Tag Archives: Brain

A Humbling Revelation

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As you are well aware by now, I am a huge nerd and have an insatiable thirst for knowledge. I am constantly reading a book on some new topic that interests me or teaching myself some skill that I have always wanted to learn. Between my never-ending quest for enlightenment and spending eight years of my life in college and graduate school, I have accumulated a plethora of facts, skills, and expertise in a variety of areas, and I am learning more every day. Despite my wealth of knowledge (most of it being useless sports and movie trivia), an IQ north of 130, and multiple college degrees from top universities, I had a conversation the other day that reminded me of how dumb I really am. Maybe dumb is too strong a word, but I did have a humbling revelation about how little I actually know about life. This epiphany as to my own ignorance helped me realize some important things about my place in the world and reminded me of some valuable lessons that are vital to living a fulfilling life.

Scott Drotar A Humbling Revelation
Graduating from a prestigious university does not necessarily mean that you know more about life than a high school dropout.

One of the best parts about having a team of nurses with you at all times is that you get to meet people from all walks of life. I have had nurses of all different ages and from more than seven different countries over the years, and it has been quite educational to get to listen to all of their stories. The other day I was talking to one of my nurses, who was born and raised in Kenya, about her weekend plans, and she mentioned that her and her husband were helping with a wedding. After talking with her about this a little more, I came to find out that what we think of as a wedding in the United States is very different from the way they do things in Kenya. It would take me a long time to go through it all here, and I doubt I would get it all right anyway, but a Kenyan wedding ceremony is quite a thing to see. They have an entire set of rituals that they “act out” in a way to remain in touch with their cultural customs in our modern world. There is a fake kidnapping, family rivalry, and a lot of other important, yet exciting, practices that they adapted to modern times to tie the knot. It was extremely interesting to get to listen to my nurse tell me about her culture, and as I was thinking about everything she had told me later that day, I had an enlightening insight into the world and my place in it.

After learning about how the Kenyan culture celebrates a wedding, I realized how much I do not know about the world. This is the first time that I can remember looking at knowledge and intelligence in terms of how much I do not know instead of how much I do know. Even with a topic as basic and important to any culture as a wedding, I know very little beyond my own limited experience. In the grand scheme of things, I really know next to nothing about weddings when you look at how much knowledge is actually out there to take in. I also realized quite quickly that if I know so little about a concept as common as a wedding, then I surely know even less about other more advanced or complex subjects. For someone who has been told his entire life how smart he is and has devoted a lot of time and energy to obtaining knowledge, this realization was quite humbling to say the least. I finally gained the perspective to see how much is out there to learn, and how little I actually know in comparison. While this was a bit off putting and discouraging at first, I soon realized that I should not see this as something to be discouraged by, but as a golden opportunity.

Now that I have come to terms with how little I know about even basic topics, there is so much more information out in the world for me to obtain. While it is a bit overwhelming to think about how much you have to learn, and it did make me feel a little like a fly on an elephant’s ass to think about what I know compared to how much knowledge is out there, for a nerd like me recognizing that there is a seemingly infinite amount of information out in the world waiting for me was very exciting. Not only that, but since everyone has their own unique, distinct background, I realized that there is not a person on this planet that does not have something to teach you about life, if you are willing to listen. So frequently we are only willing to listen to or learn from academic types with numerous degrees and titles, and these brilliant individuals do have a lot to teach you, but that does not mean that other, less formally educated, people have nothing to share with you too. My grandfather has taught me so much more about life than probably any of my teachers, and he never finished high school. Whether someone is a Fulbright scholar giving a prestigious talk or a high school dropout sitting next to you on the bus, they both have a story to tell and something to teach you. If you want to truly learn about life and how to be happy and successful, all you have to do is take the time to listen to anyone who is willing to share their story, no matter who they are.

Scott Drotar Socrates
Even Socrates was aware of how little any one person can know about life and the world.

One of the greatest thinkers of all time, Socrates (pronounced, “so crates”), once wrote, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” While I am not sure it is the “only true wisdom,” I do think that realizing both how much there is out in the world to learn, as well as how little you know in comparison, is an important aspect of leading a successful, happy life. If you look at this humbling situation as an opportunity to learn and grow as a person, there is so much for you to gain. Like any other topic, and even the lessons in this blog, by learning from others about their lives, you can obtain valuable lessons that you can apply to your own. Take a moment to stop and think about the immense amount of knowledge there is to be learned, and then take advantage of this realization to improve your life. Remember that everyone has a story to share and a lesson to pass on, if you are only willing to sit there, shut up, and listen.

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Honorary Roll Model: Dr. Stephen Hawking

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The incredible individual that you will be learning about today is someone who has been inspiring and motivating me ever since I first heard about him when I was 13 years old. Although I have not seen it yet, with the biographical film documenting his life, “The Theory of Everything,” recently hitting theaters, it seems like a fitting time to introduce you to this amazing man. While I am not conceited nor naive enough to think that I am in the same league as him, you will quickly see that today’s inductee and I have a lot in common. We both were born with genetic, neuromuscular diseases. We are both huge nerds and have a fascination and love for mathematics. Most notably though, we both refuse to let our physical limitations stop us from leading fulfilling, meaningful lives and sharing our mental gifts with the world. Today’s topic for discussion, and newest entry into the club of Honorary Roll Models, is Dr. Stephen Hawking.

Scott Drotar Stephen Hawking
As a boy, Stephen was not considered a genius or academic prodigy, nor did he show any signs of his future physical limitations.

Stephen Hawking was born a bouncing, healthy baby boy in 1942 in Oxford, England, to two loving parents. His parents were both very well educated graduates of the University of Oxford, and their love for knowledge and learning definitely rubbed off on Stephen and his younger siblings. While he always showed a keen mind and an interest in learning, he was not considered a prodigy or especially gifted academically as a young boy. As a teenager however, he began to show a considerable affinity for scientific subjects, especially mathematics, physics, and chemistry, and thanks to the encouragement and guidance of one of his teachers, he was able to develop his enormous gift for understanding science. He ended up attending the University of Oxford as an undergraduate at the young age of 17, and although he wanted to study mathematics, to make himself more marketable (there are no jobs for math majors, which I learned the hard way) he decided to study physics and chemistry instead.

