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Problems? Challenges? YOU Have the Answer – Lessons from Tennis Pros

By Shlomo Maital    

   Patrick Mouratoglou is perhaps the world’s best-known high-achieving tennis coach, for a wide range of professionals, men and women.  He has a knack for identifying young talent and grooming them for greatness.   He founded  the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy in 1996 near Paris (now moved to the outskirts of Nice), and has coached many up-and-coming players, including Marcos Baghdatis,  Julia Vakulenko, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Aravane Rezaï, Irena Pavlovic, Jérémy Chardy, Laura Robson, Yanina Wickmayer and Grigor Dimitrov – and many others.  And of course, Serena Williams…

     What is his secret?  Here is what Alexei Popyrin, Budding Australian tennis star, explained to Matthew Futterman, in today’s New York Times (Sept. 9):

      “Mouratoglou usually functions like a tennis Buddha, a sounding board who listens more than he speaks. I vent to him.  He lets you speak your mind and when you speak your mind to him, a lot of the time you get the answers yourself.”

     Let’s take note of those last words.  A lot of the time you get the answers yourself.

     In teaching creativity to students – more accurately, in helping them re-discover their own nascent creativity —  I stress two proven principles.  First, assume from the outset, with 100% belief, that there IS a solution to the problem.  Second, you yourself will find it, it is out there waiting to be found, persist and look in dark corners and it will pop out.   But please, make sure you deeply thoroughly understand the problem BEFORE you try to solve it.

     We often think by verbalizing our thoughts.  Can you verbalize your problem or challenge?  Say it, define it.  Listen to it.  It helps to talk about it to someone, who is a good listener.  And as you listen to yourself defining the problem,  solutions will emerge.   Maybe not at once.  But eventually.  Why? Because one of the most powerful parts of our brains is our subconscious – the part of the brain that works, and works hard, even when we are not aware of it. 

     When you speak your mind, a lot of the time you get the answers yourself.  A life lesson from tennis players. 

Utopian Science Fiction: Kim Stanley Robinson Shows the Way

By Shlomo Maital  

The Ministry for the Future. By Kim Stanley Robinson.

  ‎ Orbit (October 6, 2020)    577 pages.

    Let’s face it.  Science fiction writers are generally doom-and-gloom.  1984?  Brave New World?  They extrapolate negative trends in today’s worlds, into apocalypse in the future.

    But Kim Stanley Robinson is different.  He is one of a small group of science fiction writers who are, in a sense, ‘utopian’ – they show us a better future and how to achieve it, with a real road map. 

    The Ministry for the Future is a ministry whose function it is, globally, to represent future generations, a la Greta Thunberg.  Why?   When decisions are made only by and for those alive today, our unborn children and grandchildren and their voices are unheard, silent.  Someone must speak for them, with authority.  So why not a cabinet minister?  With real power! And money!

     The book begins with a horrific heat wave in India, that kills people.  And little by little, Robinson shows, step by step, how the climate catastrophe can be mitigated, one baby step at a time, with the Future Minister intervening to fund every small idea that helps. 

     In a National Public Radio interview (The New Yorker podcast),  Robinson was asked about baby steps or giant steps.  He does not believe in ‘giant steps’ – huge leaps forward.  They don’t work.  But he does believe in incremental policies, many of them, implemented relentlessly, globally,  step by step, over time.   He recounts hiking in the high Sierras, near a favorite mountain range, with eight glaciers, and every one has melted, except one last glacier, which will be gone too in three years. 

   This is Robinson’s 20th novel.  He calls them political fiction, because they are futuristic but show practical pragmatic ways to deal with humanity’s existential problems.

   I plan to read the other 19, for sure.   

Teaching Kids Empathy: NOT Soft Skills At All

By Shlomo Maital

Shirli Ramon Bracha

   The school year will open in Israel on Wednesday Sept. 1, despite Delta.  An unusual lesson will greet some of the kids in Sderot, a city in the south of Israel (often in the news, as it undergoes rocket attacks from Gaza).

