My son has a Snoopy the Dog book that says this on page one: “Just like Snoopy, what you can achieve is limited only by your imagination. You can be anything!” As a parent, this message – that our kids can do anything if they dream big and work hard – is deeply alluring.
But as a psychologist, I find this well-intentioned message distressing. Why?

Telling kids that they can do anything obscures the critical role of chance in success. As Nobel Prize Winner Daniel Kahneman puts it: “Success = Talent + Luck. Great success = A little more talent + A Lot of Luck.”

So skill, and the hard work needed to cultivate a skill, is a key part of success, but luck plays a critical role, too. By luck, I mean all of the varieties of random chance, including opportunity, genetics and circumstances of birth, like poverty.

Despite this hard truth, society often ignores the influence of random chance on success. And herein lies the problem.

When some kids don’t achieve their dreams, those who don’t recognize the role of chance in determining life’s outcomes may blame themselves or stop trying. On the other hand, those who do succeed may overestimate their own role in it, and see those who have average resumes as inferior or less deserving.

It’s simply a statistical fact that not everyone can grow up to be a Supreme Court justice or a best-selling author. Our futures are shaped by many forces beyond our control. Then too, most of us will be average; that’s the definition of average, after all.

But so what? Why do we mourn the idea that our futures are not limitless? Why do so many of us dislike the idea of having average kids?

This is not to say that we parents shouldn’t encourage our kids to dream big and work hard, just that a focus on achievement per se ultimately does kids and ourselves a disservice.

When we create a mindset that high achievement is better than being average, that high achievers are more special or deserving, we diminish our kids’ ability to value both themselves and others.

With a Perspective, I’m Dr. Erica Reischer.

Dr. Erica Reischer is a psychologist, author, and parent coach in Oakland. She is the mother of two.

Another school year is over, and it’s almost graduation time. As a third grade teacher, it’s always bittersweet to see students leaving for middle school. Every fifth grade promotion, I remember one student.

This student – I’ll call her Toni – was tough, even for a third grader. She lived with her father and four older brothers – Mom was in prison. Dad was rarely employed, and the gang member brothers were in frequent trouble with the law. Toni wore the same dirty jeans to school every day, with unkempt hair, and a don’t mess-with-me-attitude. She could take out any kid on the schoolyard with one punch.

She was often sent to the principals office and with her sullen back-talk, she was not popular at school with students or teachers.

But she tried. Her smudged homework was stained with whatever can of food had been dinner. I liked her even after she got in trouble for using the f-word at school, and admired how her rough exterior helped her get through her rough circumstances.

I watched Toni navigate my third grade, then fourth and fifth, with swagger and street smarts. But fifth grade graduation was coming up. On this last day of school, fifth graders – boys in neckties and girls in grown-up dresses – pose for family photos, speeches given, certificates presented.

I wondered about Toni, a dad we’d never met and her one pair of jeans. But promotion day ceremony, as students solemnly marched into the auditorium, there was Toni. Dressed in a pressed white blouse and a blue skirt, hair neatly brushed. And, though she didn’t get a single award, she sat beaming on the stage.

I asked about Toni’s graduation makeover. Turned out the principal had brought in some of her own daughter’s clothes for Toni, and helped do her hair, filling in for that mother who couldn’t be there. And it dawned on me schools are so much more than reading, writing and arithmetic – how teachers and principals do what it takes, no matter what, to help our students.

I saw Toni once, years later. She was a teenager, walking into Juvenile Hall. Visiting someone, a brother, maybe. She didn’t recognize me. And she was dressed in dirty jeans.

But, in my mind’s eye, I will forever see the pretty girl that graduation day, dressed in pressed clothes and a beautiful smile.

With a Perspective, I’m Richard Swerdlow.

Richard Swerdlow teaches for the San Francisco Unified School District.

It was a special day for science geeks in the Bay Area –the
arrival of the Solar Impulse, the first solar powered aircraft to
circumnavigate the globe. I had followed the ninth leg of its historic journey via webcast starting in Hawaii, hoping it would pass over San Francisco before landing at Moffett Field 62 hours later.