He found his time at Oxford boring and uninteresting initially, as he was not challenged by any of his course work. After he matured and got more acclimated to college life, he underwent a personal transformation and became much more personable with his peers. Stephen actually grew into a quite popular student around campus, and he even joined the Oxford Boat Club, where he coxed a rowing team. Although he once estimated that he only studied 1,000 hours during his three years at Oxford (that is not even an hour a day), he still graduated with a first-class honors degree and was accepted to study cosmology at the University of Cambridge in 1962. During his time at Cambridge he became very interested in the heated debate at the time about the creation of the universe and the work of Roger Penrose on black holes and singularity (nerd-speak, feel free to move on). By melding together parts of both of these topics he was able to write his thesis and highly regarded essay, “Singularities and the Geometry of Space-Time,” and graduate with his PhD in 1966.

Scott Drotar Motor Neuron Disease
Hawking’s amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known motor neuron disease, has left him unable to communicate without the help of a computer.

His time at Cambridge is also when he first started having issues with his health. He noticed that he had grown increasingly clumsy during his final year at Oxford, and he even had an incident where he fell down a flight of stairs. His ability to pursue his activities on the rowing team also had gotten considerably more difficult. When he went home during the Holidays of his first year at Cambridge, his family noticed that his speech had gotten slurred and hard to understand. With something obviously wrong, he began seeing various doctors looking for answers. Eventually in 1963, at the age of only 21 years old, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly called Lou Gehrig’s disease or motor neuron disease. Despite the fact that specialists only gave him a life expectancy of 2 years, he could no longer walk without help (if at all), and his speech had become nearly unintelligible, he refused to give up or give in to this despicable disease that had turned his life upside down (starting to sound like someone you know?). He returned to Cambridge and threw himself into his studies with a renewed zeal that has never diminished, and this newfound devotion to his passion for science is what has fueled him ever since.

For the last 50 years Hawking has been considered one of the the top minds in the field of cosmology and the study of the universe. He has written countless essays and proofs that are held in the same esteem as Einstein’s theories on relativity as the most important scientific papers of the 20th century. His argument for what is now called Hawking-Radiation in 1974 about the nature of black holes was one of his first groundbreaking works. He also is highly regarded for his work with Penrose on the aptly named Hawking-Penrose Theorems that deal with singularities within black holes. In addition to his academic publications that maybe a dozen people in the entire world can understand, he has also strived to pass some of his love and knowledge of the universe to the general public by writing other, more accessible works. His book, “A Brief History of Time,” which was first published in 1988, is still considered one of the best books on the market for learning about the universe, and it spent hundreds of days on the best sellers list. All of the contributions he has made to science have not gone unnoticed, and he has been awarded numerous honors and awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Maxwell Award, and induction into the Order of the British Empire.

Scott Drotar Vomit Comet
Hawking has even taken a ride on the infamous “Vomit Comet” to show how weightlessness could benefit the physically disabled.

You would think that being the smartest person on the planet and painstakingly trying to share your genius with the world, especially when you cannot even speak other than through the use of an electronic device, would be enough for a person. For Dr. Hawking though, it is not enough to merely work to explain the entire universe to the rest of us. He also devotes a great deal of time and energy to trying to advance the rights and place of disabled people around the world. In 2000, he signed the “Charter for the Third Millennium on Disability,” which asked governments to work to prevent disabilities and protect the rights of the currently disabled. Several years ago he even took a ride in the “Vomit Comet” to show how weightlessness could potentially benefit individuals with physical limitations. Just last year Stephen accepted the now infamous “Ice Bucket Challenge” to raise awareness and money for ALS research. These are just a few of the numerous ways that this brilliant, courageous man has worked to better the lives of disabled people worldwide, and I cannot wait to see what he has in store for us next.

The following quote by Hawking from the biographical documentary film, “Hawking,” does a wonderful job of showing how disabled individuals fit into our able-bodied world.

“We are all different – but we share the same human spirit. Perhaps it’s human nature that we adapt – and survive.” – Stephen Hawking

Despite the fact that he has spent nearly all of his adult life trapped within a failing body and can barely communicate with those around him, Stephen has achieved more and done more for others than most people do in a lifetime. He has unravelled some of the secrets of the universe, helped progress the rights of the physically disabled, and been a source of inspiration for millions throughout his life. While I like to think of myself as a “poor man’s version” of Dr. Hawking, since we do have a lot in common, I know that I can never reach his level of genius or accomplish as much as he has. By learning from him however, I do hope that I can use the motivation he instills in me to help others in my own small way, and I hope you will do the same. If we all had the drive and determination of a Stephen Hawking, just imagine how much we could achieve and how much better the world would be. Although it is nothing compared to having cameos on shows like “The Simpson’s” or “The Big Bang Theory,” I am proud to announce Dr. Stephen Hawking as the newest Honorary Roll Model.

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Addiction Series (Part 1): Accepting Your Problem

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Scott Drotar Prescription Painkillers
My addiction is to prescription painkillers, and my drug of choice has always been hydrocodone.

Something that only a select few individuals know about me, and something that I have not ever even written about before today, is that I suffer from addiction. I am addicted to prescription painkillers, and I have been for a long time. Unfortunately, I am not in the minority in having this problem, as addiction is an issue that affects nearly everyone’s life in some way. Whether it be alcohol, illegal drugs, or as in my case prescription painkillers, I doubt there is a single person who has not struggled with addiction themselves or knows a loved one who has. The magnitude of this horrible affliction that touches so many lives is what has given me the courage to admit my own struggle publicly and share my experiences, in hopes that by hearing my story you will be better equipped to deal with addiction in your own life. Today is the first article in a four part series on addiction, where I will share with you my own journey through this awful affliction, withdrawal, and recovery.

