Book Review: The Child Catchers

I’ve used the words “calling” or “purpose” a few times on this blog now.  I’m not Christian, but I was raised in a Christian home in a Christian culture, and my concept of a calling is clearly steeped in that tradition.

So for me, reading The Child Catchers (Kathryn Joyce) was mostly a cautionary tale about letting a Call override the rest of your brain.  Step by step, Joyce takes you through how a large group of people who fervently believed they were doing not only the right thing, but the best thing, the thing they had been called by their God to do, destroyed the lives of countless children and ripped about whole societies.  Some of it came from privilege/White Man’s Burden beliefs, but some of it was just that they had bad or insufficient information.

On a practical level, non-foster-care adoption seems to have the trouble as the pharmaceutical industry: we wanted something (lifesaving medicine, care for abandoned children) but didn’t want to pay for it, so we handed the bill to the deepest pocket around (pharma companies, adoptive parents), and then we got mad when the system inevitably bent towards their point of view.  A lot of the problems in adoption stem from that most systems match a parent with a specific child and then start verifying if the child is available to be adopted.  Or the adoptive parents start picking up the mother’s expenses before birth.  The very impulse that will make these prospective parents good parents- the belief that this is their child– is incredibly destructive at this stage, and the fact that they’re required to invest a lot of money makes it worse.  It inevitably leads people to view searches for biological extended family as obstacles, or pressure a birth mother to “keep her word” and surrender the infant.  Even if they haven’t bonded with that specific child (which I would find worrying), they may not have the money to try again.  That’s just not fair.

Rwanda has chosen a different tactic.  International families go on a waiting list.  The Rwandan government checks all potentially eligible children, which involves looking for biological family who might take in the child and making sure the birth mother wasn’t coerced, or finding an unrelated local family that would like to adopt.  By the time an international adoptive family is contacted, the chances of something going wrong are minuscule.

Callings are important, but they need to be reality checked.  That might be my new Effective Altruism slogan.

Reality is Broken and how to fix it

I am very into video games.  This does not mean I play many video games- I’m below average for people I know, although that’s a skewed sample.  But I do a lot of reading about video games , because I find economics interesting and the business of video games has a confluence of factors that allow me to understand it.  Plus, it’s going through some interesting transformations on both the monetary and art fronts.  That is why I read Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal.

Much like researchers of heroin and cocaine before her, McGonical’s approach is to look at something addictive and, rather than declare we’re all weak for liking it, study why it is so addictive/satisfying and what we can do to bring that into our lives in a healthy way.  Her list of things video games provide us- flow, challenge, ownership, accomplishment- read like a list of things my job doesn’t do.  Which I already knew, and has led me to start researching other careers, which led to among other things this blog.  This gave me the idea to start alternating work-type tasks with video games targetted to give the satisfaction of having done work (e.g. Harvest Moon, which is about running your own farm).  For the moment the work type task is “reading books I already wanted to read”, but it nonetheless raised my satisfaction and endurance level significantly, and I’m hopeful it will help when I return to work as well.*

But then McGonigal shifts tacts, and talks about all the ways we can use video games to improve the world.  One example is Foldit, in which players are given the primary structure of a protein and attempt to find the lowest-energy tertiary structure for it.  Scientists actually use these results in their research. **   She also designed World Without Oil, a collaborative fiction game where people brainstormed how to adapt to an oil storage.

She also talked about her prolonged recovery from a concussion.  I identified with this a lot: the lack of tangible progress, the alternation between not having the energy to do what you’re supposed to and being desperate to do something but not knowing what.  In my case there’s also juggling several different problems, and wondering if you’d be happier if you just concentrated on one until it was done, and trying to manage containing the most urgent symptoms and investing in long term solutions.  I responded by writing “this is hard” in my diary.  Jane McGonigal responded by making SuperBetter, a website/service that gamifies convalesence (think fitocracy but for actual health, rather than health-as-codeword-for-skinny).  This was kind of a revelation for me on two levels.  One, it solved a problem I had recently been whining about, and enables me to take better care of myself.  I’ve been using it for a week so far, and while it’s not magic, it is helpful, and it is most helpful when I am least able to act on my own.

Two, it has me thinking about my future.  My volunteer thus far has me very convinced I want to work in adolescent mental health.  I think that is my special talent and while I feel stupid saying it, I genuinely think I could change the world.  I want to do that.  But so far my research has focused on existing career tracks I could jump into (psychiatrist, counselor, etc).  I’d considered programming for a company that made meaningful software but dismissed it, in part because I’d done it before and found it lacking.  But maybe there’s a hybrid.  I could have made SuperBetter.  I mean, the last webpage I made was written in notepad, but I’m capable of learning the skills to make SuperBetter.  Hell, I could probably get a job to pay me to learn the skills to make SuperBetter.  There’s no credential holding me back.  And I think I would be really proud of myself if I did something like that.

