to get fluent in Spanish this year. I’m already functional in the language and mostly self-taught (from reading, travel, self-study with grammar books, watching Spanish TV) but this is the year I get all the jokes and can hold a conversation no problem. I’m spending two months in Guatemala towards this end.

    • Richard Nikoley on December 28, 2011 at 14:10

      Glad a few so far seem to have gotten the essential challenge of the post.

      Best wishes with the Spanish.

      • Jeff on December 29, 2011 at 05:27


        Although my first post was in response to Tim, but I did get it. This year has been a great growth year in my understanding that much of the current conventional wisdom is so WRONG (diet, health, politics, wall street, education, etc.). Great article from Greg challenging conventional wisdom to people who were “educated” in the conventional wisdom way.

        I am challenging myself to go primal and get in better shape this year. I am a newbie in discovering what primal is all about. I just book marked your site yesterday and will be a regular.

  9. Jon Cole on December 28, 2011 at 14:17

    I highly recommend the book “Doomed to Fail” by Paul Zoch. Zoch takes aim at the U.S. education system and compares it to the Japanese model. Of course colleagues and parents at the school where I teach immediately regurgitate the argument that the homogenous honor-bound culture of the Japanese is the most obvious explanation for why they routinely trounce us in every conceivable category with the exception of essay writing (and we’re losing ground fast on that one). That and the belief that we teach ALL children regardless of condition and they don’t- a fallacy. If you ever really look at the public school systems in other countries you see a major theme running through the classrooms:

    The students have to take an ACTIVE part in their learning.

    America’s education system has become one where the students are passive learners. Everything and everybody but the student is blamed for why “Johnny can’t read”. Zoch states that this idea is not necessarily a cultural one, but rather a psychological one. Since about 1915 or so, the U.S. education system has thrown its lot in with the behaviorism perspective of psychology while other nations have stuck with the works of William James. The general idea here is that the environment is the sole reason a kid learns. As a result, we must make the students comfortable and teach to their style of learning so they can learn best. If it’s too hot or too cold then the environment inhibits learning. But, like any good paleo, I tell my students that if they want to learn sometimes they have to adapt. If it’s too cold then the heater must be out and they have to put on a coat.

    William James, on the other hand, states that active participation in the learning process proves to be most efficient. Several commenters have echoed this idea perfectly. Students take an active interest and ownership in their education after high school because it has an appeal to them or they need to obtain knowledge because it helps them to adapt to an occupation that enables them to pay the bills.
    I tell my students that I can present information to them all day every day and if they are passive- just sitting there- it will do no one a bit of good. It is their job to actively meet me halfway. Along the way I strive to instill in my students the importance of thinking and challenging the status quo.

    Some cool observations from Zoch about the Japanese model:

    1.There are no substitutes in Japan. If a teacher is absent the class knows the routine and proceeds with the lesson(s) supervised by the teacher next door who keeps an eye on them from time to time.

    2.Mothers are judged by the relative strength of high stakes exams in much the same way a person might be judged by the car they drive or the house they live in.

    3.If a student cannot pass a rigorous public high school entrance exam, they must attend a private school. This is a major sign of dishonor for Japanese students.

  10. rob on December 28, 2011 at 14:48

    Still working on the four-year “get physically fit” plan from back in 2008, it’s hard to accomplish much of anything in a year, you are setting yourself up for failure.

    If it’s worth doing then it’s worth devoting 2, 5, 10 years to it … not like anything else is happening, the world will be the same when you are done.

  11. Erik on December 28, 2011 at 15:20

    The first thing I want to say to this post is “amen.”

    I’m only a few years out of highschool myself. Those few years since were a process of exploring my own independent capacities and shifting my concept of where the blame for what I see as my inadequacies compared to other individuals my age from other places or time periods might belong (Parents? Teachers? Government?). Finally this spring, during a period in which I was living out of a backpack and a bicycle, wandering the southeast, the answers became clear, helped along by a few good books:

    The only productive place to place the blame is on myself, and the most important independent capacity I possess is the capacity to change that. My biggest deterrent is the lack of immediately visible results, but as more time passes the process becomes easier to grasp.