Before I get into my personal story, I want to make sure to discuss the difference between having an addiction and being an addict. This subtle, but important, distinction is something that I had not thought about until my pain specialist explained it to me several years ago, and it has helped me immensely in managing this lifelong disease. An “addict” is what people typically think of when speaking about this issue. Addicts will do literally anything to get their next fix. They have a hard time holding down a job, steal from friends and family to afford their habit, and will even spend money on drugs and alcohol before paying their bills. Getting their drug completely takes over their life. These individuals also have an addiction obviously, but they are only a small subset of this larger group. People, like myself, who have an addiction but are not “addicts” per se, are quite different. We have the same cravings and urges for our drug of choice, but we are able to keep it from taking over our entire existence. We suffer from the same affliction, but we still go to work, pay our taxes, and have full, meaningful lives. We go about our lives just as if it is any other disease like diabetes or psoriasis.

Scott Drotar Addict
This is the image of an addict that we typically think of, but there are plenty of people who suffer from addiction and still live happy, successful lives.

There are several reasons that people have to live with addiction while making sure to not become an addict, but the most common one is for medical purposes. For example, in my case I need my painkillers in order to function effectively, and the level of pain I have requires a large amount of medication. By taking these powerful narcotics for so long though, my body has gotten hooked just like an addict’s would (your body doesn’t care why you take them). Through a lot of willpower, carefully monitoring and limiting the amount I take, and by taking these drugs exactly as prescribed under the care of my doctor, I am able to walk that tightrope of being addicted without becoming an addict. I will not lie though, this is no easy feat as you will soon see, and I worry constantly about the fine line I am forced to walk.

Like so many stories worth telling, my tale begins with a girl. At the beginning of my fourth semester of graduate school, I met an amazing, beautiful, smart, young woman. Her name was Claire, and she was a year behind me in the clinical psychology program. She was petite with dark facial features, sallow skin, and long brown hair. She also had a dry sense of humor and quick wit similar to my own. Pretty much my perfect woman. We met the first week of the term, and we became close friends almost instantly. It was one of those friendships that comes together easily and without much effort, and while you may have only known each other a few weeks, you feel like you have been lifelong friends. As we spent more time together, our friendship turned into a romantic relationship, and by February we were dating. Our relationship was great, as it was not much work, and we had a great time together. For the first time in my life, I thought that I may have found the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.

One afternoon once we had been dating about a month, Claire had come over to my apartment to have lunch. As Claire, my nurse, and I were eating tuna salad at my kitchen table, and Claire was telling me about her day, something unexpected happened. Out of nowhere, my nurse, who we will call “Beth,” looked at me with a puzzled expression and right in the middle of Claire’s story she said, “Scott, what are you looking at?” I was confused and a little annoyed that she had interrupted Claire, so I responded, “What do you mean? I was listening to Claire.” Beth just stared at me, shook her head, and said, “Who is Claire?” I was really getting irritated now, because I felt she was being pretty rude by acting this way, so I replied, “Beth, that is enough. Come on. Let Claire finish talking.” As I said this I nodded in Claire’s direction, and Beth looked right at her. She then looked back at me as she said, “Scott, there is no one there.” I was getting kind of pissed off now, so I snapped back, “Beth, stop! Let her talk!” At this point, without any warning, Beth kicked the chair that Claire was sitting in out from the table, sending it across my kitchen, and knocking it over. It was at this time that I realized something that completely changed my life. There was no Claire.

Claire was a hallucination. Everything I thought that I knew about her is what my mind had made up to make me believe she was real (which is probably why we got along so well). It turned out that the combination of painkillers that I was on could cause small seizures in your brain that can result in vivid hallucinations. Obviously, this was not good and had to be dealt with fairly quickly, since seizures can cause permanent brain damage, but it was not as if I could just stop taking my pain medications either. Not only would that have been borderline torture given my level of chronic pain, but it can be dangerous to your health to come off of multiple, powerful narcotics too quickly (i.e. stroke, heart attack, death, etc.). At the same time though, I could not just go through life with my imaginary girlfriend either (just imagine taking her home to meet the folks). Even though I knew that I had to fix this issue or risk brain damage, the negative stigma associated with having an addiction kept me from admitting and accepting my problem. It was only after Beth gave me the ultimatum of getting help or finding a new nurse, that I made an appointment with my doctor to discuss my options.

Scott Drotar Addiction
Even here at the age of 12, I had already started down the path to addiction that I will have to live with the rest of my life.

The fact that I was willing to endanger my brain because of the shame and embarrassment I felt about admitting and accepting my addiction is a perfect illustration of how powerful and damaging the public perception of addiction is. This awful stereotype our society has created is extremely detrimental not only because this disease impacts nearly every family, but also because the stereotype actually makes the problem worse. We have formed this image of people with addiction issues being weak and lazy criminal types or mentally deranged lunatics. No one wants to admit to being in either of these wonderful groups (which is completely false anyway as I explained above), and this results in people hiding their problem from the world and letting it get even worse. We need to bring addiction out of hiding and into the spotlight so that people can see that it is a disease like any other. With the right lifestyle changes and medical treatment, addiction can be managed just like having high blood pressure or being anemic. I am sure there are plenty of crazy lowlifes with herpes, and we don’t assume having herpes means you are a criminal, so why should addiction be any different? By taking the stigma out of the equation, people like me would be more inclined to admit that we have a problem and seek help.

I will leave you here and let this idea percolate in your brain for awhile. Think about how you feel about addiction, and what you would think of your sibling, spouse, or friend if they told you they had a problem with addiction. More importantly, if you are, like I was, struggling with addiction privately and hiding your fight from everyone in your life, please know that you have nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed of. I repeat. You have nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed of. You merely have a disease, and with the right medical care, lifestyle changes, and social support you can overcome your illness and lead a happy, fulfilling life. In the next part in this series, I will discuss the plan my nurses, doctors, and I came up with to help me fight my addiction, and the unforseen issues I faced.

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Respect

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Scott Drotar Aretha Franklin
Aretha had it right when she sang that all we need is a little respect.

As a lifelong academic and someone who relishes logic and rhetoric, I am one of those people who loves a “friendly” debate. It doesn’t matter what the topic is (I have no shortage of opinions), I just enjoy the back and forth, premise-conclusion style dialogue of a heated discussion. Not to mention the fact that it is by discussing controversial issues  that we learn more about them and grow as individuals. I won’t lie though, the thing that I like the most are the powerful emotions that rise up inside me as these conversations really get going. That fire in your belly that swells up as you defend your position is something I enjoy immensely. As much as I love the passion and conviction that erupts within me during these civil arguments however, and as much as I want to “win” this oratorical fight to the death, there is one line I will never cross during these debates. I will not lose respect for the other sides opinion.