In my fruitless attempt to encourage my three teenagers to join me in observing the remarkable event, I suggested we ride bicycles to the Presidio, to avoid the anticipated traffic from other excited observers. I joyfully showed them the webcast as the graceful aircraft neared California, to which my 16-year old daughter suggested that an airplane capable of only 50 mph was hardly an accomplishment, regardless of its power source. I hope my suggestion that the Wright Brother’s first powered flight lasted only 12 seconds registered.

Much to my amazement, Presidio traffic was sparse. Only a handful of people joined me near the Golden Gate Bridge to observe an around-the-world flight using not a drop of fuel, harbinger of a future in which carbon free global transportation is commonplace. History was upon us, yet my fellow San Franciscans chose not to look.

The next morning I listened to the Earth Day sermon at my local church. The sermon implored that God had not given Man the right to exploit other humans, animals, or His earth regardless of our superiority. It occurred to me that God’s message was gracefully on display in the skies above San Francisco just 12 hours earlier. The sermon’s message was powerful yet my secular instinct recognized that ultimately the selfish gene pushes us to the same conclusion. It seems both God’s will and our own DNA works against self-destruction.

This unique weekend said to me that we can have a carbon-free future, but only if we choose to make it so. Pioneers, like the Swiss entrepreneurs who envisioned the Solar Impulse, and the scientists and engineers who solidified that dream, are bravely showing us the future. But ordinary citizens owe it to the pioneers and scientists to pay attention to their feats and spread the word.

With a Perspective, I’m Grant Young.

Grant Young is an industrial psychologist and aviation enthusiast. He lives in San Francisco.

As San Francisco became deserted of artists, I began to go to my roof. I don’t stargaze: I study the terrestrial order of the city lights. There is a strange beam that shoots out near Civic Center, the yellow, starred hill of Ashbury Heights, the white neon cross of First Baptist Church that is now obscured by construction cranes and rising condos, the flashing lights around me as people go to bed, enter rooms, watch television: these are my constellations.

Technically, I am not allowed to go up on my roof, but that doesn’t stop me from climbing the stairs at ten or eleven or midnight armed with a glass of whiskey and a sweater. For many years I’ve been the only one late at night looking at the city from the roof. But recently, just a few streets south, past a concrete building and the steepled roof of a mansion, I see a man standing on the roof of a Spanish villa. Late at night we see each other on our separate roofs, airing our bodies, looking at the spread of twinkling lights, searching for meaning in the dim landscape, searching for order, or at least that’s what I’m searching for.

I have never encountered my roof companion in real life. He lives in a nice apartment that I know was for sale last year, but it’s hard to tell anything from a dark silhouette. Is he a techie? Does he work for a non-profit? Does he know I am one of a few artists still living in the city? What I do know is that he is part of the wilderness that is the city, because in a city it is other people who are the wilderness. It is the alcohol tasted in dark places, the dancing among strangers, the deep involvement in the lives of others, both known and unknown to you.

One night I raise my glass to my roof companion. A long while goes by without a movement and I decide he can’t see me. Then, just as I am turning my eyes to the starred hill of Ashbury, his arm goes up and the unmistakable twinkle of a glass in his hand winks back at me.

With a Perspective, I’m Ingrid Rojas Contreras.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras is a Colombian writer living in San Francisco and recipient of the San Francisco Foundation’s Mary Tanenbaum literary award. 

A pledge to make America great again implies that America was great the first time. It has been, in fact. Twice. No, make that three times, if you include the transition from colonies to country. America came into being as an idea, so its greatness depends on its living up to that idea. That idea was the liberty and equality of opportunity, which in the beginning applied only to white, propertied men. Imperfect as it was, merely to record as a promise the pursuit of a hitherto unheard-of ideal gave the moment greatness.

The half a century that followed seemed to be almost a deliberate attempt to undermine that idea. We wallowed in a trough of slavery and unenlightened self-interest before the status quo became so intolerable-whether the abominable institution itself or the sectional differences that made slavery possible-that people were willing to die to keep the idea alive even if it conflicted with their personal interests. Following its bloody triumph, the idea was then shelved for close to a century, buried under a tidal wave of economic banditry, international aggression and isolation, before the rise of Naziism made us reluctantly remember what we stood for.

