Appearing Elsewhere: Achievement character; why marriage and babies don’t mix for the poor; and a review of the new Obama biography

Over the last couple months I’ve had a few pieces published in elsewhere that I want to share with you.

The first is a profile of Angela Duckworth, a professor of psychology at Penn, called “Character’s Content.”  Duckworth studies “achievement character”- the personality traits that correlate with success in school. She’s identified several traits as particularly significant-grit, self-control, delay of gratification- and her objective is to find a way to measure and cultivate these traits in students, particularly kids from low-income neighborhoods:

“Underachievement among American youth is often blamed on inadequate teachers, boring textbooks, and large class sizes,” she wrote in a paper titled “Self-Discipline Outdoes IQ in Predicting Academic Performance in Adolescents,” which served as her first-year graduate thesis and was published in Psychological Science in 2005. “We suggest another reason for students falling short of their intellectual potential: their failure to exercise self-discipline … We believe that many of America’s children have trouble making choices that require them to sacrifice short-term pleasure for long-term gain, and that programs that build self-discipline may be the royal road to building academic achievement.”

The second piece, “When Having Babies Beats Marriage” was published yesterday in Harvard Magazine and looks at the research of sociologist Kathryn Edin.  You might remember Edin’s work from a couple of posts I wrote earlier this year about the stereotype of ‘hit and run’ fatherhood among poor men.  In this piece I explain Edin’s surprising- and to my mind powerfully convincing- explanation for why marriage and childbearing have become decoupled at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder:

But even as low-income Americans view marriage as out of reach, Edin asserts, they continue to see bearing and raising children as the most meaningful activity in their lives. “One theme of Doing The Best I Can is that poor men really want to be dads and they really value fatherhood,” she says. “Both women and men at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder see having kids as the ultimate form of fulfillment”: given their bleak economic prospects and minimal hope of upward mobility, being a parent is one of the few positive identities available to them. Middle-class women have substantial economic incentives to delay childbearing (a woman who gives birth right after college earns half as much in her lifetime as the classmate who waits until her mid thirties), but those incentives don’t exist for poor women. As Edin writes in Promises I Can Keep, “Early childbearing is highly selective of girls whose characteristics—family background, cognitive ability, school performance, mental-health status, and so on—have already diminished their life chances so much that an early birth does little to reduce them further.”

And lastly, a review of David Maraniss’ new biography of Barack Obama that ran in the Christian Science Monitor:

This is the second time that Maraniss has tried to narrate presidential ambition and his first effort was surely an easier one. His 1996 biography of Bill Clinton, “First in His Class,” told the story of a born glad-hander with an insatiable desire for other people’s esteem. Clinton was complex and confounding as president, but the source of his ambition was easy enough to locate.

Obama’s ambition is more obscure. Maraniss seems to have tracked down just about everybody who ever knew the young Barry Obama, including his neighbors in Indonesia, high school classmates in Hawaii, college roommates, and old girlfriends. To a person they recall Obama as a nice guy – easy-going, private, smart – but never as someone who thirsted for greatness or even seemed uniquely equipped to achieve it. Many echo the sentiments of Obama’s first boss out of college, who said that Obama “did not stand out in any material way.”



Rating Jay and Wally’s effect on my well-being

Earlier this month I wrote a post called “How a toddler’s tantrum might produce two kinds of happiness.”  A reader responded with what I took to be a gentle and well-placed admonishment: “Funny, though, how parents seem to spend so much time thinking about whether or not they are happy.”  Nevertheless, here I am with another post on how kids affect parental well-being.

The term “well-being” as opposed to “happiness” is the preferred nomenclature of University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman, whose work I’ve been reading today as part of a story I’m writing about his colleague and disciple Angela Duckworth (who, for her part, studies character traits like self-control and determination that correlate with achievement in school and in life).

Seligman is a lion in psychology—one of the most important members of his field over the last century.  He’s the founder of the “positive psychology” movement which he defines in his most recent book “Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being” as “exploring what makes life worth living and building the enabling conditions of a life worth living.” The “positive” in positive psychology is meant to distinguish the pursuit from traditional branches of psychology focused on negative aspects of experience like depression, schizophrenia, alcoholism, etc.

In “Flourish” Seligman argues that there are five components of well-being that go by the acronym PERMA:

  • Positive Emotion
  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Achievement

I thought it would be interesting to rate on a scale, from -5 to +5, how becoming a parent has impacted my life in each of those five dimensions.  Here goes:

Positive Emotion:
This refers to how often you experience the best feelings in life, among which Seligman includes “pleasure, rapture, ecstasy, warmth, comfort.”  When assessing Jay and Wally’s impact in this realm I’m also going to dock points for negative emotions like anger, boredom, and frustration that they sometimes inspire.

Overall, Jay and Wally have greatly enhanced the quantity of positive emotion in my life.  And these contributions are not close to being outweighed by negative emotions. I’m definitely prone to anger and frustration but I’ve found that I tend to experience those feelings no matter where I am or what I’m doing, whereas the possibility of positive emotion seems to me to be much more situationally dependent.  So basically, I’m not much more angry/frustrated/bored as a Dad than I was before Jay, but I’m a lot more rapt/ecstatic/comforted.

So, I rate parenthood’s contribution to Positive Emotion a +4.