    That said, highschool today is a lot like TV. As it goes, I went to a pretty good one. But the process as a whole is passive; CSI shows might make you “think” and work your brain a little while the mystery plays out, but the parameters in which you’re working are entirely determined by whoever made the show. The program is the program whether or not you’re paying attention, and whether you’re watching on a crackly old tube set or a big HD plasma screen (bad teacher/good teacher). “Independent thought” is just creative remixing of whatever the program gives you.

    Fortunately, like TV, you can turn it off. Just be ready to battle social alienation if you do so, the real-world version of that awkwardness you face when you can’t quote that one spongebob episode everyone knows by heart.

    In 2012, I’m aiming at both ends of the tech spectrum. I aim to learn what it takes to competently develop and maintain websites of various kinds, in-depth, and I aim to learn how to make and competently use a good sling. By 2013 I want to have the capacity to put food on the table with income derived from independent web ventures, and I want to have the capacity to put food on the table by walking out into the woods with a sling and some stones and nailing a rabbit.

    And of course I’ll still be following this blog as I have for about a year now (Rich, you can consider yourself an influence on my realization-process).

  12. Sean on December 28, 2011 at 15:47

    There’s a lot of glib crap here, so it’s rather ironic that the author likes to use the word glib so often, but in between that the general sentiment is often well stated.

    But mastery of a truly difficult discipline can only be done alone. Your teacher can help, and, as always, we stand on the shoulders of giants. But it is only your brain, working all alone, that can distinguish educere from educare in Latin. Only you working alone can solve that quadratic equation—and prove your work. Even if you’re playing in an ensemble, the music will jar unless you yourself are competent to play your part.

    I play several instruments, speak several languages and have an engineering degree and I don’t buy into this Nietzschean force of will thing. Is anyone really going to learn a language or instrument because they read this?

    I learned to speak Czech basically kicking and screaming because I put myself in a situation where I had to. By moving to Prague in my late twenties. I also got out of a huge rut I was in. As one gets older it gets much more difficult to get out of such ruts.

    The better solution is to put oneself in more challenging situations: whether it is looking for a new job, moving to a new country, or simply throwing out the TV.

    And lastly, if one is going to try to master something in 2012, let it not be a language unless they plan on using it. I don’t believe there’s anything inherently enlightening in knowing a language beyond its use as a tool. I wouldn’t say the same for learning an instrument. North Americans tend to feel guilty about their monoglotism but I’ve yet to see a difference between Europeans who speak 8 or 9 languages and those who only speak 1 or 2.

    So choose your pursuits wisely.

    • Richard Nikoley on December 28, 2011 at 16:02

      “Is anyone really going to learn a language or instrument because they read this?”

      Who really knows? Do you?

      I’ve found throughout life that the things that spurred me to greater achievement came from the most unlikely of places. I can’t even predict for myself what will be that one little tidbit of motivation or even shame that gets me off my ass. How could I possibly know for anyone else.

      And besides that, it’s the process—continuous improvement process—that interests me the most. And often, one finds, that successes and accomplishment comes in leaps & bounds, as does failure and disappointment.

      Just don’t give up.

      “So choose your pursuits wisely.”

      One can’t always help what they’re passionate about.

      Wise, to whom?

      • Sean on December 29, 2011 at 02:01

        “I’ve found throughout life that the things that spurred me to greater achievement came from the most unlikely of places. I can’t even predict for myself what will be that one little tidbit of motivation or even shame that gets me off my ass. How could I possibly know for anyone else.”

        You are correct, and it’s a great guest post. Thought provoking at the very least.

        I think the improvement process itself is pretty fascinating. I spent a couple years playing the guitar 8-12 hours a day and it can be supremely frustrating to be that focused on a skill. I usually felt stuck on a plateau but when one reaches a more advanced point it is harder to gauge leaps in progress and harder to notice the steady progress.

