Mappsterview No. 2: Jer Clifton, part-time Hero and Bringer of “Universal Assessments”

I´m in the ninth cohort of the Master of Applied Positive Program at Penn. Consequently, there are tons of brilliant MAPP Alumni out there that have very fascinating stories to tell: about their experience with the program, about Positive Psychology in general – and about themselves of course. I really want to hear those stories. That´s why I started to do Mappsterviews* with my predecessors.

 

Mappsterview No. 2 features Jer Clifton who was in MAPP 8, just as Emilia Lahti. If I remember correctly, he´s been the very first person ever to react to my blog. He´s just been admitted as a Ph.D. student at Penn – congrats on that one, Jer!

Jer Clifton

My wife and I hiking in Prince William Forest near where we currently live in Washington, DC.

Please introduce yourself briefly

I am an extroverted stutterer, an American raised in Taiwan, a philosopher trapped in a community organizer’s body, and my wife is awesome. Recently, I realized that philosophical ideas that I have been toying with for about a decade are empirically verifiable, and I have the amazing opportunity to find out full-time.

What did you do before MAPP?

I love applied nerdiness. While studying philosophy and history in college, the abstraction overdose drove me to join the local fire department. After graduation, I followed my girlfriend to Buffalo, New York, became a community organizer with AmeriCorps, and then a Housing Director at a small non-profit. My expertise became community-led neighborhood revitalization at the individual block level. I got to co-create a theory of neighborhood revitalization with local gangsters, a local professor, a New York State Supreme Court judge, and even a Nobel Prize winner got involved. We married (my girlfriend, not the Nobel Prize winner) and decided she should do grad school first. I joined the CEO’s office at Habitat for Humanity International as a strategic planner, finishing a national planning process in Sri Lanka days before my MAPP year started in 2012.

What got you interested in Positive Psychology?

During college I wrote a book that demonstrated (perhaps only to me) that the world was in FACT a good, worthwhile, and beautiful place. “Strange,” I thought, “isn’t the world kind of a shit-hole?” So I started systematically exploring all that was right with existence. For instance, I spent 20 minutes every day reflecting on what was right about the world. And it changed me. Instead of a war zone to be endured, I began to see it as a beautiful place to be explored. My well-being skyrocketed.

“What!?” I balked, “Isn’t philosophy supposed to make you depressed?” Mystified, on the last day of class my last year in college, having never taken a psych class, I walked into the office of the head of the psych department and said, “I want to study wellbeing.” He told me about MAPP and Marty (Seligman). That was in 2007. I’ve wanted to go ever since.

I´ve been reading your blog once in a while. In the bio page you mention that you stutter. Has Positive Psychology been of any use with that?

In a word, no. Nor would I expect it to be. Alas, Positive Psychology, a mere subject of scientific inquiry, does not cure all ills. Still, going through MAPP and studying Positive Psychology helped me find my calling and new inner-calm has coincided with a small but observable decline in stuttering. But of course, plenty of stutterers stutter despite obvious inspiration. My experience means nothing for stutterers generally, but certainly I’m excited to stutter a bit less. Thanks for asking about this. I do consider myself a life-long stutterer and care about stuttering issues. In fact, it’s why I go by “Jer” and not “Jeremy” as I stutter on my name. For those interested, I’ve written a bit about this, including a blog post entitled A Stutterer’s Take on the ‘King’s Speech’. Also check out Katherine Preston’s book Out With It.

Another thing I found on your blog: What is this about you being a hero?

Hah! I was famous for about two weeks in 2011 when I pulled a guy off subway tracks in Atlanta, Georgia who was in contact with the electrified third rail and in the process I got a little shocked, too. It was a crazy experience! Police told me that I saved the man’s life and could have easily been killed. What made it a media event was a bystander posted a video on Youtube. The story went somewhat viral and local and national media got interested. It was nuts! My favorite interview was on Fox & Friends with Steve Doocey just because I totally took control of the conversation and ran with it! Good times.

You have written your MAPP Capstone thesis on the subject of Universal Assessments (UAs). What is that all about?