Having respect for others is probably the most important aspect of creating healthy interactions between people. We all want to feel that our bodies, thoughts, and opinions are respected, and we all feel violated on a very personal level when they are not. It is not important to us that other individuals necessarily agree with what we feel, think, and do, just so long as they respect our behavior and decisions. It is all about feeling in control, and being free to form our own thoughts is probably the most coveted type of control we have. As long as we feel as though we are respected enough to have whatever opinions we choose and maintain this mental autonomy, other people can argue with us as much as they please. In a nutshell, respect is the difference between attacking an argument and attacking a person. We are fine with others disagreeing with and arguing against our opinions (in fact weird people like me actually like it), so long as they are actually targeting the merits of our arguments, not us or our right to have them. We are even fine if they argue well enough to change our opinions and teach us something, so long as they respected us while doing it.

One example of this phenomenon from my own life that I have written about before is the way my relationship with my mother suffered when I decided to move to Kansas. I knew before I told her that she would not be too crazy about this idea, so I was ready for some resistance, but I figured she would remember that this was my decision to make and see reason. I thought that she eventually would come to terms with the fact that this is my life, that this is what I had worked the last four years to achieve, and that she had been preparing me my entire life to live on my own, so it was time to try. Her reaction to this information was much stronger than I had anticipated though, and as her emotions took over more and more she went from politely disagreeing with, to aggressively attacking, my decision to move out West. While I had prepared for her knee-jerk reaction and motherly anxiety after hearing my news, I had not prepared for the disrespect I felt by the way she responded to me. Since I was not ready for this verbal assault on my choice, I felt violated, put down, and like I was losing control over my life, and this caused me to become defensive and attack back. As a result of the disrespect I felt from this single, 10 minute argument, my mother and I spent the last few months of our time together barely speaking. This could have been avoided however, even though we were polar opposites on this decision (and still are to some degree), if we had merely maintained respect for the other’s feelings.

Scott Drotar Respect
My mother and I may not always see eye to eye, but we do try to always respect each others thoughts and feelings.

Whether you are pro-choice, own 30 assault rifles, want to build a “Great Wall of America” between the United States and Canada, or think aliens are going to beam down this Thursday to probe non-believers, you are free as a U.S.citizen to have whatever opinions you choose. You are free to have any crazy beliefs and feelings you want, with one condition. You can have your opinions so long as you do not infringe on the rights of others to have the same freedom. This most primal, deep seated right, that is at the core of our nation’s laws, is based upon the idea of respect. Our founding fathers realized how important this basic, human liberty is that they based our entire nation on it. If it was good enough for the father’s of our country, why is it then, that we now live in a society that is infested with disrespect everywhere you turn? We can debate that controversial quandary later (get it?), but whatever the reason, it is apparent that we as a society need a reminder of the critical role that respect plays in our lives. I hope that you will take some time today to think about whether you are respecting the people in your life as much as you should. I would imagine that everyone, myself included, will come up with at least one individual who they are not giving enough respect, and we should all make a conscious effort to change our ways, and if necessary, apologize for the disrespect we showed them in the past. This will go a long way in forging stronger relationships with the people in your life, as well as make our country as a whole a much better place.

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Book Review: “Essentialism” by Greg Mckeown

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Scott Drotar Essentialism
In “Essentialism” you are given the secret to getting the clutter out of your life, increasing your happiness, and being more successful.

As we grow up and become fully functioning members of society, our lives become more and more complex, cluttered, and chaotic. We are constantly being asked to do things by our boss, colleagues, spouse, and children, and as a result of this we end up getting pulled in a thousand different directions. Even though our intentions are good in trying to satisfy all of these requests, by spreading ourselves too thin we often end up doing more work but producing lower quality results. This lifestyle of putting in extra effort for less return will eventually take its toll on your happiness and even your health if it goes on for too long. In order to avoid getting burned out in this way we need to learn to simplify our lives, and that is exactly what this week’s entry into the Scott Drotar Literary Review can do. This guide to a simpler way of living, “Essentialism” by Greg Mckeown, will teach you how to remove the clutter from your life.

“Essentialism” is about figuring out what people and things in your life are actually important to your well-being and happiness right now, and then learning to eliminate everything else (the clutter). The author uses the analogy of cleaning out your closet to present the Essentialist way of thinking. He describes how when you go through your clothes in your closet, you typically have 3 piles. One for the items you will definitely wear and will keep (the essential items), one pile for the things that don’t fit or you will never wear again (the nonessential items), and one for the clothes you are not sure about (the reason you need this book). The method discussed in this book will allow you to effectively deal with this third pile, so that only the essential items remain. Mckeown does a terrific job of breaking down this process into easily digestible segments that allow you to absorb and apply the techniques gradually.

Scott Drotar Clean Your Closet
Just like we have to clean out our closets to get rid of unnecessary items, we also need to clean out our lives to get rid of the nonessential things wearing us down.

One of the things I liked most about this book was that the author makes it clear that his method is not a one-time event where you purge your life of the nonessential items and live happily ever after. Adopting an Essentialist perspective is a way of life. These Essentialist ideals have to be practiced constantly in order to be effective, because the world around you will always be presenting you with requests, and you must decide whether they are essential or not. While Mckeown does admit that it takes a lot of time and energy to fully adopt the Essentialist lifestyle, he also states that the rewards for completing this process are well worth the effort. Additionally, the various Essentialist techniques are discussed independently, and though the results are amplified when the skills are used together, you can implement only a few of them and still see an improvement in your life.

The one problem I had with this otherwise wonderful read was that at times his way of thinking was a little utopian. He talks about cutting certain people out of your life and refusing requests that are nonessential without giving much thought to the possible consequences for some of these actions. While maybe a few select individuals could get away with ignoring social niceties and saying no to their superiors at work (and he does discuss how to do these things tactfully), most of us have to endure a certain number of nonessential items in our lives in order to survive socially and professionally. His Essentialist lifestyle is wonderful on paper, but it would be difficult for most people to actually completely implement this way of thinking and maintain their way of life. Despite this overly optimistic perspective, their is a lot of valuable and applicable information to be gained from his method and way of thinking.