        I also thought it was interesting to observe that there were basically two types of musicians, what I used to think of as the zen types and the angry types. The zen types always do better in the end, they are the ones who simply get up in the morning, brew a pot of coffee and pick up their instruments. The angry types have something to prove, a chip on their shoulder and tend to flame out but also tend to be more innovative. It’s a generalization of course, but of the really top-tier musicians I saw, they tended to be either extremely driven or extremely zen.

        “One can’t always help what they’re passionate about.

        Wise, to whom?”

        If one is passionate about learning Sanskrit then go for it, of course. I just don’t think there is anything inherently enlightening about learning a language unless one is going to use it. The time is better spent learning to play an instrument or a martial art or whatever.

      • Richard Nikoley on December 29, 2011 at 05:03

        As an example, I had a use for French in 1989-1992 when I was a navigator on two of their Navy ships during different times.

        Since 1992, no practical use, but I have a certain passion about keeping it alive, so I seek out bi
        Lingual friends, have them over for dinner, and I’m known to sometimes carry on conversations with myself in French. When I’m really lucky, I’ll have a nice dream in French. :)

      • Sean on December 29, 2011 at 05:44

        We’ve vacationed in Barcelona twice and I really enjoyed it and using my extremely rusty Spanish really helped–when one gets off the beaten path few Spaniards speak much English. And the Spanish are very appreciative of people trying to speak their language (unlike the Czechs). Barcelona in the wintertime is perhaps my favorite place in the world.

        Languages are great, I wish I had more talent for them, but I don’t think they are innately better than some other skill if they don’t get used, and probably less useful for building concentration than playing an instrument.

      • Richard Nikoley on December 29, 2011 at 09:04

        When in Spain I rely on Bea who while rusty, can get by. She took some Italian courses on her iPhone while walking the dogs and that helped too, in Italy.

      • Sean on December 30, 2011 at 05:02

        They also have that accent which sounds pretty cool but is significantly different than the stuff I grew up with–and probably Bea the same.

        Damnit, now I’m longing to take a nice winter vacation in some warm climate with abundant seafood where the sun doesn’t set at 4PM.

    • lynn on December 30, 2011 at 06:27

      Depends on what you mean by using it. I plan to learn Latin when I hit my 50s in order to read Marcus Aurelius and Virgil in their original texts. Many would call this impractical; I call it an intellectual challenge useful for its owns sake.

  13. J. Stanton - on December 28, 2011 at 21:27

    For millions of years, we learned by being part of what adults do to survive in daily life — first by imitation, later by participation Sitting in a classroom, watching a teacher lecture, and using other children as our role models for behavior, is so bizarrely evolutionarily discordant that any useful knowledge we receive is basically an accident.

    Furthermore, educating children has never been the purpose of the American school system.

    “We want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forego the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.” -Woodrow Wilson

    “Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual.” -William Torrey Harris, US Commissioner of Education from 1889 to 1906

    The purpose of public education has always been to produce compliant laborers. John Taylor Gatto has a lot to say about this, as does the success of the Sudbury system. And the solution to producing functional adults is not stricter regimentation: all that does is make the compliant laborers more productive. It’s very difficult to “free the animal” when you’ve first spent twelve years telling it to sit down, shut up, recite memorized “facts”, and move around at the sound of buzzers and bells like Pavlov’s pigeons.


    • Richard Nikoley on December 28, 2011 at 22:34


      Thanks for reminding me why I love you and your own style.

      And thanks for emailing that day to say you were going to keep emailing until I started linking you up. I see you’re now doing fine on your own, and so well deserved.

      And never go with a different haircut.

      • J. Stanton - on December 29, 2011 at 11:51


        The pleasure is mine. Your own unique style of pot-stirring prevents complacency and opens up so many opportunities for discussion.

        It took me some time to find my strength and my voice. Part of it is reminding us that evolutionary discordance doesn’t stop with diet and exercise. We’ve all got quite a bit of obedience training to overcome.

        And yes, I’ll be back soon.

