An Idiot’s Bill of Rights

If blogging has taught me anything, it’s that the universe cares deeply about my every thought and feeling.  

If I would have fallen asleep a year ago, and had a dream about what my life would be like now, waking up I would have pressed myself, “Jer, you really need to work on your pride issues.”  Details be damned: basically, I’ve won the people-pleasing Super Bowl and I want to talk a bit about what life is like on the other side.  

In short, its not much better.  In fact, I noticed that my initial euphoria quickly melted into your run-of-the-mill stupefying fear.  Effort has become an opportunity not to live up to my potential.  Because there seems to be no available trajectory but down, it feels like a good time to abandon all meaningful pursuits and join the circus.  (I ‘ve day-dreamed about becoming a full-time bike messenger.)  

Alicia and Jer in Puerto Rico the day after Christmas 2013.  We went on an all-day snorkeling trip with unlimited free alcohol.  I had to document my first time having a pina colada at 9AM for posterity.

This is a pic of Alicia and I in Puerto Rico the day after Christmas 2013. We went on an all-day snorkeling trip with unlimited free alcohol on a sailing catamaran and I documented my first time having a pina colada at 9AM for posterity.  My point: don’t take these reflections too seriously. Life is  good.

My problem?  Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford, might call it a “fixed mindset.”  She’s done a great deal of research unveiling the effects of implicit beliefs about where one’s talents and abilities come from.  In the first option, we see our talents and abilities as largely set in stone.  We don’t want challenges, as they are opportunities for failure.  And if at first you don’t succeed, give up quickly cause you clearly don’t have it.

Alternatively, we can adopt a “growth mindset.”  In this view, failure is not failure.  Everything is an opportunity for growth.  Results are not defining because things change, and if you work hard you can get better, grow, and learn more and more.  Fixed mindsets have been tied to a whole bunch of stuff nobody wants, like struggling in school, and growth mindsets are generally helpful in your professional and personal life.

Carol Dweck has been working on implicit beliefs for decades.  I'm thrilled that she has taken an interest in my UA work.

Carol Dweck has been working on implicit beliefs for decades. I’m thrilled that she has also taken an interest in my UA work.

One of the ways we get fixed mindsets, ironically, is from  praise.  Praise for ability seems to actually undermine how persistent we are in our efforts (“Johnny, you are so smart!”).   Meanwhile, praising effort and strategy encourages trying and trying hard, at least in school-aged kids (Mueller & Dweck, 1988).

Check out Dweck's book at

Check out Dweck’s popular press book for more info.

Are you fixed or growth?  I think I’m likely somewhere in the middle, but lately I think I have been seduced by lavish praise into a fixed mindset.  I remember after the subway thing how everyone and their mom was calling me a hero for a few weeks.  Then it stopped.  Believe me, I understood those guys who go out and push people onto subway tracks themselves so that they can save someone again.  Extravagant praise of talent and ability is addicting, and, if Dweck is right, corrupting.

Some of you are probably thinking, “hah!  Woe is Jer!  It must be so hard that everyone likes you.”  I would say, “absolutely!  Ridiculous, right?” and then kick you in the shins (as loving friends do).  Stop being small!  Winning the lottery ruins people’s lives (overstatement of Brickman et al, 1978 and other studies).  Winning the lottery of public opinion can as well.  Take it from somebody who has somehow made it to the top of magic mountain (of people-pleasing…not money…I have a ways to go in that other rather worthless pursuit).  The view is not as satisfying as I thought it would be.

One symptom of my hardening fixed mindset (and probably other stuff like being busy) has been blog silence.  I continue to have interesting ideas (I designed a company over Christmas break that would be a full-service fake vacation provider), but are they interesting enough to raise people’s opinions of me?  A dollop of paralysis is sometimes all one needs to avoid trying.

