My wife is my frontal lobe.
On a recent trip to Miami, I made arrangements to meet my running buddies on Monday morning for our traditional plod down to Matheson Hammock to watch the sunrise. Patti gently pointed out that while she was in favor of Matheson Hammock specifically and sunrises in general, we wouldn’t be arriving in Miami until Tuesday rather than Monday and that my running buddies, patient though they are, would have long since gone home to shower.
My running buddies and I did get together for a slog on Tuesday though. One of our newer members talked about her neighbor. Timmy’s parents coddle him, she began. They let him play video games until all hours; he has no responsibility; he flunked out of engineering school; he works ten hours a week in the stock room of a grocery store.
No one said anything so she continued. He’s 20 years old. How will he ever learn anything if they rescue him, allow him to work part time? He will never move out of his room if his parents don’t force him to stand up and accept the consequences for his lack of motivation. They have enabled him, softened every blow, allowed him to do whatever he wants whenever he wants. He’ll never be able to support himself on what he earns working ten hours a week.
I don’t know anything about Timmy or his parents, but I have to wonder if the direction of the causal arrow is pointing in the right direction. It’s certainly possible that Timmy is under-performing because his parents don’t force him to do anything. But maybe Timmy’s parents don’t force him to do anything because he is doing the best he can.
Not everyone can be an engineer. Indeed, engineering graduates receive the highest compensation of any undergraduate major.
I wonder if perhaps Timmy needs a frontal lobe. My wife isn’t available; she is too busy cleaning up the messes I make with my imperfect executive functioning. But maybe Timmy could accomplish all sorts of stuff if there were someone to help him with organization, time management, and the occasional life skill.
Recently, I was unloading the dishwasher. I picked up a glass and opened a cabinet. It turned out that the cupboard contained plates rather than glasses. Mind you I have lived in this house for some years and the bowls have a pronounced tendency to remain where they have always been.
It is possible that under threats, coercion, punishments, and meanness, I could remember where to place the dishes. Or perhaps a workaround is possible and preferable. A post-it note for example might do the trick. Or I could just acknowledge that it’s going to take me five minutes to accomplish this chore rather than four. Screaming at me is not going to work. I turned 66 last month. If I was going to be able to remember where the plates and the glasses go, I would have already done so.
I don’t know why Timmy didn’t do well in his engineering curriculum. But I do feel strongly that yelling at him or kicking him out of the house won’t make him go back to school, study hard, and earn an A in differential equations. You know the story about the guy who pulled himself up by his bootstraps, the fellow who had no choice but to succeed? We’re all familiar with the person who overcame adversity and—because no one gave him anything—accomplished on his own.
But what you don’t hear about are the myriad folks who also didn’t have any help. Who failed miserably. In experiments this phenomenon of ignoring the examples that don’t fit is called “whistling past the cemetery.” Just because somebody staggered across I-95 and wasn’t killed by a car doesn’t mean that we should all leave our vehicles and perambulate through five lanes of traffic. Getting kicked out of the house—tough love—may have worked for someone. I don’t know that it will work for Timmy.
Admittedly, not everyone is lucky enough to have a patient, organized wife providing logistical support. I am grateful to have a frontal lobe reminding me of where I need to be, what I need to do, and when I need to do it. I wonder if the Timmys of our world would do better with a little more understanding and support.