Quite literally, everything. Scientists have looked at how various beliefs affect life. These studied beliefs concern many things, but typically center around the self, other people, and one’s immediate situation.  “Universal Assessment” is my fancy term for overall judgments of existence as a whole – indeed beliefs about everything. In general, is the world good or bad? Is it malleable, or impossible to change? Our answers may bring us to dismiss exceptions and count supporting observations as “true” to the underlying reality, which would cyclically reinforce that UA.  For instance, if you think the world is boring, you may be more likely to be bored, which will make you think that the world is boring. UAs, in short, could generate expectancy about everything that exists and thus impact the content of our lives.

I’m not talking about attitudes or dispositions. UAs are beliefs, and, moreover, beliefs that we might not even know we have.  In my capstone (the full doc can be boring, you may want to check out a 3-page non-academic summary), I found out that especially little attention has been paid to UAs likely to lead to the “good life”, like strengths and positive emotion. So I conducted a methodical exercise that ultimately identified thirteen pairs of beliefs about the world as a whole, many of which have not been studied.

Universal Assessments

This list is far from complete. Long term, I want to identify all the UAs that play an important causal role in human life and understand their effects. If we find that certain UAs lead to wellbeing (as it seemingly did for me), we are going to create interventions that we can scale up. It’s your average “change-the-world-with-a-cool-idea” scenario.

Jer Clifton

I made this shirt for my girlfriend in college almost 10 years ago. It’s come to encapsulate the UA concept and my personal mission. However, keep in mind that believing that the world is beautiful has not yet been studied. We don’t know its effects.

So how can I assess which UAs are “at work” inside of me?

In short, you can’t. Currently, only a handful of UAs have been studied and no comprehensive UA assessment exists. Of course, you could track down an academic and get their tool for a particular UA, but yeah, nothing is that accessible. Martin Seligman and I hope to change that! I am moving to Philadelphia in April to work on this very question (just signed a lease yesterday). We want to identify all major UAs that humans hold and eventually create a single widely available comprehensive assessment tool that anyone can use online to identify their UA profile.

What would you suggest if I were to find a UA that severely limits my potential for e.g., joy or personal development?

As it turns out, when the ancient Greeks first emerged from the cave of prehistory, the first question they asked themselves was: “What sort of world is this?” Heraclitus, for instance, thought that the world was defined by change, and this made him sad, because home, indeed any familiarity, was an illusion. He was called the “weeping philosopher.” Heraclitus, or yourself if you come to hold a debilitating UA, have at least two basic options.

First, you can be a philomath, a “lover of knowledge.” In this option, consequences be damned. The truth is all that matters. I have great respect for this approach, and naturally tend to be a philomath myself. I also agree with C.S. Lewis when he says, “The love of knowledge is a kind of madness.” Second, you can be a philosopher, a lover of wisdom. In this option, you balance any assertion of “truth” with how the very act of assertion affects your life and the life of loved ones.

In my view, any UA is massively underdetermined by the empirical evidence and we have no hope of computing such vast datasets. For instance, is the sum total of human suffering greater than the sum total of human affection? Who knows! Utility may be of more importance if there is no truth to be discovered.  My perhaps foolish hope, however, is that what is useful to believe also can be true..

Carol Dweck at Stanford has found that merely exposing people to an implicit belief (a belief that they did not know they had) gives the individual the power of a conscious choice. They can change it. So far, I am not aware of any interventions that have been done specifically for the purpose of changing UAs, but the one’s that I am designing all revolve around a simple premise: expose yourself to those aspects of the world most conducive to the view of the world that you wish to believe. In other words, create a syllabus for yourself to understand the world’s “true nature” and teach/indoctrinate/civilize yourself like professors and teachers have been doing with students for centuries. Engage in self-formation.

You´re an assistant instructor in MAPP 9 now and have given me a really bad grade on that integration paper in January. What was that for? Just kidding… If somebody wants to “get started” with Positive Psychology: which resources (books, websites etc.) would you recommend?

Hah! All you needed was a swift kick in the butt. 🙂 You rocked it the next time. As for resources, there’s a Positive Psychology Top 10 FAQ on Positive Psychology on my blog. I would start by reading that summary and then take the only free psychometrically valid strengths test in the world.

 

Thank you, Jer, for this Mappsterview! I´d like to close with a quote from German scientist and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: “If there were no best among all possible worlds, God would not have created one.”

* If you are a MAPP alumnus and would like to have your story featured here – please go ahead and shoot me an e-mail!

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