When Tom Brokaw called those who fought the Second World War, the “greatest generation”, he wasn’t talking about exceptionally skilled, courageous or bright people, but those who had put aside their own prejudices and preferences to meet a challenge bigger than themselves. After this relatively good war, however, Americans sank back into their old ways, forgetting the responsibilities for which they had fought: to protect and expand the liberties we enjoyed at home, and by our example, be the beacon so much of the world believed we were.

Instead, we interpreted greatness as having the power to bully: to try to turn back the clock at home, while using force to bring a corrupt form of our ideas into places unwilling or unable to receive them. Making America great again does not refer to lording or coming out on top of every deal. Being great was and is the willingness to rise to any challenge to “liberty and justice for all,” whether from abroad or right here at home.

With a Perspective, this is Richard Friedlander.

Richard Friedlander is a mediator and actor. He lives in the East Bay.

I have never looked at a photo on my phone for so long. I could not take my eyes off him.

It was a picture of our first grandchild. I hadn’t seen him in person yet. This was our introduction. And it was love at first sight.

Yeah, yeah, I know. We grandparents can be a bit much. There’s nothing quite like one of us armed with a smartphone full of photos and videos.

But we can’t help ourselves. When you hold that child in your arms a switch goes off inside you. I think we are hardwired to go nuts when our kids have kids of their own. Indifferent grandparents wouldn’t have helped the survival of the species.

The old saw about being a grandparent is that it’s great because when you’re done doting on them, you can give them back to their parents. But what that really means is that you feel love unencumbered by responsibility, and that love is a surge of pure, unalloyed tenderness.

But although we appear to appropriate the experience by proclaiming our new identities as grandparents, this is not about us. Quite the contrary. When we hold our newborn grandchild we are acknowledging and celebrating that life does, and will, go on without us.

There is a well-known piece of bumper sticker wisdom advising us that the best things in life aren’t things. I think it’s also true that the special events in your life aren’t special, in the sense of being unique. After all, what is more common than a birth? These events do not distinguish us as much as they connect us in different and powerful ways. Your child is now a fellow parent. You finally understand what your friends who were already grandparents were raving about. You see yourself as just another link in a chain that extends back in time, and you couldn’t be happier.

The lesson that resonates inside all this is that the earth does not revolve around us. But if we are lucky, and stick around long enough, it will carry us to these moments of blessing and joy.

With a Perspective, I’m Paul Staley.

Paul Staley lives in San Francisco.

One year ago, I boarded a plane to Spain to begin a long-term round-the-world adventure.

My plane thundered down the runway and swung into the air: No turning back. My hands were sweaty, my throat dry, and a pang of fear coursed through me. I was suddenly sure I was about to make the worst mistake of my life. I was a wallflower, an introvert. I didn’t do these kinds of things.

I shut my eyes and tried to remember all of my reasons for doing this. Because I wanted to see the world. Because life is so short and precious. Because I was healthy. Because my knees still worked. Because it was possible.

I’d become convinced this crazy idea was actually possible after a quick trip months earlier. On a warm day in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, I had lunch with a worldly old Australian man called Mike. Mike led the kind of adventurous life I’d only dreamed of. When I wished aloud that I could travel like he has, he simply looked me in the eye, shrugged and said, “Then do it. It’s not that hard.”

Somehow, I believed him. And here I was, about to live my dreams – while nearly having a panic attack.

But, during the year that followed, this amazing planet slowly worked its magic on me.

I hiked mountains in Vietnam and my fears turned into exhilaration. I learned to navigate the chaos of massive cities like Delhi, Marrakesh and Cairo – and my worries morphed into confidence. With each bustling hostel or group tour among strangers, my shyness became boldness.

Recently, I rode the last airplane of my journey home to San Francisco, and felt only deep tranquility. I returned with less baggage-in every sense-than I’d left with.