So often in life we get to the point where we are so busy that we end up working our ass off just to stay afloat. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live that way. By adopting and developing the Essentialist lifestyle, we can actually do less, but achieve more. This incredibly valuable information, coupled with the accessible way Mckeown presents his methods, are what make this such a great book. That is why “Essentialism” gets a 4 out of 5 on the Roll Models Review Scale.

Roll Models 4 Chair Rating

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The $1,000 Question

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Both in my Roll Models talks and here on my blog, I have discussed the negative impact that making excuses can have on your life and happiness. By allowing ourselves to make excuses we limit both the great things we can achieve and the amazing, new experiences we can have throughout our lives. This is because excuses stop you from making progress by tricking your mind into thinking that you are unable to do something. This would not be such a huge problem for people save for the fact that there are actually some activities that you are not able to do, so it is often very udifficult to know whether you are making an excuse or actually are unable to do something. For example, there are days where, physically, my body has to lay down when I say, “I cannot write anymore tonight. I need to rest.” There are other days however, where I will say that same phrase, but in all honesty I could easily soldier on and keep writing. That’s why, in order to effectively manage and remove excuses from our lives, we need a method to determine the excuses from the real reasons. Thanks to the wisdom of my father as a coach and parent, I have a nearly foolproof way to do just that.

Scott Drotar Young Coach
Even as a young, first-time coach, my father had to be able to motivate his athletes to overcome their excuses.

My father has been raising children and coaching high school athletics for the last 40 years or so. He has produced three successful children and coached nearly every sport there is, and during this time he has become a master at motivating teenagers and in dealing with the adolescent mind in general (which any parent knows is not easy). One of things my dad had to be able to manage, whether it was at home with my siblings and I or on the practice field with his players, was excuses. He would constantly hear, “Coach, I can’t run anymore. I am too tired.” and “Dad, I have too much homework to do the dishes tonight.” but he knew that teens tend to make excuses to get out of work, so he came up with a simple, quick, and effective method to tell excuses from truth. This powerful, mental jujitsu he developed, and thusly passed on to me, is something that I have called, “The $1,000 Question.”

Here is how “The $1,000 Question” works. Imagine that you are at the gym exercising (I can’t run anymore. My legs are on fire.”), getting home after a long day at work (“I don’t have energy to mow the lawn/clean the house/walk the dog.”), or in some other situation where you would potentially make excuses to not do something. Now, as soon as this possible excuse enters your mind, imagine that someone comes up to and says, “If you run 10 more minutes/mow the lawn/clean the house/walk the dog I will pay you $1,000.” If you would push through your pain and fatigue for the money, then chances are you are making an excuse. If for even $1,000 you would not proceed, then you probably have a legitimate reason to stop. If it’s an excuse, you then cowboy up and make yourself do the activity, even though you don’t want to (sorry, you won’t actually get $1,000).

Scott Drotar The $1,000 Question
How much money would it take for you to push yourself just a little bit harder?

It is amazing how easy and effective this technique is in removing excuses from your life. It works so well because it is extremely simple and to the point. We would not risk bodily harm to ourselves or major damage to our lives for $1,000 (at least, I hope not), so if a justification to not do something is legitimate, this method will still cause us to not do it. Most of us would be willing to experience some minor pain or discomfort for a grand however (you can always adjust the amount if you are much wealthier than me), so if we are just being wimpy or lazy, we will happily take the cash and hop back on that treadmill/lawnmower/vacuum cleaner/dog leash. It is so powerful because it plays on our egos. No one wants to be the greedy, money crazed person who would do something for $1,000, but will give in to excuses when no money is involved. Avoiding this image of yourself is what makes you actually follow through and perform the activity once you have determined that you have made an excuse.

Roll Models No Excuses
My dad and I have been able to eliminate most excuses from our lives thanks to his method.

We all make excuses every day, and there is nothing wrong with this so long as they are kept to a minimum. By limiting the number of excuses we allow in our lives, we make a huge impact on our ability to achieve the great things we are capable of, as well as keeping ourselves open to as many exciting and new life experiences as possible. “The $1,000 Question” gives you a method to efficiently remove excuses from your life in a quick, easy way. As you go through your day, any time you think of a reason not to do something, take a moment to ask yourself “The $1,000 Question.” You will be amazed at how well this technique works in almost any situation. In a fairly short amount of time, if you apply this technique often enough you will be pleasantly surprised to find that you no longer need to use it much, because your mind no longer generates as many excuses. This will inevitably help you to experience and achieve incredible things.

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Appreciation

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During the month of September, one of my full-time nurses is going on a trip, which means that other nurses will be temporarily picking up his shifts. Some of these hours will be filled in by other caregivers who already work with me (my “regulars”), but due to the number of shifts that need covered, I have also added several new people to my team over the last few weeks. The new caregivers are great, and I am both impressed with CareStaf and excited to have these incredible individuals coming out to work with me, but this process of orienting these people to my care and getting used to the way they do things has been even more valuable because of something else it brought to my attention. This learning period with my new nurses has reminded me of how well my “regulars” know and take care of me. More than that, it made me appreciate how comforting that is, and how much easier it makes my life.

Scott Drotar Appreciation
I am so fortunate to get to work with an incredible company like CareStaf, who only hire quality nurses.