        A final note: there are many teachers who manage to make a positive difference despite the system they’re in, and I respect and appreciate all that they do. But they’re swimming against a very powerful current.


        (Erratum from above message: the pigeons were Skinner’s. Pavlov had the dogs.)

    • Neal Matheson on December 29, 2011 at 10:24

      Outstanding! The secondary (high school) system seems pretty similar here in the UK. The best people I know all say they educated themselves after their formal education, I hope this video is of interest
      the hardest thing I’ll probably do this year is continue to be a good H/G parent.

  14. Jorge on December 28, 2011 at 22:21

    My dog is anything but Pavlovian, so thanks to the pigeons! But really… who are all of you??? I so enjoy reading this… so.,, thanks.

  15. Madbiker on December 29, 2011 at 04:46

    For myself, I want to master French. I was nearly fluent after 6 years of study in HS, college, and from a few months living in Geneva for work (over a decade ago) but I find when I listen to French conversations or music I easily pick up the rhythms and understand what is being said. I’d like to read some original works in French, not their translations, but critical reading of literature in another language requires a deep understanding of idiomatic expressions, nuance, and the application of literary and poetic devices.

    I am also committing myself to reading the Harvard Five Foot Bookshelf, as a means of filling in the gaps of my own education, some my own fault and some the fault of an over-liberal education that marginalized and demonized Western culture.

    Thanks for the guest post, Mr. Swann, and to Richard, for introducing me to Mr. Swann’s blog. I’m enjoying it thoroughly.

  16. […] In anticipation of New Year’s Day and all its resolutions, I have a guest post up there on how to make 2012 a game-changing year in your life: ‘Tis the season for New Year’s Resolutions, and that’s a good thing. Join that […]

  17. Elenor on December 29, 2011 at 07:04

    I don’t usually swear — but UN-fucking-believable!! Where does this guy come off blaming TEACHERS (some of whom are good, many of whom are bad — and the system certainly rewards the bad ones) for the failures of PARENTING (and / or genetics!) to create children who can or will learn!

    Please read this (from 1977; seen anything get better since then?) for a different view:, which starts this way:
    There is a five-million dollar suit being initiated against Copaigue by Attorney Siben of Bay Shore. The case concerns a semi-literate young man who holds a diploma from Copaigue High School. The suit raises several interesting and important questions.

    The first is: Whose fault is it that the young man can’t read or write above an elementary-school level? That opens a can of worms, but a few things can be said to help untangle it.

    One thing is that if nine out of ten of the young man’s classmates can read and write “normally” for high-school graduates, then there is nothing actionably wrong with the school, the teachers, or their methods.

    A second thing that can be said is that it may not be sensible to look for “fault” in this situation. Whose “fault” is it that only a few of the thousands of young people who want to act ever make it to the stage? It is only in the cloud-cuckoo-land of hopes and dreams that all our sons and daughters become college graduates. The facts are quite other. Unless each child is made “verbal” in his first few years, he will never be at ease with reading, writing, and speaking.

    This reminds me of a thing that always infuriates me about Clark Howard — who worked as a student teacher for a couple months in an elite private school — and therefore thinks he knows something about teaching! He says (as do WAY too many politicians and other folks) that ‘rewarding’ — and punishing — ‘TEACHERS’ for the failures of students to learn is “just plain-old business sense.” Here’s the thing I’d say to him: a BUSINESS can *stop buying* from” a source of “raw material” when that source provides substandard materials that are unfit for the intended use! Will you allow schools to STOP accepting substandard, (unprepared, unfit, unable to succeed) “raw material” from entering the schools — and so quit expecting teachers to make silk purses out of sow’s ears? (To make educated citizens out of everything-and-anything human, whether or not that human is CAPABLE of achieving that status?!)