Seligman defines engagement as “flow”: “being one with the music, time stopping, and the loss of self-consciousness during an absorbing activity.”

This is a tough one to rate.  On the one hand, when I’m up at 5:30am with Wally the minutes pass like crawling across a parking lot littered with broken glass.  But on the other hand, I have found that parenthood is a nice antidote to self-consciousness.  I remember looking in the mirror while holding Jay a couple weeks after he was born: I was so much more interested in the baby I was holding than in my own reflection, and I think something like that change of focus has maintained over the last 2+ years.

But overall this diminishment of self-consciousness (or diminishment of focus on my-self) has been less profound than the anti-flow impact parenthood has had, in terms of making me more preoccupied with activities like chores and household routines.

So, I rate parenthood’s contribution to Engagement a -2.

On the plus side, I’ve formed two extraordinary new relationships with Jay and Wally.  And Caroline and I get to share the intimacy of having and raising kids together.

On the minus side, Caroline and I share the intimacy of raising kids together. Our marriage revolves around Jay and Wally, which was made apparent the other night when we went out to dinner for Caroline’s birthday, just the two of us, and remembered a long forgotten secret: just how much we like being together as adults. (We intend, btw, to improve on this by kicking Wally out of our bed as soon as he gets over his current cold.)

And in terms of other relationships—friends, family—having kids has been a net negative to this point.  In a practical sense there’s just not as much time or mental energy to go around.  And on a dispositional level, as I wrote over the summer, becoming a parent has narrowed my ethical circle: the stronger my ethical attachments to Jay and Wally, the weaker my ethical attachments to all the other people in my life.

On the bright side, I suspect that Jay and Wally’s impact on our marriage and on all the other relationships in our lives is more negative now than it will be even in a few years when they’re a little more independent and don’t consume quite so much of our mental and physical energy.

Still, for now I rate parenthood’s contribution to Relationships a -3.

Seligman defines meaning as “belonging to and serving something you believe is bigger than the self.”  Here, parenting is a home run winner.  For reasons I’ve written about a lot,  Jay basically solved my longstanding meaning problem the day he was born.

I rate parenthood’s contribution to Meaning a +5.

There are some confounding factors here.  In the three years before Jay was born I was pretty lacking in career direction, and Reversion to the Mean suggests that my early-thirties were likely to be a more fruitful period in my professional life regardless of how many kids I had.

That said, I have found Jay and Wally to be a spur to work harder and to be more serious about figuring out what I want to do in life.  But I hesitate to give too high a rating here because the optimal conditions for Achievement would seem to be having a lot of career direction and not having any kids to worry about.

Still, given my particular career circumstances at the time Jay was born and the changes that have happened since, I rate parenthood’s contribution to Achievement a +1.

Totaling it all up, becoming a parent has improved my well-being by 5 points.  Seligman doesn’t provide a scale to evaluate what that means, but my intuition says it’s a pretty big positive change.  At the same time, Seligman warns that when people rate their own happiness, 70% of the score they give themselves tends to be determined by the mood they’re in at the time they perform the rating, and only 30% of the rating tends to be determined by analytic judgment.  And, despite the fact that Jay, Wally, and I are all suffering from our first colds of the year, I’m in a pretty good mood today.

I’d be very interested to know how readers of the blog assess the impact of having kids on their own lives in these categories.  Please share in the comments if inclined.

Jay: my cognitive inferior for now at least

Last night I came across this chart, which shows how different cognitive skills decline with age (and apologies for the poor resolution of the chart…click on it to get a clearer view).  The good news is that at 30, theoretically I haven’t peaked in any categories besides numeric ability and perceptual speed, and who needs those skills anyway. Plus, surprisingly, it looks like there’s still room to grow in a few key areas…

From "Personality Psychology and Economics" by Mathilde Almund, et al. Available at:

Looking at the chart, I was also pleased to see that Jay will remain my cognitive inferior for at least a couple decades.  (Anecdotally, of course, I knew this already: Last night he insisted on eating his soup with a fork.)

In some areas, though, he’s got me.  He has to hear a book only a few times before he has it memorized.  A couple nights ago we were reading Corduroy and I stopped before the end of each sentence to let Jay fill in the rest.  He always got it and I realized I didn’t even know the name of the girl who rescues Corduroy at the end of the book. (I told this to Caroline and she said in horror, “How could you not know about Lisa!”)

He’s also got me beat on global awareness.  On Tuesday mornings there could be a hurricane raging in our living room and he’d still notice the first grunt of the trash truck out on the street.

I think Jay’s biggest advantage, though, is that he rarely doubts his ability to learn something.

Last night after dinner we were playing with Legos and Jay wanted to add a window to a tower he’d built. It was a nimble maneuver—too much for his inexperienced fingers. He had trouble aligning the Legos and a couple times he pushed down too hard. Watching Jay was like watching a dog try to extract kibble from one of those rubber Kongs.  After awhile you can’t stand the futility anymore and you just want to do it for him.  Jay, though, plugged away and eventually he got it.

Later that night after he’d gone to bed I opened a web design program I’d just downloaded.  It was more advanced than the software I’m used to and I quickly hit a roadblock.  My heart started to beat faster and my body flooded with despair.  “I’m never going to get this,” I said, throwing up my hands and snapping my laptop closed.

Then I realized that regardless of how he chooses to eat his soup, that’s something Jay would never say.