    The children will sit in a circle.  A baby will be there, and they will be invited to sing to him, play with him, interact with him.  These interactive sessions will take place during the whole school year, once a week.  Regular classes will be halted, and the kids will sit around in a circle with the mother and the baby, with the teacher present.  They will observe how the baby responds, and reacts to his mother.  Over the course of the year, they will watch how the baby develops, acquires skills – and they will become close friends with him.

    This program was initiated by an NGO, “V’ahavta”, and is being replicated in Tel Aviv.  The head of the Education Administration in Tel Aviv, Shirli Rimon Bracha, stresses how we need to use the right terminology.  “When you call skills ‘soft’,”  she says, “you diminish their importance at once.  Without empathy, without human contacts, with persistence, kids cannot succeed in their studies.  Without resilience and optimism, they lack high aspiration.  We need to call these skills,  “critical skills”, not “soft skills”  “. 

     I would call them “core skills”.  Why? Because increasingly, employers are seeking them – and they are largely untaught, unexplored, in conventional school settings. 

     According to McKinsey, and based on their comprehensive global survey, here are the 10 core skills employers seek today:  complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, people management, coordinating with others, emotional intelligence, judgment and decision making, service orientation, negotiation, cognitive flexibility.   

     How many of us parents help kids with these skills? How many schools?

  • Based on an article by Education Correspondent Lior Dattel, Haaretz daily newspaper, August 27.

Then and Now:  Evacuating Vietnamese (1975), Evacuating Afghans (2021)

By Shlomo Maital

A Huey Helicopter

   At the end of April 1975,  the US evacuated its Saigon embassy, as North Vietnamese forces rapidly approached.  Thousands of Vietnamese also sought to leave, to reach safety, and besieged the Embassy.  US Marines and the US Navy went into action.  The US Navy aircraft carrier Midway was positioned offshore, in the South China Sea.  Its fighter aircraft had been replaced with Chinook and Huey helicopters. Helicopters flew to the roof of the Saigon embassy, filled their cabins with evacuees, and deposited their precious cargo on the deck of the Midway.   They flew in daylight and through the night.  

    An eyewitness account of this mission was reported today on the BBC World Service by a navy officer and a Marine who both took active parts.  The Navy officer reported that on the Midway, helicopters that landed on the deck took up space that other helicopters needed to land.  He made a decision – push some of the inactive helicopters into the sea, to make room.  (Each Huey or Chinook could take up to  50 people, for the short journey.)   People’s lives are worth more than helicopters, he said.

     Marine soldiers on the ground defied State Department orders to process and transport only Americans  — and loaded Vietnamese as well into helicopters.   When the last helicopter took off, there were still Vietnamese awaiting rescue – 420 of them.  We felt bad, the Marine said, we felt terrible – but it had to end then. 

     Fast forward.   The United States opened its doors.  Large-scale immigration from Vietnam to the United States was facilitated, and in total the U.S.-sponsored evacuation brought an estimated 125,000 Vietnamese refugees to American shores.  Among other immigrant groups, they have been ambitious, creative hard-working citizens. 

     I’ve been to Vietnam.  I have good friends there and have had Vietnamese students who studied abroad.  These are resilient hard-working people, who have created high value for their adopted country and of course, for their own. 

      I have not visited Afghanistan, and do not know Afghans personally.  But I have no doubt, that if America opened its doors to those Afghans who wanted to emigrate, and used its vast military and civilian resources to bring all those who wish to leave, to safety —  and if it gave the US military an order,  do what it takes to bring all those who wish to leave out to safety, beyond August 31 —   the US would gain a valuable tranche of human capital,  and there would be no more concern about America’s declining birth rate.     

        My evidence?  My own mother and father, and grandparents,  immigrants to Canada.  Immigrants bring hope, aspiration, gratitude, resilience and love of adopted country. And second-generation immigrants (me) — the same or more so. Why is that so hard for Americans to understand?

     United States,  Saigon 1975.

