Monday, October 09, 2006


Happy Fog

I read somewhere that clinically-depressed people actually have more accurate views of most situations than do 'healthy' people, since they're immune to the 'happy fog' that most people apply to themselves. Most people, if asked, consider themselves above-average drivers, which is statistically impossible.* I have a game I play with photographs, wherein I consider any photo of me taken since about 1999 to be a bad picture. Signs of aging are, in fact, simply the symptoms of bad photography. And mirrors. And lighting. Intellectually, I know it's crap, but the rationalizations kick in every time I see a new picture.

What the happy fog costs people in accuracy, it usually more than makes up in confidence. If I had any kind of accurate conception of what I really look like, I probably wouldn't leave the house. My illusions make it possible for me to function. The outfielder and philosopher Lenny Dykstra was once quoted saying something to the effect that he believed that he could hit any pitcher at any time, and the minute he stopped believing that he'd lose his effectiveness as a player. There's something to that. Most small businesses fail in the first few years, yet people keep starting them anyway. It's a good thing they do, because the economy would be in terrible shape without them. But it takes a generous helping of happy fog for that many people to think they can beat odds that daunting. Happy fog may get individuals in over their heads, but it probably helps the economy as a whole.

(Is there a more textbook case of happy fog than the hordes of eager young grad students rushing into doctoral programs, each convinced that s/he will buck the adjunct trend? If not for their exploitable hopes and dreams, colleges would have to hire more full-time faculty, and would be even more expensive than they already are!)

Happy fog, like most intoxicants, shouldn't be used to excess. It can lead to grandiose and delusional behavior, and to a real antipathy to truth-tellers. (“You're doing a heckuva job, Brownie.”) Truth-tellers are the buzzkill that happy-fog addicts fear and loathe. That they're right only makes them more hateful.

I'm confronting a happy-fog vs. truth-teller issue, and I'm starting to get worried. Without getting too detailed or revealing, I'll just say that it involves the limits of what internal reform can accomplish in the face of negative external demographic changes. The happy foggers say that there is no limit to what internal reform can accomplish, as long as everyone stays focused. More darkly, they intimate, people who mention limits are saboteurs or malingerers, dooming the college with their self-fulfilling negativity. (To be fair, curmudgeons frequently like to style themselves truth-tellers, when in fact they're just bitter and nasty. So the intimations don't come out of nowhere.) The smarter truth-tellers actually support internal reform, but suggest that expecting too much to come of it can only end in tears.

We're at the point at which a significant number of painful internal reforms have already taken place, but their impact has been disappointingly small as against external changes. This is where the conflict gets tricky. Both groups agree that the payoff has been frustratingly small, but they offer different explanations. To the truth-tellers, the payoff was probably the best that could be expected in a hostile external climate. The next job is to face up to the reality of that climate, and start making some really unpleasant decisions. To the happy-foggers, the payoff was small because too many people don't like change, too many nay-sayers are running around, and too many people just refuse to get with the program. There's nothing wrong with the program; it just needs to be amped up.

One of the constant frustrations of adulthood is realizing that the good guys don't always win. In fact, many people don't even know who the good guys are.

In a recent conversation, I commented that I'm much more candid on my blog than I am in my office. In my office, there's only so much candor I'm allowed. Part of the job involves projecting confidence even when you have doubts yourself, since success is likelier when it's expected. I pick my battles, and not that many of them. I don't want to be the buzzkill who gets thrown out of the party. But I don't want the college to spend time and energy chasing shadows, either.

Socrates thought he was a truth-teller, piercing the happy fog of the citizens of Athens, and we know what happened to him.

Nobody said it would be easy...

What a great post. I think that academics are particularly good at generating and maintaining a happy fog state (maybe because of the delusions it requires to enter academia in the first place?)... Our colleges are our own little worlds, open to endless possibilities for tinkering and improvement. "What *can't* be accomplished in these mini utopias?" we think.

I am now Chair of a committee that really should be renamed the Happy Fog Committee. Sigh.
Great post. My experience is that rewards and trauma don't average themselves out into a metric that indicates too much or not enough badness. Instead, everyone has their own level of reward they're looking for, which is not exactly linked to the level of badness they'll endure.

A slight detour that I think is relevant. In management, as you've pointed out before, you end up doing all sorts of crap to protect your staff from Unspeakable Horror. Yet none of the staff know that you're doing this, and only the really empathetic ones would even recognise it if you told them, because it's out of their experience. But defending your faculty against external threats means that you are not concentrating on bolstering their self-esteem, and even though it might be more important, it won't be seen as such.

So I think - and I am pretty bad at this myself lol - the important thing is to make sure that both the truth-tellers and the happy-foggers are being thrown some kind of a bone in the decisions that follow. I've seen cases where that isn't possible, but I think it usually is, because the bones can come from different parts of the project, so there's not a direct opposition between the HFs and the TTs.