    “A third observation is that there is a better-than-even chance that Donohue picked up from his parents, friends, or relatives that good old American attitude towards education, “eggheads,” schools, and teachers. It is perfectly illustrated in “de Tokeville’s” ballad which polluted half an editorial page in The Record a few weeks ago — a half-contemptuous, half patronizing condescension towards a profession and a person regarded as perhaps necessary but subtly inferior to “real” work and “real” people. If, in their subconscious, some students and teachers are brought up to regard schooling as an adversary process presided over by well-meaning nitwits, then those students (and those teachers) will be marginal successes at best. “They make me come to your ——— class to take your ——— subject, so go ahead and try to teach me” “You come dragging your ——— butt into my class with that ——— look on your face, and I’ll make you learn or you’ll wish you had.” That is distinctly not a learning atmosphere, at least not for book-learning.”

    In a country where parents raise hell with schools for expecting children to actually DO some homework — you know — at HOME?! Or parents come into school armed with lawyers to argue about grades when their child can’t actually do the work? What do you expect!?

    Mr Swan exhibits pretty well that “half-contemptuous, half patronizing condescension” towards a profession that is jerked around at the whim of idiots (like him?) who think that teachers should somehow be able to NOT have to “answer to” the school administration (that has to keep pushing the kids through or lose govt funding; that doesn’t dare anger the parents or communities; that has to figure out how to teach science and evolution when the idiots around the school think it’s anathema!), and to idiot politicians who want kids to ‘pass some test’ — whether or not they LEARN anything. Oh, and the kids should be *legislated* to also demonstrate unearned “self-esteem” — and while they’re at it, let’s require mainstreaming disabled kids who can’t even hold their bowels, much less learn to read Seneca!! Has Mr Swan ever told his boss that the goal the boss is laying on the employees is completely insane and unachievable with the “material” the boss/community is providing them to build with?! Somehow, I’m pretty sure not!

    No, I’m NOT a teacher, never have been or would be one. Yes, that essay is by my dad. But jiminy crickets! How do you expect teachers to turn every single child into college material, when the parents haven’t even prepared the child to enter kindergarten?!

    • Joseph on December 29, 2011 at 07:21

      You don’t. So why does the government force us to do it anyway? In the end, this is not a rant against teachers as much as it is a rant against stupid government (which thinks that it can orchestrate reality to fit into nice little boxes, paid for by someone else).

  18. BLAK_LABL on December 29, 2011 at 08:43

    Great post!

    First thing I am going to master in 2012 is the Paleo diet…

    But for something really cool, I would like to learn how to skate a big vert ramp. I had a skateboarding background when I was younger, but never had much of the opportunity to ride a big-ass ramp. Now that I am mid-30’s, figure I had better learn it soon if I ever expect it to happen!

  19. leo deforges on December 30, 2011 at 10:49

    I will work towards mastery of the Olympic Lifts (the clean and jerk and the full snatch) and enter at least one Weighlifting competition. I have begun this month. It will be challenging but I am excited to pursue this challenge. Competitions tend to cause the most anxiety so this will be the biggest part of the challenge for me.

    • leo deforges on December 30, 2011 at 10:50

      Also will be doing the Full30 this month with my wife.

  20. bubbaj30 on December 31, 2011 at 09:38

    Does this mean I have to try and listen to a Tom Waits album all the way through?
    Thats really hard ya know.

  21. MindClimber on December 31, 2011 at 10:42

    I am reminded of a valued friend who, as a rule, engaged life as a mastery problem – even his own death.

    His philosophy is distilled (naturally with mastery) here:

    The quote is about the physical challenges of rock climbing but is truly applicable to much more: Face your fears. Do difficult things. We can do so much more than we believe we can. In fact it is our beliefs that get in our way.

  22. […] in Action, Flourishing, Group Therapy, Splendor) by Greg Swann on 01-01-2012 [I wrote this for, but I want to mirror it here, as well, since it's so much a part of what is for. […]

  23. […] A not-so-brief movies about philosophy and guitars. I address the four issues raised in the headline, among them a post I wrote for Richard Nikoley’s about mastering difficult tasks. […]

  24. […] A not-so-brief movies about philosophy and guitars. I address the four issues raised in the headline, among them a post I wrote for Richard Nikoley’s about mastering difficult tasks. […]

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