As a lifelong wallflower, I would’ve never guessed how much a whirlwind of five continents, 24 countries, and countless planes, trains, taxis, buses, boats, motorcycles, rickshaws, hot air balloons, plus the occasional camel – could be the best decision of my life.

I’ll never look back.

With a Perspective, I’m Kirsten Smith.

Kirsten Smith is a marketing writer, travel blogger and former wallflower living in San Francisco.

I listen to the news. So many angry cries: “My way is better!” and “I alone can fix this if you elect me!” “Those other people have it all wrong!” The discussion is uncompromising. Everyone seems to be dug in. It does not feel like we are a united people.

Feeling despondent, I picked up a little booklet given to me by a friend who recently immigrated to the U.S. It makes for terrific reading, and I recommend it to everyone: The Constitution of the United States.

Just 20 or so pages long, the Constitution is a rule book for governing cooperatively through compromise and power-checking. It provides guidance for negotiation and resolution. Even after more than two centuries, its deliberate and careful systems show us a way to find common ground.

Our Constitution begins:

“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union…” This acknowledges how difficult being united can seem at times.

“…to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility..” This means to work towards civility and peaceable coexistence.

“…provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare…” This is a promise to work together for the well being of everyone. We are reminded we chose to be in this together.

The Founding Fathers had serious differences as they wrote the Constitution. They disagreed on how to balance the power of large states and small ones, how to accommodate the needs of both the agricultural South and the commercial North. Their debates were so contentious that the record was sealed for 30 years. But they found a way.

The Constitution is worth studying again for its wisdom, even though our times are so different from the late 1700s.

The goal in uniting as a nation was to work together for a greater good while acknowledging many different voices. The Constitution lays out a brilliant road-map. It does not say a single thing about “it has to be my way.”

With a Perspective, this is Marilyn Englander.

Marilyn Englander is a teacher and head of school at the REAL School Marin in Larkspur.

Despite what you may have been told, there’s no such thing as “The Homeless.”

To be sure, thousands of people live on the streets and under the freeway overpasses of our cities and towns. But it’s a fatal mistake to lump them all into a single, homogeneous group called “THE Homeless.”

This simplistic definition is at the root of our failure to provide compassionate help to needy citizens, while at the same time solving the public health, nuisance and crime problems caused by the growing numbers of street dwellers.

Too many advocates, pundits, and elected officials lump all street dwellers into one simplistic category or another. At one extreme, some see only poor unfortunates who are simply down on their luck. Some others see only good-for-nothing bums who spend their days harassing passersby.

Battle lines are drawn. If you’re sick of stepping in human feces on your doorstep, you’re heartless. If you think taxpayer dollars should help folks facing bad luck and trouble, you’re softhearted.

Both extremes ignore the reality that every street dweller is a unique individual. Individuals face individual challenges and make individual decisions. They need to be treated as individuals, on a spectrum that ranges from supportive compassion to firm justice. The down-on-their-luck need a safe space and a clean cot while they get their act together. The mentally ill need extended therapy before they hurt themselves or others. The addicted need effective treatment, not ineffective incarceration. The merely indolent need to be tolerated but not coddled – and if they break the law, they need to be unapologetically jailed.

Individual attention may be expensive, but it may be the only way to meet the complex needs of the people we call “The Homeless.” We all deserve a clean, safe, and supportive city – whether we have a fixed address or not.

With a Perspective, I’m Rik Myslewski.

Rik Myslewski is a retired technology journalist living in San Francisco.

I woke up one morning to the petulant ping of a Facebook notification. It was a friend request, from my father.

I ignored it, shuddering to think what it would mean to have my father as a friend. I would have to stay away from controversial posts, reveal judicious little about my everyday doings, filter my comments. The idea that my father would have a keyhole to peer into my life, was unnerving.

Over the next few days, I got other disconcerting notifications. My father was befriending all my friends. He began commenting on their posts and they, in turn, were having delightful conversations with him. He then began sharing his new found passion with the rest of the unconnected world. He sent out invites with detailed instructions on how to join, post, and partake of the manna of social media. Soon, Mr. Raja, Mrs. Kumar and Mr. Venkataraman all wanted to be my friends.