     United States, Kabul 2021.

     What in the world has happened to America? 

How the Embryo Protects Its Mother –

Another Miracle of the Human Body

By Shlomo Maital     

   A small item in today’s Hebrew newspaper, Haaretz, caught my eye.  It is about another miracle of the human body — 

   Jordan McCarthy moved from Boston to Israel some months ago, to do graduate studies in biology at my university, Technion.  He is working with Dr. Yaron Fuchs.  (The tuition is more affordable than in the US, he reports).   Here is what Jordan recounts.

    “I’m researching stem cells during pregnancy.  We discovered that women who had a  heart attack when they were pregnant had a small advantage in recovery, and we wanted to understand why. It turns out that when a pregnant woman is injured, the embryo will send stem cells to the injured part of her body, which expedites the recovery. [Stem cells are human cells that are capable of becoming any type of specialized cell – muscle, heart, bone, brain, etc.]. 

    How did they discover this?

    “That was discovered, because a woman usually has two X (female) chromosomes, but if she is pregnant with a male, both an X chromosome and a Y (male) chromosome will be found [in cells]  in the injured area.  It’s insane!  I’m astounded that we discovered that.  We don’t know how they move to the injured part and we don’t know what brings them there, but we know that they’re there.”

    Jordan explains why stem cells are an exciting frontier in biological research.

     “Each of us has billions of stem cells right now. They’re in the skin, liver, brain.  It is a mistaken conception that stem cells are only in the embryo”. 

      The human body is truly miraculous – even though we humans mistreat it, often, in what we eat and drink and do (or don’t do).  And apparently, it can heal itself, if we just help it along a bit….. or at least, do no harm. 

The Collapse of the American Family & The Rise of Trumpism: They ARE Connected!

By Shlomo Maital

   From Wikipedia:   “Trumpism is a term for the political ideologies, social emotions, style of governance,[9] political movement and set of mechanisms for acquiring and keeping power that are associated with Donald Trump and his political base.  …Some commentators have rejected the populist designation for Trumpism and instead view it as part of a trend towards a new form of fascism, with some referring to it as explicitly fascist and others as authoritarian and illiberal.   Others have more mildly identified it as akin to fascism.

 For a very long time now, I’ve been trying to understand how 74 million people (!) voted for Trump, this evil ignorant self-seeking kleptocrat.  Finally, New York Times columnist David Brooks arrives with some help.

   Brooks notes, in his July 29 column, “what’s ripping American families apart?”,  that at least 27 per cent of Americans are estranged from a member of their own family, and about 40 per cent of Americans (two in five) have experienced estrangement at some point.  Most commonly – estrangement between adult children and one or both parents, usually initiated by the child.  Brooks quotes one woman as saying “I did not get the mother I deserve!”

   Why?  Joshua Coleman, a psychologist, explains that in our individualistic culture, “it’s all about me!”, family has become a launchpad for personal fulfillment, where once it was a bond of mutual duty and obligation.

    It must be quite terrible to lose the love and support of a family.  It leaves a vacuum, a large empty ache.  And hence – enter politics.  Joining a tribe of Trumpers can replace a ravaged family.  And it has nothing to do with the behavior or views of the terrible individual at the center of it.  It is about the other Trumpers, who become a united family, join rallies, join social media, buy in to conspiracies, reject masks and vaccines.  THEY become family, in lieu of genetic ones. 

  And here is the basic problem.  Trumpism will not go away.  The disastrous failure of Trump to manage his country is irrelevant.  As long as Trumpers have their ‘family’,  it is here to stay.  Brooks quotes a Franciscan friar, who said, “if we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.”   Trump supporters have pain.  White people see their supremacy fading.  Poorly educated see their jobs taken by immigrants.  Religious Christians see their faith threatened by ‘separation of church and state’.  They have pain.  And indeed, they will assuredly transmit that pain, (stop the steal!), and will continue to do so,  when the pain cannot be transformed.