All of my “regulars” have been working with me about a year now, and many of them have been with me for two or more. Since I am fortunate enough to have amazing nurses who really care about doing a good job, as a result of this during their time with me they have learned exactly how I like things done. By now, all of them can do things just how I like them, and sometimes they even know to do things before I ask (like I said, I’m lucky). They could go through my daily care without me saying a word, and things would go just fine. Unfortunately, because I have a whole team of fantastic caregivers, I get so used to this level of care that I sometimes begin to take it for granted and lose my appreciation for it. While it is perfectly normal for people to start overlooking the importance and value of things they see every day, my nurses deserve much, much better than that. They work way too hard, get paid way too little, and care about me way too much to be taken for granted. This is why I am so glad that by bringing on these new people who are not yet familiar with my routine, I was able to regain perspective and fully appreciate their efforts. When you are looking at adding new nurses to your team, the process can be long and tiring. This has nothing to do with the agency or the nurses themselves, it is just the way the situation is. It is not easy to find someone who you are compatible enough with that you can instantly spend eight or more hours with them and not feel super awkward and uncomfortable. This means that you end up orienting many people who won’t end up working with you because they just are not a good match in terms of personality, which in homecare is extremely important. On top of that, it takes a lot of mental energy to break down things like how you brush your teeth, how you like to get dressed, or even how you want your body positioned in bed into step-by-step instructions. So by the time that you find multiple caregivers that are a solid fit, you have done lots of orientations and are exhausted. Over the last three weeks I have trained roughly seven potential nurses, and I am lucky that four of them are a really good fit for me, but in my experience it is usually not such a high percentage that work out.

Last week was especially tiring because I had a 32 hour stretch during which I had to orient three new, potential nurses. Once again, this had nothing to do with CareStaf or the caregivers (in fact, two of the three are now working with me), it is just the nature of the activity itself. By the end of this gauntlet of “meet-and-greets” I was completely fried mentally from constantly breaking things down, feeling people out, and being on my best behavior (so I would not scare anyone away). When it was over, that night all I wanted to do was lay my head on my pillow and go to sleep without saying a word. Thanks to my incredible team of “regulars,” this was exactly what I got to do. Once I got in bed my night nurse, as she always does, quickly and efficiently went through my bedtime routine, allowing me to just turn off my brain for the night. When I woke up the next morning, and my mind was recharged from the mental overload of the previous two days, it occurred to me how great it felt to be able to do that. How great it felt to be feel comfortable and safe enough with my team that I can completely trust them to take care of me. This may be difficult for able-bodied people to totally understand, but I cannot begin to explain how wonderful this makes me feel. Even though I knew all along how great my nurses are and how fortunate I am to have them out here, this series of events brought it back to my attention.

Scott Drotar Nightly Routine
It is really comforting having nurses that can quickly and efficiently go through my nightly routine without me saying a word.

When you rely on other people to maintain your safety and well-being, as well as your quality of life in general, you are in a very vulnerable position. You have to trust that the people you choose to take care of you will do a good job and want you to be happy and healthy. This is a hard enough thing to do with loved ones and family members, and it is even more difficult to put this level of trust in strangers (which is what all nurses start off as, medically trained strangers). I am blessed that I have nurses that I am comfortable being completely vulnerable with. This not only makes my life so much easier, but it also is a big part of what allows me to live the independent life I have dreamed of since I was a child. This is way too important of a gift to not fully appreciate it, and the people who make it happen, which is why it is important to me that I don’t lose sight of how much my “regulars” do for me, above and beyond what is required of them, simply to make my life better. Just like I needed to regain some perspective as to how incredible my nurses are, we all have things or people in our lives that we sometimes take for granted. You don’t do this intentionally or because you don’t value them, but merely because they become so familiar that they fade into the background of your mind. This fact that you are fortunate enough to have something amazing in your life so often that it becomes white noise is exactly why we need to do our best to maintain our appreciation for these gifts. Take some time every day to appreciate the little things that people do for you that make a big difference in your happiness. This could be the way your spouse has a cup of coffee made just the way you like it waiting for you when you wake up, or how your dad always has your car warmed up for you before school in the winter. Think about how great and loved this makes you feel, and how much you would miss it if it was suddenly gone. Then tell the people responsible for these little gifts how much they mean to you. This process will not only bring an enormous amount of happiness to their life, but in thinking about how great they make you feel, to your life as well.

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Book Review: “The Psychopath Test” by Jon Ronson

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Scott Drotar Psychopath Test
In his book “The Psychopath Test,” Jon Ronson examines the idea of what it means to be sane.

It feels like it has been forever since I last made an entry into the Scott Drotar Literary Review. This week’s book, like many of the works I have reviewed, was something that I read as a result of my ever-growing TED talk addiction. I watched a talk by the best-selling author of “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” Jon Ronson, about psychopathy, and I was so intrigued by what he had to say that I quickly went to www.Amazon.com and purchased the book that spawned his talk, “The Psychopath Test.” The text version was even more interesting than Ronson’s talk had been, to the point that I had a hard time putting it down. This book is so thought provoking because it examines the pivotal question, and one that as a psychologist I have spent countless hours pondering, “How do you know you are sane?”

In “The Psychopath Test” Ronson takes you with him on his journey to examine the idea of sanity. He does this by looking more specifically at the mental disorder, psychopathy (sometimes called sociopathy). While technically psychopathy is not found in the DSM-5, the handbook containing all diagnosed psychological disorders, it is often lumped in under anti-social personality disorder. It is generally described as having a complete lack of empathy and conscience that allow individuals to function “normally” in society. These individuals are the epitome of “looking out for number one,” and they are often masterful social chameleons who can be deceptively charming, charismatic, and intriguing to achieve their goals. Since these people are incapable of conscience, they feel no remorse for their actions, and this means they will do anything and everything to get what they want. It is believed that psychopathy is untreatable, which means that once you are labeled a psychopath (which is done by taking a mere 20 question checklist), you will be treated as one for life. If the facts that psychopathy is not defined as a mental disorder and that a one-time, 20 question survey can give you this label forever doesn’t raise some red flags about the nature of this disease, and determining sanity in general, I don’t know what will.

While I don’t want to give away too much, Ronson uses these vague definitions and at best mediocre diagnostic criteria, as a jumping off point for his investigation into the world of insanity. He interviews a diagnosed psychopath who allegedly faked having a mental disorder to use the insanity defense to get out of a lengthy prison sentence, but ended up being diagnosed as a psychopath, which is lifelong and untreatable, and served over a decade in a maximum security hospital for the insane. He meets with a hugely successful former Fortune 500 CEO who, although never diagnosed with psychopathy, scored well above the threshold on the diagnostic test. It is actually believed by many that while in the general population the rate of psychopathy is about 1%, in the cut throat world of CEOs and hot-shot Wall Street brokers, where a lack of conscience is often an asset, the rate is as high as 4%. Ronson even meets with a convicted murderer, drug kingpin, and diagnosed psychopath for a polite lunch interview during his quest for the truth. These individuals are just the tip of the iceberg however (can you say scientologists?), as he leaves no stone unturned on his pursuit of uncovering the truth about what it means to be sane.