MoodGym already exists, so off the top of my head I don’t know what I could create that would add value to the world.  I definitely need more volunteering and reading to find out, and may quite possibly need more formal education.  But my eyes are open to the broader range of possibilities for me to change the world, both now and in the future.

Which is extremely convenient, because the money that would have gone to taking off work and soul searching has gone to taking off work and holding an ice pack to my jaw.  It was a good trade given the circumstances, but it may set formal school back years.  This was an excellent time to acquire hope I can do more in place.

*According to Reality is Broken, this is common strategy among top executives.

**This is how I got through the analytical section of organic chemistry.  I hated all that stuff that was never going to be relevant to me as a behaviorist until I realized it used exactly the same part of my brain as the game Set, which I loved.  I went on to nail that test and enjoyed it more than any other part of orgo.

First Impressions: It’s Not Just Who You Know, by Tommy Spaulding.

I have a long and antagonistic relationship with social skill how-to books, starting with my award winning 8th essay about How to Win Friends and Influence People.  The essay was about how it didn’t teach you how to make friends, it taught you how to suck up to people, and my award was that I got to stop reading the book.*  As an adult I realized that HtWFaIP couldn’t possibly have stayed that popular for that long for no reason and gave it another shot.  The most charitable thing I could say was that it was for incompetent or unconfident extroverts.  I was a profound introvert, and Carnegie genuinely did not seem to get the idea that talking to people could be draining.

This would become a theme with me.  I am eternally grateful to the friend who loaned me Crucial Conversationsbecause it immediately improved my life by 15%, and has never stopped paying dividends.  How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk and John Gottman’s books on marriage** were not quite as revolutionary, but I enjoyed reading them and knew they would have been useful had Crucial Conversations not gotten there first.  But those were books focused on doing emotional work in deep relationships.  Books about professional networking or making friends tended to leave me just as angry as HtWFaIP, for similar reasons.  They assumed that everyone wanted the things extroverts wanted, and that they could get them by acting like extroverts.  I didn’t need someone to encourage me to speak up at corporate dinners, I needed either a list of tricks to make them less energetically costly for me or a less painful way to get the benefits of attending said dinners.***  Or they imply there’s something wrong/selfish/possibly evil about me not wanting to engage with every person I meet.

Along with the rest of the internet, I went through an introverts rights phase, reading Quiet and Introvert Power.  Those made me feel better about myself, and helped me socially by making me feel more comfortable advocating for my needs.  But they were never intended to be how-to books.

Now I am reading It’s Not Just Who You Know. It’s pitched as “How to Win Friends and Influence Peoplebut for emotionally meaningful relationships.”, which so far has been ragingly inaccurate, but I’m only 30% in, and what it’s been so far has been even better.

So far INJWYK has been a memoir, starting in high school, of how Tommy Spaulding’s social skills and resulting social connections have helped him.  For a while I struggled with jealousy at what Spaulding got through socializing and I thought be “earned.”  What I eventually realized was this:

Tommy Spaulding talks to people the way I read books.

That is, sometimes he has a very explicit goal oriented exchange (like, I don’t know, buying a shirt.  He doesn’t devote much book time to these interactions) just like I sometimes read a technical manual to extract a specific fact.  But mostly, he talks because talking is a thing he enjoys doing.  He does some research to direct his efforts to the people he’s most likely to find most interesting, and he’s worked out techniques to make those conversations as interesting and rewarding as possible.   If nothing useful ever came out of it he would probably change his approach.  But he is not approaching anyone with the idea of what they can do for him, and he’s very conscious of the value of other people’s time.  I am never, ever going to talk to as many people as Tommy Spaulding does.  But I respect and value his approach, in a way I never did Dale Carnegie.

Additionally, this knowledge has helped me stop resenting people who get nice things via social interaction.  Those people benefit from their hours of socializing.  I benefit from my hours of reading.  If I’m going to complain about the unfairness of people benefiting from social connections, I’d better be prepared to give up the advantages I gain from reading.

*That was the year I was homeschooled.  The primary benefit of homeschooling was no longer attending a school where I had a perfectly reasonable fear of being stabbed, but the option to reason my way out of dumb assignments was nice too.

**I have never been married and have no kids, but I’d heard really good things and thought the principles might be useful.  I was right.

***For example, suppose your goal was meet new people and advertise your professional skills, with some thought to advancing your career.  You could go to to industry social events and apply HtWFaIP.  But if you’re a programmer you can get many of the same benefits by contributing to open source projects. Yes, it’s a lot of hours of work for the amount of recognition and networking you achieve.  But if you love programming and hate talking to strangers in crowds, it’s worth considering as a partial replacement.