I think of my generation as straddling two disparate worlds; the nostalgia of ‘dial-up’ with the euphoria of ‘instant’. We have the millennials racing ahead, creating a whole new virtual world. And there are the baby boomers behind, still encased in the physical world. My generation was supposed to be the bridge between.

While I struggled to define these boundaries, my father was breaking them. I had asked my parents to adjust to my life choices. Now, it was my turn. Finally, after days of ‘gentle’ persuasion with guerrilla posts, comments and tags, I surrendered.

I pressed the confirm button. My father was now my friend.

I read his early morning political rants. He browsed through pictures of his grandchildren. I smiled at his forwarded jokes and frowned at some of his comments.

Over time, we fell into our respective comfort zones.

Then, one very early morning I heard another ping. I reached groggily for my phone.

“Does your father-in-law have a WhatsApp account?” My father asked.

With a Perspective, I’m Sandhya Acharya.

Sandhya Acharya was formerly in corporate finance and is now mother of two boys and a dance enthusiast living in Santa Clara.

Yesterday, my boss returned from a vacation to Hawaii. When I hear the word “Hawaii” I immediately conjure images borrowed from a 1940’s airline advertisement; lazy, crystal blue waves crashing against a golden sand beach, an ominously smoking volcano leering in the background, a gleaming jet plane streaking through a marmalade sky, and most iconically, an enchanting hula girl gently placing a lei around the neck of a happy passenger as he descends from the plane.

My great-grandmother was a travel agent in the 1940’s and sure enough, a glimpse through her photo albums reveals that these poster advertisements were not mere propaganda. Looking through her photos, you’d be hard pressed to find a single passenger without a perfectly tailored suit, glassy polished shoes, and impeccably crafted hair. To travel in the 1940’s was a luxury, and the elegant travel experience matched the momentousness of the occasion.

Long-gone are the days of glamorous travel, at least for the masses. Just as my boss returned from Hawaii, I headed out for my own trip to Atlanta. As expected, the morning of my flight was plagued with the typical follies of modern day travel – never-ending security lines, impatient TSA employees, flight delays. At 6 am, without any make-up on and with my hair tossed into a precariously positioned bun, I certainly was not raising any standards of excellence.

There’s a part of me that wants to feel grateful that the sheer ubiquitousness of travel is what has inevitably made the experience so mundane. How incredible is it that any one, provided they have the means, can buy a ticket, hop on a plane, and arrive at a new destination? But as I finally reached my row on the plane — the one in the very back, next to the toilets — and saw that my middle seat was already being encroached upon by the two linebacker-sized men on either side, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Are we there yet?”
With a Perspective, I’m Natalie Dana.

Natalie Dana is an attorney. She lives and works in San Francisco.

Well, I went back and just asked her.

You see, I was waiting in line for frozen yogurt. One customer was ahead of me. There were only three of us in the shop: the clerk, the customer and me. His order was complicated with indecision; did he want a bowl? A cone? What size? They were friendly. They were white.

As they finished and she started for the register, and then a family came in: a man, a woman and two older children. They were happy. So was I. The clerk handed the man change and then turned to the family. “What will it be?” They ordered. I looked at myself. I studied the family, the clerk. The first customer was just out the door. The family sat down to enjoy their treats. I debated-inside my head.

When the shop was empty again, I went back to the counter, “Why did you serve that family when I was ahead of them?”

“I didn’t see you,” she said.

“I know I’m short. But that’s not true.”

She looked away. She insisted she just didn’t see me. Then something clicked. I was right in front of her. She didn’t see me. She didn’t expect to, and so she didn’t. No, really.

In my line of work, a negative hallucination is when you don’t see something-or someone-that’s actually there. Maybe that’s what Ralph Ellison was talking about. I was invisible-a spook as my father would have joked-located where I could not be seen.

But seriously how does a perfectly rational person in full possession of her senses fail to see a little brown woman standing right in front of her? So I asked. “What happened?” We talked.