If the subject matter and the ramifications of the possible results of this journey through the world of psychology are not enough, the writing style of “The Psychopath Test” is also worth the price of the book. Ronson uses his unique, conversational style to put the reader inside his head to hear his thought process throughout the book. This is both entertaining and informative as you get to share in his inner dialogue as he converses with these criminally insane individuals over coffee. This style also does a great job of complementing the frequent dialogue depicting the many intriguing interviews he conducts with psychopaths and psychologists alike throughout the entirety of the book. I cannot think of much of anything that I would change about this look into our minds and what makes us the sane, normal people we think we are.

The question of what it means to be sane, as well as who and how we make this determination, is something that can drive you crazy (pun intended). Ronson does a magnificent job of shedding light on this quandary in a way that is entertaining and insightful. If nothing else, this book will make you start wondering which people in your own life would qualify as psychopaths, which is reason enough to pick it up. That is why “The Psychopath Test” gets a 5 out of 5 on the Roll Models Review Scale.

Roll Models 5 Chair Rating

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Accentuate the Positive

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Scott Drotar Positive Reinforcement
When I would train Jorey, it was always critical to reward him when he succeeded.

Pet owners and parents of young children know how important it is to acknowledge and reward behaviors that we want to encourage. Whether it be rubbing your dog’s belly for coming when you call his name or clapping and smiling at your infant when they start trying to walk, providing some sort of positive reinforcement is critical in getting them to repeat this action. Why is it then, that as we mature and grow into adulthood there is a gradual shift in focus from promoting, productive performances to examining and eradicating errors? No parent would punish their child for stumbling and falling as they are learning to walk, but when that same child is learning to drive 16 years later, the most attention is often paid to their mistakes or areas that need improvement. Why do we feel the need to change our focus to what we are doing wrong, instead of what we are doing right? By concentrating on the negative more than the positive, you are welcoming negative thoughts and emotions into your life, which will greatly diminish your happiness. I learned long ago, if you want to build a happy, fulfilling life, that you need to be sure to acknowledge and accentuate your achievements, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem.

My entire life I have always had tasks that I have had to work hard and struggle to accomplish due to my disability. Things as simple as getting my hand and fingers to cooperate and work in unison so that I could write my own name or manipulate a fork were no easy feat, but when I finally did it, it was like I had just climbed Mount Everest. There is no better feeling than reaching that summit. I remember being so proud of myself, and seeing my mom beaming with joy, as I showed her what I had done. The first time I was able to eat solid food after my trache surgery, I was so relieved and excited at successfully swallowing that macaroni and cheese that I actually cried. While swallowing a bite of macaroni and cheese without choking is not something that you would even reward an infant for, when you are not sure if you will ever eat normally again, this is an achievement worth noticing. While these daily activities are trivial and insignificant to most people, for someone with a physical disability they can require a lot of effort. It is this large amount of work that makes an accomplishment something to be noticed and rewarded. That is why my family and I have always made a point to acknowledge each other’s effort in our achievements, as opposed to the achievements themselves.

Scott Drotar Crawling
Due to my disability, even things like learning to crawl were very difficult. My parents would always acknowledge my efforts in succeeding though, no matter how trivial the task.

great example of this mentality on rewarding success is found in how my parents treated my siblings and I about our grades. For Stephanie and I, academics always came very easily to us, and we could get all “A’s” without much effort. As a result, my parents rarely made a big deal about our report cards. They would congratulate us and be proud, but they didn’t over emphasize it because of how little effort we put in. For Ryan however, school didn’t come naturally, and he had to work twice as hard to achieve half as much. When he would bring home a report card of all “A’s” and “B’s,” it was a huge achievement. My mom and dad would make sure to recognize and reward his hard work, and you could always see how good that made him feel. Looking only at the outcomes, it would not make sense to make a bigger deal of Ryan’s grades over mine or my sister’s, but that is not the whole picture. When you take into account the time and effort required to obtain our grades, what Ryan did is a much more impressive accomplishment. The important part is the journey you take to reach your goal, not the destination itself.

In addition to focusing on the effort put into an achievement and recognizing positive behaviors, in order to promote a happy life you must also address the flipside of the coin and stop concentrating on everything you do wrong. As we grow up, we are programmed to do our jobs and go about our lives trying to make as few mistakes as possible. Our teachers, bosses, even our spouses frequently make many more comments on our mistakes than our successes. While I agree that we should try to make the minimal number of errors as we can, I disagree with putting the focus of your life on something negative, because putting negative thoughts in your head is never a good thing. So instead, I live my life trying to succeed as often as possible. While these two mentalities are no different in theory and behavior, mentally the difference is huge. One fosters thoughts of accomplishment and the other failures. One makes you remember the good parts of your day, the other the bad. In sports, coaches always talk about the enormous difference between playing to win and playing not to lose. This change in mindset and thinking can make a huge impact on your life, as you will no longer be worried about erring, but instead have your eyes on the prize as you work to reach your goals.

I could so easily go through life feeling sorry for myself and concentrating on all of the things I cannot do because of my disability. With my physical limitations, no one would even fault me for doing so. I’ll be honest, there have even been moments where I have wanted to throw in the towel and have my own little pity party. Whenever thoughts like that enter my head though, I think, “Where’s the fun in that?” Sure, I could give up and my life would be much easier, but it would also be boring and empty. You cannot feel the exhilaration of a new adventure or enjoy a novel experience, if you are already busy feeling sorry for yourself. There is a reason Debbie Downer never ran a marathon, and Negative Nancy never swam the English Channel. Focusing on the negative aspects of life would only give me another handicap and even more greatly shrink my world. By concentrating on all of the successes I have had instead, I expand my world, because every time I succeed I think, “If I can do this, then there is no reason I cannot do that.” This mindset has opened up so many opportunities to me that I would have never thought I could do, but because I remembered my success in other areas, I had the courage to try. This simple change in focus has been a valuable resource as I have created my happy, fulfilling life.