  When political affiliation replaces (to some degree) family affiliation,  emotion dominates.  And when emotion dominates, policies, achievements, competence, all become irrelevant.  It’s all about our ‘tribe’.  This is a massive threat to American democracy, and to democracy elsewhere (because Trumpism is being replicated in Brazil, Hungary, and elsewhere).   

Is Bhutan Smarter Than America?

By Shlomo Maital

    Bhutan is a small (fewer than 1 million inhabitants), relatively poor ($3,000 per capita GDP)  mountainous Buddhist nation nestled in the Himalayas.  It is famous for its use of GDH  Gross Domestic Happiness, in place of Gross Domestic Product.

     Bhutan has now vaccinated 90% of its population.  In doing so, it becomes the nation with the highest percentage of its population vaccinated.  This, despite the immense difficulty in reaching tiny outlying communities.

    Howe did they do it?  According to press reports:  More than 2,400 health workers fanned out from July 20 to July 26 to administer second doses, said a release Tuesday from the U.N. Children’s Fund.    “The Royal Government of Bhutan made exhaustive efforts to reach all target groups,” according to UNICEF. “Health workers organized vaccinations at community centers but also conducted home-visits to vaccinate the elderly and people with disabilities and trekked to higher altitudes to reach the nomadic herders.” 

     In contrast, only half of the US population has been vaccinated – and that % is basically stable, stuck.  Cases are rising, as the Delta variant sweeps through mainly southern states – Alabama, Missouri, Mississippi.    

     The US is a very wealthy country.  Its GDP per capita is 20 times that of Bhutan.  You do not have to climb mountains, to reach nomadic herders.   Yet – despite President Biden’s efforts, vaccinating the remaining anti-vaxers is stagnant.

      OK – it is easier to vaccinate a small country, with fewer people than, say, Greataer Peoria, ILL.   But why is it that the people of Bhutan, with far less education, relatively, than the people of the US, have rapidly and gladly embraced vaccination?  And hence saved lives?

      The US CDC, in a leaked document, has stated that the Delta variant is as transmissible as chickenpox (the MOST virulent virus), and that it is basically a game-changer.  Yet there is no sign that those who refuse to be vaccinated are changing their minds.  Moreover, again wearing a mask has become political – even though it is proven that those who ARE vaccinated, can also spread the virus to others, not just the unvaccinated.

       Bhutan 1,  America zero.  It’s a shame.   

How NOT to Choke!

By Shlomo Maital

    Like many kids, I had dreams of being an athlete.  I used to rise early and spend hours on the tennis court practicing serves.  But I never got to even ‘mediocre’.  And I know why. I choked.  “Choke” is performing way below your ability, because of self-doubt, tension, stress, worry, distraction…. And we see it on TV every day.  I choked, because as a son of immigrant parents, I was driven by high aspiration – and that meant constant worry over failing, losing, not performing well.  And that led to ‘choke’.    

    If only I could have read Sian Beilock’s new book 65 years ago.  Beilock is a cognitive psychologist,  President of Barnard College, and recently was interviewed by Shankar Vedantem  on the Hidden Brain podcast.  The ‘choke’ topic also was featured in Stepen Dubner’s Freakonomics Radio podcast.   And behavioral economist Uri Gneezy has done pathbreaking research on ‘choking’ in India. […’ the findings were striking.  You see reduction in success rates across the board. All six games that we played (in India) results in lower success rates [ often, a whole LOT lower!]  when the incentives were really high.’].

    Beilock explains that we have “working memory”,  memory, for instance, that NFL quarterbacks use to place a forward pass precisely where the receiver will be, with outstretched arms…    Having done this so many times in practice, the brain and muscles remember how – and if Tom Brady thought about it, he would probably underthrow or overthrow by a wide margin…and anyway there is no time to think about it, you have maybe 3-4 seconds to fire.   We ‘choke’ when we interfere with working memory, and overthink it.  I have done this so many times….