Expectations happened. What she saw, what she didn’t, and what she expected to see: this is the stuff of routines and competence. Everyday routines-with people at work, at play, around home: they’re filled by expectations. Following expectations conveys a kind of competence.

So can we risk it? Can we risk incompetence? Change routines. Change expectations. Don’t know what I mean? Just ask. And let’s talk.

With a Perspective, this is Rose Thomas.

Rose Thomas is an East Bay psychologist who studies race and culture.

When I first moved to Oakland, Lake Merritt smelled funny. Like that puddle of murky water at the bottom of my fridge after it’s been unplugged for a week. But soon, the smell went away. Turns out, Oakland was in the process of cleaning the lake. Making it nice again.

The lake had been reconnected to the bay, they said on the news. Reconnected to the bay? You mean, it was originally part of the bay. The internet told me Lake Merritt was actually a tidal lagoon. Curious, I decided to find where Lake Merritt met the bay. I read a tide chart, saw when the tide would be retreating, hopped in a kayak and paddled on the lake towards Alameda, where I heard the lake met the greater bay.

Eventually I reached a scary looking pipe, its insides were lined with clams, through which the lake’s retreating tidal waters were being sucked. The idiot part of my brain promptly took over. “Looks great,” I thought as the tide pulled me in. I ducked down as the clams and moss whizzed by my face.

If I’m seeing clams, doesn’t that mean this is normally underwater? Gulp.

After a tense minute, I got dumped out the other end, over near Laney College. Wow! Sunlight! Air! I paddled on, letting the tide pull me towards my destination. And I made it!

It was a large metal grate underneath the 880, the metal bars caked with brown sludge and faded Dorito’s bags. This was it!

Going back through the tunnel against the tide was much harder. Especially the part where I got chewed out by a patrol boat who told me I was in a restricted area. But I did it. I found the spot where Lake Merritt empties into the bay. Lake Merritt got reconnected, in my mind, and, yes, to the bay.

I hope the 21st century is defined by people reclaiming their relationship to their neighborhoods, parks, cities, country and one another. As for myself, I will continue reclaiming and investigating the spaces I inhabit.

Hopefully, next time, without getting sucked into a mossy pipe.

With a Perspective, I’m Bill Baird.

Bill Baird is a writer and musician. He lives in Oakland.

The Yiddish term “yahrzeit” translates literally as “year time.” It’s the word we use to annually commemorate the death day of someone we love. We light a special candle. There are prayers, the Yizkor, which means “to remember”, and the Kaddish, which means “holy”. The tradition taps our history and our hearts.

There is respect and honor in remembrance. But the thought occurred to me in the recent month of my mother’s fourth yahrzeit that if she could, she would call me and say, “Get over it, go have lunch.” At the risk of making my rabbi and the sages frown, I agree with my mother. My sadness has no use, and it wouldn’t please her.

She would say, “Don’t waste a candle, go do something for someone. Give them a candle.”

It’s weird to mark death when life is what matters. Death takes a moment and, like any loss or betrayal, may not be worthy of all the attention we give it, while the impact of my mother’s life is forever, and on many generations.

And besides, she haunts me daily as if she never left. From the ether I hear, “Make a corned beef for your father.” Or “Can you be a little nicer to your sister?” Or “You sure you don’t want to change out of those sweatpants before going out to dinner?”

I have a habit of reworking thoughts in my mind to make them more real for me. So, I will secretly be morphing the name of this commemoration from “yahrzeit”- a reminder of death- to “lebnzeit”, a commemoration of life.

My mother’s response would probably be, “Since when do you speak so much Yiddish?”

That said, this year on my mother’s yahrzeit, or “lebnzeit,” my 92 year-old father and I floated on a vessel from the Blue and Gold Fleet for one glorious hour under the Golden Gate Bridge, celebrating my mother’s humor, her impact and her advice spanning the eons.

With a Perspective, I am Jolie Kanat.

Jolie Kanat is executive director of a supported living services agency in Marin.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor

KQED Public Media for Northern CA