The essay was first published in Dutch on the 25th of November 2012
“At some point you become sick and tired of putting on other people’s clothes”. This was the surprising reply of an actor to the question why he had quit acting. I was reminded of this when a student recently treated me with a strong performance of self-reflection. She had come to the conclusion that she put every strategy to improve her study behaviour into use three or four times only to discard it thereafter. It didn’t matter how effective the strategy was. Every time, after a while she had enough of it, as though she was wearing other people’s clothes which she got bored with.
Making it your own
I come across this type of behaviour more often. It is actually quite remarkable because we have learnt that positive results should reinforce the behaviour in question. The person, if successful, should want to implement the method even more instead of starting to resist it. The reason why this is, never the less possible, is because the process of positive enforcement has an important footnote: you must be able to ascribe the positive results to yourself. This is more than just ascribing the success to one’s own actions. In a certain way, these actions have to be part of oneself. The method must be experienced as being my method, developing out of my strategies. This, apparently, is not always the case.
When do we talk about self-ascription? This is easily argued: your successes logically lead to a feeling of pride if you see them as your own efforts. This is what is called “a sense of accomplishment”. If I do something that satisfies me in this way, I can conclude that I deem the results to be my own efforts, otherwise, I would not have that feeling. The opposite is just as true. The student who discards every method after three or four times, does not experience an “accomplishment” and has therefore not made anything her own. The method in question is apparently outside of her and, for that reason, the ascription of its successes is too. The lack of satisfaction undermines her resolve and causes her, after a while, to discard the method entirely.
A year or two ago, I was confronted with a fascinating student. His teachers and tutors were faced with a conundrum. He was smart and knew what hard work was. His study (medicine) went very well if he put himself to it. He oscillated, however, between successes and remarkable failures, due to sudden episodes of procrastination. I found out that he was unusually indifferent towards his academic successes. I asked him whether he had once done something that had made him enthusiastic. At first, he did not really understand the question, but, in the end, told me he had swum competitively on a very high level. When I asked him if he was proud of his accomplishments he said, “Why? I only implemented the techniques that were handed to me and trained very hard. The rest follows automatically”. I had never heard this explanation of sport performances before and it has always stayed with me. It clarified his problems. His “sense of accomplishment” lacked entirely. Not a single experience of success gave him the feeling of having deserved it because he ascribed every success to a technique, procedure, or method and not to himself. His successes yielded him nothing. I was not surprised to hear that he had been diagnosed with ASD (autistic spectrum disorder).
A “sense of accomplishment” is stimulating because it gives you the feeling of becoming more competent. The successes heighten your commitment and involvement causing you to achieve even better results and you feel even more competent. This is a positive reinforcement that is more than a purely behavioristic conditioning. Your skills, involvement, and sense of deserving merit, enter a positive spiral. That positive cycle is propelled forward by your ability to internalize the successful actions and ideas. The boy with ASD might not be factually capable to do this, while the girl who pulls out after three times might possibly be able to learn it. In any case, both miss the accessory feeling of satisfaction. Each time, they put on other people’s clothes.
When does something become “one’s own”?
In my essay What is comprehension? , I claim that we only truly understand something when we have processed “it” cognitively as well as procedurally and affectively to a certain level. In this essay I claim that the same is true when we make something our own. Perhaps both concepts do not really differ that much from each other, but in any case, it is now clear that the affective process is essential. Positive reinforcement must lead to an increasingly higher level of affective experience. In my essay on understanding, I used the taxonomy of Krathwohl which starts very primary at the level that we must become aware of the existence of something (ideas/methods). Subsequently, we acknowledge these ideas/methods by reacting to them. The third level is to regard them as useful. Above that level is the preparedness to connect these ideas to our own ideas. The highest level is that the ideas become part of your own system (of ideas and methods). Something becomes “one’s own” by passing through the levels from a minimal acknowledgment to an authentic incorporation in one’s own beliefsystem.
How does something become one’s own?
Two mottos are appropriate in answering of this question. The first one is: “Dwell on it and create an opinion!”. What I want to emphasize with this is that you have to pay conscious attention to the subject you are concerned with and that you have to form an opinion about it. In this way, you stimulate the development of your affective experience about the subject. Few things are as destructive for the learning process as utter neutrality and inadvertence towards a subject. When you form an opinion, the danger looms that it is a negative opinion with all its problematic consequences. That is why a second motto is important: “If you have to do something anyway, do it thoroughly”. By means of this aim you heighten the “sense of accomplishment”, because you intend to achieve something which allows you to experience a sense of success and pride. Such experiences always cast the subject of your intention in a better light; you will view it more positively. Will the ideas and methods remain alienated then you will have to make a choice: go on or quit. In that sense, the actor mentioned above has given an excellent reason to quit acting. Who wants to wear other people’s clothing for years on end?