In terms of the course you take, you're never going to get enough data to "prove" the value of change. In education you're dealing with value cycles that sometimes take a decade before you really see the results of your work. So performance is always trying to be measured against data which is too soon to tell, and the interpretation of that data will be a political contest (believe me, consultants get these questions about data all the time). I think you need to get as much information as you can from the people who are involved, take a read on the external environment, go with your gut feeling and judgement, and make sure everyone gets a bone even if they don't agree with your call.
Whoops! I left out the asterisk. It was supposed to say something like "yes, I know, it depends how you define average. Literary license."
Listen to everyone. Do the best sales job you can. Manage the consequences.

That's all you can do.
According to an article in a recent Scientific American, it's not a lack of self-confidence that causes bullying, but rather over-confidence that gets punctured by the truth. The bully believes that they really are great at something, and then lashes out at whoever rubs their nose in the truth (even if inadvertently, like doing better than them at whatever they are 'the best' at). Apparently, the whole "bullying is caused by a lack of self-esteem" thing isn't based on solid evidence (once you start tracking references back to original fieldwork). [1]

I mention this because The Boy will no doubt encounter bullies at school, and it may help you to dig past conventional wisdom on bullying and how to deal with it.

As to the folks who blame failure on a lack of commitment to "the program", point them at the World Bank and the Asian currency crisis. Those countries who 'got with the program' and stuck with it, no matter how painful, haven't fully recovered yet. Those that concluded it wasn't working and tried something different weathered the worst of the storm and are thriving now. "If at first you don't succeed, try try again. After that, try something else!"

[1] Which rather sadly sums up a lot of academic research in the field of education. Too few "researchers" have a solid grasp of (or indeed a nodding acquaintance with) the idea of a controlled study and the null hypothesis.
"Is there a more textbook case of happy fog than the hordes of eager young grad students rushing into doctoral programs, each convinced that s/he will buck the adjunct trend?"

Well, how about hundreds of universitites spending billions of dollars every year on athletic programs in the hope that all that this spending will do a better job of making the university a better place to teach and learn as opposed to spending directly on teaching and research?
Well, lots of us already know that there's real self-esteem and self-esteem based on, well, nothing. I seem to recall a fairly recent study -- maybe two years ago in The Grauniad? New Scientist?-- that mentioned findings that people had real self-esteem from having earned it, and lower actual (as opposed to apparent) self-esteem when they hadn't earned it. So that could tie in with bullying -- bullies know enough to know that their self-perception is unjustified, and that means their self-esteem is atually pretty low. Or I could be totally misremembering things.
Beautiful segues in today's post, DD. I'm definitely in line with Danny -- find a way to offer credibility to aspects of both sides, since they both probably are right to some extent.

You mentioned the business analogy (happy fog to start new businesses, despite so many failing), and I wonder if there could be some sort of business analogy to help with solving your current thorny problem. Some traditional businesses are failing (I just heard about Tower Records going under), while others are able to pull themselves up with a brand new product out of nowhere. (Apple and the ipod comes to mind nowadays; *Car* documents the Taurus doing the same thing for Ford in the mid-80s.)
Is there a business analog to the inherent conflict between your internal reforms and shifting demographics? Are there examples of corporate successes? Can any analogies be made to stand-out CCs (not my direct field so I don't know the literature) or to for-profit competitors?

It sounds like a tricky management problem at hand. Your CC is lucky that you're the one with the reins, DD. The solution, whatever is decided, will be structurally sound.
However, there is a very wide medium between happy foggers and truth-tellers. My understanding of that one study is that happy-foggers believed that they had more control over the world than they really had. Realists and depressed persons caught on pretty quickly that they had little control over the world's event.

So here's where I differ with DD - happy foggers keep plugging along until they find something that works, probably because they're positive that a resolution can be reached. Happy foggers are well-acquainted with failure, and are ready to try again. Some realists and so-called truth tellers have little tolerance for failure, which means that they don't try, or they don't try as often.

I'm unclear on what happened at the CC that cost a lot of money but didn't yield good results. But didn't FDR once say that the best way to solve a problem was to throw as many different solutions at it until one worked? In a problematic environment, it seems that the best way adapt is to keep trying.
Which is to say that if one really needs the moral authority to implement zero-sum kinds of change, one really needs to consistently and successfully make the case that (1) change is necessary, and (2) despite mistakes, the administration is competent to experiment until it finds a good approach.
didn't FDR once say that the best way to solve a problem was to throw as many different solutions at it until one worked? In a problematic environment, it seems that the best way adapt is to keep trying.

The key thing is trying different solutions. Doing the same thing over and over when it hasn't worked before isn't terribly smart. And blaming the people who point out that it isn't working is a great way to create resentment...
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