Scott Drotar Accentuate The Positive
My parents taught me that the effort and energy you put into achieving something is just as important as the achievement itself.

By refusing to relent to the negative-focused mindset of society, I have managed to maintain a positive, optimistic outlook and a happy, fulfilling life. It is critical to acknowledge the efforts and achievements of others, and most of all yourself, to build this positive point of view. You must also shift your focus from worrying about making mistakes to concentrating on achieving your objectives. When was the last time you did something that took some effort and thought to yourself, “Wow. I did great. I am kind of a bad ass.”? Take a moment at the end of every day as you are in bed going to sleep, and think about everything you did right that day, no matter how trivial or inconsequential. Let yourself feel proud for having achieved all of these successes in one day. You will be amazed at how great you feel as you are drifting off to dream land, and that is nothing compared to the added happiness you will enjoy during the following days.

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Good Intentions

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Excluding the mentally ill, I firmly believe that people are good and make the best decisions they can with the information available to them. For example, if someone chooses to speed to get to work on time, they are aware that it is wrong, but being late for work, possibly getting fired, and not being able to support their family is a worse consequence than a ticket, so they choose to speed. In their mind, this is the “right” decision. Their intentions are good (make sure I can support my family) given the situation and information available to them, even though from our perspective their actions are selfish and wrong. That is why it is so important when judging someone’s behavior to make sure that you take into account their intentions and motivation in addition to their actions. Our criminal justice system even accounts for the reasons behind people’s actions, as that is what differentiates murder from manslaughter and such. One of my earliest memories is a great example of how, even with the best possible intentions, you can still produce unintended and harmful results.

Scott Drotar Swing
Stephanie and I played outside a lot together when we were little.

I was 4 years old, and my sister and I had been playing outside on a hot, Summer afternoon while my mom and dad worked in our garden. As I was so young, my parents didn’t think it was smart to put me behind the controls of a 300 pound power wheelchair yet, so I was using a manual chair. When it was time to go inside, my folks had their hands full carrying the vegetables they had picked, so they asked my 6 year old sister, Stephanie, to push me up to the house. She had helped me get around before in the house, so she got behind my chair and started pushing. What everyone failed to take into account however, was that pushing a wheelchair on smooth carpet or tile is very different from pushing it on hilly, uneven ground. This became readily apparent very quickly though, when after about six feet my wheelchair hit a tree root and tipped over, sending me face first into the ground.

Scott Drotar Manual Wheelchair
My parents didn’t think putting a 4 year old behind the joystick of a 300 pound, power wheelchair was a good idea, so I was stuck in a manual chair for a while.

I’m not sure I have ever seen my parents move much faster than they did as they ran over to me. I remember my mother reacting in panic when she picked me up and saw my face covered in blood and tears. Thankfully, it looked a lot worse than it was, and I ended up with nothing more than a fat lip, bloody nose, and some bruises. Honestly, my sister probably suffered worse than I did, as she had to cope with the fact that she had just tipped over the wheelchair of her defenseless, disabled brother. My parents felt terrible on two levels. First, their attempt to avoid having to come back out to get me had caused me harm, which made them feel guilty. Second, they had put Stephanie in a position where she could have been scarred for life if I had been really injured. All of this pain, guilt, and mental anguish were in no way the results of any malice or premeditated rage. They were merely the results of making the best, most well intentioned, decisions based on the information available to them.

One of the main reasons that we frequently end up with unintended, negative consequences even with the best of intentions is due to a shortcoming in our neurological makeup. People suffer from a decision making phenomenon called, “what you see is all there is” (WYSIATI). This issue in our thinking basically implies that when we are making most decisions, we base our choices on the information most readily available to us at that moment, and not necessarily on what we would do if we took the time to logically think things through. For example, my parents saw that I needed pushed up to the house, and they saw my sister near me who had pushed me many times before. So, under the spell of WYSIATI their brains quickly connected the dots and came up with the solution of having Stephanie bring me in. If my parents had stopped, looked at the situation in detail, and thought about potential issues, they would have easily seen that a four foot child pushing a four and a half foot wheelchair over uneven ground wasn’t a great idea. Stopping to make decisions this way is slow and tedious though, which is why we run on “autopilot” a lot of the time to speed things up. This is fine for most decisions throughout your day, but every now and then WYSIATI rears its ugly head, and you end up picking up your bloodied, disabled son out from under his wheelchair.

Scott Drotar Good Intentions
Even with the best of intentions, you can still produce unexpected, and sometimes harmful, consequences.

You can see how even with the best intentions, with unavoidable mental failings like WYSIATI, you can get unexpected and unwanted results from your actions. Since these types of unintended consequences are going to happen occasionally, you need to learn how to best manage these situations when they occur. First, you need to be sincerely remorseful and apologetic for whatever you did. Intended or not, you did something wrong, and you need to make amends for that. A well-timed, sincere apology can be a very powerful thing, especially in situations like this. After dealing with the physical consequences of your misstep, you have to be sure to manage the emotional fallout on yourself. While there is nothing wrong with feeling bad for causing harm, even on accident, all too often we end up severely punishing ourselves for something we never intended to happen, nor had much control over. Take a breath (or ten), gain some perspective, and really go over the sequence of events before seeing yourself as this horrible monster that should be put to death. The fact that you feel so bad for doing something accidentally, is much more telling about who you are than the unintended results of a well-intentioned action.

While having good intentions does not absolve you of any wrongdoing, it definitely needs to be considered when looking at and making judgments about certain situations. As my parents would reply to us sarcastically when we would say something was an accident when we were kids, “I didn’t mean to blow up the world. It just happened.” Consequences must be accounted for, just not in a vacuum. Make sure you take into consideration the intended results of someone’s behavior before you cast judgment. Also, be certain to remember your own intentions the next time you start vilifying yourself over something you had little control over. Remember that you can even get away with throwing your crippled, baby brother to the ground if your intentions were pure. Just because the road to hell is paved with good intentions, doesn’t mean you have to drive on it.

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