A few weeks ago, I was at a program from what we often call troubled teens. As I browsed the library of books available for the kids to read, I spotted a copy of The Tao of Pooh. I like Winnie the Pooh. I wanted to know more about Taoism. It’s a great title and so I picked it up and started reading it.
In there, I found a fantastic analogy for how to think about emotions. Each emotion is like the key of a piano. They all serve a function. The challenge is playing each one at the appropriate time.
In previous posts, I’ve laid out the appropriate and inappropriate uses of various emotions:
- Fear: Appropriate for snakes and inappropriate for math
- Disgust: Appropriate when driving social reform and inappropriate when driving genocide
- Shame: Appropriate for managing people who won’t pay their taxes and inappropriate around mistakes.
- Awe: Appropriate for blind copying of positive role models but it can be inappropriately hijacked by advertisers who photoshop fashion models, confuse kids with celebrity endorsements of unhelpful products and create genius myths.
- Sadness: An emotion many people spend their lives avoiding but actually has a positive social function.
- Confusion: Many students run from this feeling but it’s actually a super useful indicator of exactly what you need to work on. Feeling confused about what something means? The appropriate reaction is to unknot that ball of string.
- Reflection: Even though we talk about the value of slow thinking a lot even this can become problematic when you act like the Laputans and get so lost in your thoughts that you never pay attention to what’s right in front of you.
All of these emotions evolved for a reason. They have a use. And understanding that right there is one of the MOST important mental tools you can have. Rather than trying to avoid or suppress or live without emotions, you instead focus on figuring out what each emotional note is for. Hmmm. Sadness…what’s that for? Hmmm. Disgust…where was that helpful in our evolutionary past and what can we use it for now? Hmmm. Curiosity…it can kill the cat but it can also drive learning and innovation. How do I know when to use it and when not to use it? This is when you really supercharge your own process and start massively improving your own life because instead of trying to deny your humanity you’re trying to understand it and actually embracing it.
If there was anything I noticed with these “troubled teens,” it was that what made them troubled was that they blindly defied authority. It didn’t matter what the authority said or whether it was good for them. If an authority figure said it, they always rejected it. It was like someone playing a B Sharp on the piano all the time and nothing but. Besides being inappropriate, it was boring and predictable after a while. It wasn’t good music. Here’s the Tao of Pooh on that:
“In a similar manner, instead of struggling to erase what are referred to as negative emotions, we can learn to use them in positive ways. We could describe the principle like this: while pounding on the piano keys may produce noise, removing them doesn’t exactly further the creation of music.”
Of course, I’m sure plenty of adults had told them to respect authority before. “Respect your elders!” But is that really the lesson? Should we always respect our elders? There are as many old fools as young fools. And people have wisdom in different areas. It takes wisdom to know the difference of when you should respect and when you should challenge authority. And that opens up an entirely different question: when should we defy authority and when should we respect it? Often adults don’t know and, honestly, I’m not always entirely clear. I’m committed to reforming institutions but creating a blind rejection of authority can create as many problems as it solves. However, nuance often fails to inspire people to action. Look around the world. Clearly humanity hasn’t figured out exactly how to channel its emotions productively. If the adults don’t know this, then it’s no wonder the kids don’t either.
It takes A LOT of reflection to figure things out and while you can come up with rules of thumb they’re not going to work out all the time. And that brings us two emotions that come up a lot with “troubled teens.”
- Defensiveness: Defensiveness of one’s beliefs has actually been highly useful for most of human history. Now, it’s about the worst response you can have.
- Annoyance: Teens often get annoyed by parents harping on things. That’s when parents backdown because they think annoyance is unpleasant. Great teachers know to double down and be a gadfly who drives the point home until the student looks at what’s being said. Revealing your own failures and struggles in this area helps reduce defensiveness and humor always helps the medicine go down.
The emotional tunes our cultures taught us were highly adapted to those environments. Now, we live in a new environment. We’re all going to have to change our tune and one of the most important parts of that is not trying to get rid of notes. Embrace your humanity. Understand each notes’ function. And then figure out the appropriate time to play each note. With practice, you’ll be playing the right notes at the right time without having to really try. And that it turns out is the secret of Taoism. It’s learning to read the situation in front of you so that you can change your emotional tune to match the situation. That’s the trouble with troubled teens. They’re blindly reacting to things rather than responding in a way that is appropriate to the situation. And, in that sense, we’re all troubled teens sometimes.
Piano isn’t something you ever master. Emotional piano isn’t something you ever master. But if I could tell my own teen self something, it would be these three things.
Learn what each emotional note is for. Each emotion evolved for a reason. None of them is bad. The question is timing. WHEN do you use each emotion? WHEN is it appropriate?
Unlearn many of the old emotional tunes you learned from your culture of origin. Many of these tunes are very, very old. They evolved to herding or rice agriculture or the trauma of a famine. That’s not where you live. You have to figure out the right emotional responses for what’s in front of you.
Relearn the curiosity and boundless thirst to learn that you had as a kid before you picked up the idea of what you could and could not do. You don’t know what you can do. That not knowing is the key to always learning.
Katie O’Brien and I co-wrote The Straight-A Conspiracy because it was very clear that our students had simply never been taught how to use their brains. I was never taught how and when to use my emotions. Were you? What does a world look like in which everyone grows up knowing how and when to use each emotion? The trouble with troubled teens isn’t with the teens; it’s with the fact that we never taught them properly. And since no one ever taught us properly then I guess we’ll all have to figure it out together.