    There is also procedural memory.  Driving is a procedure.  We do it pretty much automatically – because we do it so often, so much.  But what if we are also driving and talking on our cell phones?  Some of that procedural memory of our brains is being taken up by ‘cell phone memory’ or cell phone cognition —   and the distraction that results has cost many lives all over the world. 

      Math anxiety is a great example.  Beilock explains very simply:  people (especially young girls and young women) do poorly in math —   they are anxious about math NOT because they are poor in math   — they are poor in math BECAUSE they are anxious.  Reduce the anxiety, with a variety of tricks – and you improve greatly.  

      High achieving people may tense up before a performance test.  If only I had known this key principle:  Hey, relax!    Think about something else.  Beilock listens to a favorite song, in her head, by The Eagles, before a big presentation.  Let your body do its thing… you’ve practiced, you’ve worked hard —  just let it roll.  I used to have trouble catching a ball – because my hands would tense up, before it arrived, because I was afraid I would drop it.  Solution:  SOFT HANDS!  Relax.  Let your brain do its thing.  HARD HANDS drop the ball.  SOFT hands envelop it.  

      Beilock’s book got some critical reviews.  But one review stands out – on Amazon.  An airline pilot, who is tested in simulators every six months, with impending-crash situations, high stress, high anxiety, and his future depends on performing well.   Before reading the book, he talks about the ‘fog’ in his brain – his brain is worrying about other things, rather than the task at hand.  Now, with the tips in the book, he says he “can continue to develop my brain to ensure a free and focused thinking and reasoning when presented with complex failures.”   

Big IS Bad!  

By Shlomo Maital   

An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination.  By Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang. 2012.

     One of the principles of anti-trust legislation (“trust” from Trustees, the original Standard Oil Trust monopoly set up by John D. Rockefeller) is that big is not necessarily bad.  Just because a business is really ‘big’,  it does not mean it is predatory, nefarious, and monopolistic.  You have to prove it does harm, not just that it is big. 

      I think this is proven wrong.  Big is bad.  Why?  Because there is something about big that drives businesses to become bigger, and to use its power to destroy competition.  It seems inevitable.  Even the ‘good guys’ fall prey. I have taught in a dozen business schools all over the world — my MBA students were bright young people, good people — and yet I know, when they are thrown in with sharks they become like them.

      Take Mark Zuckerberg.  Nice Jewish boy from a good home, Harvard grad….   And now, President Biden says Facebook is killing people (with false anti-vax propaganda).  And it is indeed.  Why?  Because to grow big, Facebook uses algorithms that drive ‘emotion’, to make its pages and groups ‘sticky’ and ‘attractive’ – and emotion drives this, not facts,  and emotion feeds on those, who often seek conspiratorial or nefarious posts by others. 

Read Sheera Frenkel’s and Cordelia Kang’s new investigative book, if you are still doubtful. “….sealed off in tight circles of advisers and hobbled by their own ambition and hubris, Zuckerberg has stood by as their technology is coopted by hate-mongers, criminals and corrupt political regimes across the globe, with devastating consequences. In An Ugly Truth, they are at last held accountable.]

     Google?  Now being sued by the US Justice Dept.  It started with “do no evil” on its masthead – and removed it in May 2018.  Why? Because it is doing a lot of evil, for sure – like Facebook, swallowing smaller competitors, and collecting vast amounts of our personal data, for use by advertisers. 

    Amazon?  Apple?   And so on….

    So yes, big is bad – because when you become big, you want to stay big – and to stay big, you have to do things that destroy your competition, because often your competition is faster, more agile, more creative, and has disruptive technology – so you buy it, and as Exxon often did,  put it unused on the shelf. 

     And Exxon, by the way —   stonewalling efforts to move it toward renewable energy, helping to ruin our planet by continuing to push fossil fuels…  and a few other Big Oil firms with it.

     Maybe we need to rethink anti-trust legislation. Maybe big is indeed bad.  Maybe there is a reason why ‘do no evil’ got scrubbed from Google’s website.   Zuckerberg, Sergei Brin, Larry Page, Jeff Bezos —  they are not evil.  But the context of capitalist business leads them to do actions that in the end are definitely evil.