So get rid of it!  I think the first step is to boldly declare my rights, not only as a learner, but also a buffoon.  Dweck’s research, blah blah blah…I really miss allowing myself the freedom to be an idiot.  The guy who will occasionally accidentally pee in the trash can instead of the toilet, who will bike with his arms out like he’s flying, who will unknowingly put the car in park and turn it off at a traffic light if the conversation is interesting…I like that guy and people who are like him.  Thus I solemnly declare that idiots everywhere have  fundamental human rights:

  1. To not know.
  2. To say dumb shit.
  3. To disagree with ourselves without warning.
  4. To pour our heart and soul into a project we later think is silly.
  5. To fail magnificently — so bad that everyone notices.
  6. To fail uninterestingly — so small that it hardly affects anyone’s opinion about anything.  (This one is really scary for me.  I love epic failure.  It’s the mundane disappointing performance that freaks me out.)
  7. To appear foolish.
  8. To learn.
  9. To value growth over other people’s esteem.

Ahh…what a wonderfully freeing exercise!  Thank you internet for your cathartic caress.

But for me utility of this exercise is not just augmenting a present emotional state.  I’ve observed that time and time again what has helped me get over myself, whether it be negative feedback (having a manuscript rejected by 50 publishers) or positive feedback (being the highest-rated speaker at a conference),  is not to ignore feedback or stop caring what other people think–that’s mental illness–but to refocus on the work itself.  Declaring my rights as an idiot helps me do that.  Declaring my rights as an idiot gets me back to content.  Fortunately my work is  damn fascinating.  Usually all it takes is a reminder.

Some people use alarm clocks.  I use my wife.  After five years of marriage, Alicia continues to amaze me, not only because she lovingly kicks my ass with verbal reminders (my masters thesis was languishing before she stepped in), but is herself an example of growth mindset everyday.  While we were in Peurto Rico, I took her boogey-boarding for the first time.  Now, she would be the first to admit that she is not terribly athletic.  True to form, at first she was horrible, really quite impressively bad.  Then she got better.  Then she got good.  And boogey-boarding became a meaningful daily laugh-fest for us.  On the final day, she wore me out, and as the sun set I watched her ride waves and reflected on how lucky I was to have her.  She knows her rights as an idiot, I realized, and those same rights protecting her can protect me (and you) too.

Alicia is the tiny silhouette on the right.

Alicia with her boogey-board is the tiny silhouette on the right.

All are free to be life-loving fools.

About Jer Clifton

Look up, friend. The world is too beautiful for my eyes alone. View all posts by Jer Clifton

13 responses to “An Idiot’s Bill of Rights

  • -whit

    When earlier tonight we talked of U.A.s, growth mind-sets, and positive psych, a poem shook loose that states my issues with positive psychology much more effectively then I could ever clumsily stammer.

    The Pulley, by George Herbert.
       When God at first made man,
    Having a glass of blessings standing by,
    “Let us,” said he, “pour on him all we can.
    Let the world’s riches, which dispersèd lie,
       Contract into a span.”

       So strength first made a way;
    Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honour, pleasure.
    When almost all was out, God made a stay,
    Perceiving that, alone of all his treasure,
       Rest in the bottom lay.

       “For if I should,” said he,
    “Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
    He would adore my gifts instead of me,
    And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature;
       So both should losers be.

       “Yet let him keep the rest,
    But keep them with repining restlessness;
    Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
    If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
       May toss him to my breast.”

  • emiliaelisabethblog

    “I think the first step is to boldly declare my rights, not only as a learner, but also a buffoon.”… and everything else you wrote. Just hilarious! Gotta love you, our adorable GOON : )

  • -whit

    Look dude, I’m not your lawyer, your scientist, or sober, so when I mutter dubious proclamations involving the words ‘true,’ or ‘est,’ I am in no way accountable for your inexplicably credulous expectations. (your post was quite sturdy, and tender in all the right spots. That kind of shit makes me want to attack you.)
    I will stick to my guns a bit and say: I’m not so Buddhist as to believe that ambition is the route of all malcontent, but, though they may manifest themselves differently – all ambition should be universal ambitions; love, joy, forbearance, kindness, goodness, gratefulness, gentleness, self-control, mercy, peace-making. If we are anxious about anything, let these aspirations be what keeps us up at night. Let’s declare our idiots bill of rights to not care about shit but that.
    A “growth mind set” does seem like an effective strategy for tackling life’s ups and downs. So affective in fact that it can keep us blind to the fact that our goals might actually be stupid as fuck; that our targets are bankrupt. So many people that the wold considers ‘successful’ (in sports, business, arts, ect.) have such resilient egos and drive, naturally having ‘growth mind sets.’ But are these bright stars actually any better off?
    Hop on skype, I have a snow day tmw.

  • -whit

    In the midst of this rather crap movie called “Ironclad” there was this rather poignant scrap of script: “Only the weak believe that what they do in battle is who they are as men.” Because, Jer, only the weak believe that how good they are at publishing, how many mothers think we’re heroes, how top-rated we are at conferences, only the weak believe that such things are who we are as men.
    Your Idiots Bill of Rights seems to be addressing a rather adolescent perplexity: ‘caring too much about what others think of what we do.’ The problem we should be tackling at our age should be ‘we think too much about what we do.’ As our main man Kipling put it, ‘to meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same.”
    It seems you still fancy yourself entitled to celestial credit tethered to your unique ambitions. This is the truest thing I’ll ever tell you: You’ll never be released from your anxiety till you let go of any emotional heft weighted to ambition tailored to yourself.
    This is not an Idiot’s bill of rights, no! it is an insecure narcissist’s mantra! the prayer beads of a hypochondriac, a devious narcotic that soothes the symptoms of our corrosive insidious pride.
    Having a ‘growth mind set,’ is nothing more then a clever way of allowing our pride to be more resilient so that it can continue to be the guiding force for our lives, allowing ambition to tug us farther down the rabbit-hole in pursuit of the rainbow’s end.
    Don’t get me wrong, yes charge at being great. Let us strive to be awesome, because God / friends / family see you. “Give greatness a chance,” please do. The people who count don’t care how many touchdowns you can score, or how many twitter followers you can accumulate, they want you to burn with compassion; to hunger for righteousness, they want you to make them laugh, they only want you to love, and they desire of you to make them feel that their adoration of you isn’t 2nd prize to some strangers good review or a 100 thousand copies sold, or a hundred countries conquered, we’re going to live on, today we celebrate our independence day. (Alien punch to the face) Welcome to Earth! I’m out of control, goodnight my friend.

    • Jer Clifton

      I love this. LOL! The “truest thing you’ll ever say to me’! I was so so excited and then you said it: “let go of any emotional heft weighted to ambition tailored to yourself” and then I as like, what the hell is he talking about ? : )

      “make them laugh” huh? Said the little people pleasing entertainer himself.

      actually, I think that one of the big methods of getting over yourself is definitely, “stop fucking talking about yourself!!” but to do that, you need to identify the “something else” to focus on. For me, that’s content, or other people.

      I’m interested in your idea that growth mindset is still pride at some level. Talk to me more about that.

  • Linda Clifton-McCormick

    This was absolutely the most delightful read of any of your crafted writing yet……loved it….love you!


  • Cary Clifton

    Thanks, Jer. The weight of potential can be crushing. The strings of people-pleasing quite strong. Your sudden “gain” can be the source of much emotional sagging, and in fact result in loss that is almost imperceptible. I know this war. So I appreciate your ability to be candid with yourself, Jer! A mark of maturing to be sure!
    I would also say that our goal to refocus may not be only on the what (the content, the idea) but the who (who it is you want to help, to lift up, to enlighten). The focus on the person (or people) is a great help when I am nervous before a speech. Being free to focus on the person is wonderful when I am navigating a relationship precious to me.
    Not only does the idea deserve my focus, but the person who is before me, who I do not want to please, but to bless.

    • Jer Clifton

      I agree! Focusing on the peole around you and losing yourself is so important. Some of the best ways I have gotten out of my own skin is by really and truly making a conscious choice to be interested in someone else, their past, their thoughts, and their feelings.

  • Dan Holcomb

    Dude. “Know less” has been my mantra for the past three months as I am slowly shaken out of my habits and routines. For the better! You cannot wonder if you already know. Nor can you learn. For me, it means a lot of pausing reflexive thoughts and reactions and being open to waiting.

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