      Let’s help them out by not letting businesses become killer whales.

How to Change the World – And Lift 6 Million Children Out of Poverty

By Shlomo Maital  

Representative Rosa DeLauro

   How do you change the world?  Specifically – how do you lift 6 million children out of poverty, in the US  (out of 12 million poor kids?   

   With money, of course.  Under the American Rescue Plan, passed by Congress in March, the child tax credit will give parents with two kids $600/month for six months, then they’ll get a $3,600 refund when they file taxes next year. 

The federal child tax credit (CTC) is a partially refundable credit that allows low- and moderate-income families to reduce their tax liability dollar-for-dollar by up to $2,000 for each qualifying child.      

How did this happen?

First – it could not happen under Trump. The Trump tax cut of 2017 cost an estimated $2.3 trillion (over 10 years) and redistributed income from middle-income to top-income.

 Second:  it happened because of Rosa DeLauro – whom I had never heard of until lately.[1]

  Rosa’s mother was a garment worker, who worked hard in a sweatshop.  Her father sold insurance.  They were very poor. One day she came home from school, age 10,  and found “all our furniture out on the street”.   But DeLauro studied hard,  went to the London School of Economics, and entered politics.  She won a House of Representatives seat in Connecticut (New Haven district, a district with many poor children).  She began promoting the CTC Child Tax Credit in 2003.  But George Bush was President, and the Republicans controlled the House.  Nonetheless, she got the CTC on the agenda, and for years in the political wilderness kept pushing the idea.  She did not meet real opposition – who can oppose lifting kids out of hunger and poverty? —  but worse than that, indifference.  Republicans didn’t care. Poor kids? They’re not our voters. 

    After Biden became the Democratic candidate for the 2020 election, she enlisted Chris Dodd, former long-time powerful Connecticut Senator.  She built a team of legislators – Cory Booker (NJ), and Michael Bennet and Sherrod Brown (Senators); and Suzan DelBene and Ritchie Torres, in the House. 

    The CTC expansion was not in the original American Rescue Plan bill.  But DeLauro called Jared Bernstein (Biden economic advisor), Ron Klain (his eventual Chief of Staff), and others.  “The moment is now!” she said.  And very soon after that call – her CTC plan was “in” – in the Bill!

    But there is one another person involved.  Again, you’ve never heard of her.  Sophie Collyer is a Research Director at the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University.   Her research focuses on anti-poverty policies at the national and local levels, with a particular interest in child allowances, federal and local minimum wage policy, and housing policy.  Her current work looks at the impacts of reforms to the Child Tax Credit.

    Rep. DeLauro credits Sophie with supplying the artight, irrefutable scientific evidence that the CTC would indeed help poor families, and lift millions of kids out of poverty.  Policy is, despite QAnon, Trump, Fake News, FoxNews, and Mitch McConnell,  still partly driven by evidence-based legislation.  And DeLauro had the evidence.  Thanks to Sophie. 

    So —  how to change the world?  Dogged persistence.  Study (LSE is a great school).  Politics.  Persistence.  Life experience (DeLauro knew poverty firsthand, and when she spoke about child poverty, she spoke first-hand, when she was 10).   And data/evidence.

  But the story is only half complete. The CTC provision expires at the end of this year.  There is an intention to make it permanent – or at least, extend it for five years.  The Democrats can do it, with their slim 50-50 plus VP Harris tie-breaker in the Senate. (Spending bills are not subject to the Republican filibuster).   

   Why in the world should a provision that feeds hungry kids be controversial?  Why should 50 Republicans vote against it, against feeding and clothing kids? 

    Ask the arch-autocrat, Trump.  And friends, he will run again in 2024.  Rosie DeLauro?  Or The Donald?      

[1]  See Michael Tomasky,  “This is an important week:  Thank Rosa DeLauro”.  New Republic,   July 12, 2021.

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital