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!

Mappsterview No. 1: Emilia Lahti, the Queen of Sisu

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.

 

The honor (ahem…) of being No. 1 goes to Emilia Lahti from Finland. She was in MAPP 8 and does research on Sisu, which is a Finnish term for a special and very strong kind of determination. Supposedly, one has to be Finnish to really grasp the concept – but Emilia is here to change that…

Emilia Lahti

Please introduce yourself briefly

My name is Emilia and I am utterly intrigued by (A) how on earth you manage to keep blogging so intensely during MAPP!, (B) what enables people to persevere through extreme hardship,  (C) my amazing and utterly badass husband, and (D) caterpillars (no really, I’ll get back to this later).

What is Sisu?

Sisu - DefinitionSisu is a Finnish word denoting determination, courage and resoluteness in the face of extreme adversity. This means highly difficult life situations or events and is not to be confused with the angst we often bring upon ourselves by getting worked up by all kinds of trivial nuisances of our privileged lives (i.e. being pissed off because we didn’t find a parking spot near the grocery store or when it happened to rain during the run –unless it is raining something utterly crazy, like wasps or cactuses!). One could say sisu begins where your perseverance ends and you feel you have reached the end of your mental or physical capacities. One intellectual hero of mine, late philosopher and physician William James, wrote that we have hidden energy within us which we may not have access to until we really need it, and that crises often offer an unparalleled opportunity to tap into this deeper strength. He called it the ‘second wind’, and continued that most of us never run far enough to discover we have such strength. I love the expression because in some ways it describes pretty well what sisu is about.

Sisu is especially useful in creating impetus for getting started with an impossible task or taking action against the odds. I call this the action mindset. Furthermore, sisu is about honesty and integrity, and about not complaining too much during hardships. You’ll address the difficulty, yes, perhaps curse and rant a bit, but then you get to action. Sisu is about equanimity, rationality and this kind of stoically silent, relentless action in the face of a significant challenge. Furthermore, for example within the context of sports, having sisu does not have to mean you place first or annihilate all of your opponents. Sisu is more about immersing yourself in the experience with every fiber of your being and not giving up. Ultimately, it is not so much about achievement as it is about facing your challenges with valor and determination..

How did your interest in Sisu arise?

Well, I had a tough childhood. Hah, no. I’m just kidding. However, my parents indeed played a significant role in this process. They are tenacious, mentally strong people who don’t take bs from anyone. Yet, they have softness and are able to apologize when they are wrong. My parents have always told me to finish what I start, stay relentless and also reminded me to imagine myself in someone else’s shoes. Justice and fairness are elementary to integrity, and integrity is in the core of the more socially directed dimension of sisu.

However, my interest toward sisu as a research subject kind of emerged as a result of my own experiences and randomly crashing Dr. Angela Duckworth’s undergrad class where she was teaching about Grit. Other people whom I absolutely have to mention are my sweet husband, who himself is an incredible epitome of grit and sisu, and Drs. Esa Saarinen, Lauri Järvilehto and Frank Martela from Finland, who have each played a crucial role in encouraging me to dive deeper into this unexplored domain. Sometimes it’s hard to believe in yourself until someone else believes in you first, and these five people have really been a powerful enabling factor for me. For the most part, my overall sisu journey (and life in general) seems to be a mix of serendipitous encounters and random ideas powered by my never ending curiosity toward life, and the incessant need make some kind of sense of it. But isn’t that really what most of our lives are like?

Can Sisu be developed – and if yes: how?

Intuitively, I would rush to give you an excited ‘yes’! Mainly because what we know from social psychology is that words and narratives (and the meanings we draw from them) can be a hugely empowering factor in our lives. However, since I am slowly adopting this ‘wannabe-researcher’ mindset I’ll just take it easy and say perhaps, but we don’t know since no research has been conducted yet. When saying this, I am following the example of my guru and mentor, Angela. I remember struggling with my ‘budding researcher’ identity (you know, worrying whether what you contribute is useful and meaningful enough, or if you are just utterly wasting everyone’s time). Angela, who advised my master’s thesis, gave me an advice which will stick with me forever. She said, “Emilia, you don’t have to be right. You just have to be honest.” I think this is the golden rule of any research, and it applies to life in general in many ways, too.

Only after the (tediously) thrilling construct validation work, which I am involved with right now, we can begin looking at cultivating this capacity. A majority of 83% of the over 1,000 respondents to the sisu survey last spring, said that they believe sisu is a quality which can be developed through conscious effort (as opposed to being a fixed capacity). Now this is explosive! What we know from Dr. Carol Dweck’s work is that our beliefs are one of the biggest indicators of our future actions. If we believe a character trait is fixed, we are less likely to engage in activities which might modify it and are therefore less likely to change. Therefore, our beliefs in a way set the boundaries within which we operate in our daily lives.  Anyway, you can expect some epic results in the years to come. If not, I will just transform into the lone ultra-runner I always felt I was destined to become and disappear somewhere in Lapland with a sack of Vibrams! On that high note, physical activity may indeed be one of the many potential ways to develop one’s sisu…

What was the most Sisu´ish moment of your life?

Wow, I really like the term sisu’ish! If ‘words make our worlds’, you have just expanded mine by the width of a polar bear’s paw! I think one of my first sisu’ish moments was when I was maybe four and stood up against a scary girl who was bullying some other girl at a hospital where I was waiting to have a kidney operation. On a more epic, transformative note, probably when I overcame a broken spirit caused by a violent ex-partner, and had to pretty much rebuild myself from scratch after this calamitous period in my life ended.

However, the peculiar thing about post-traumatic growth is that you don’t merely return to your previous state. Sometimes, a remarkable thing happens as a result of a life changing event or profound experience of pain: we transform. The strenuous moments which force us to reflect on the inner depths of our character, and to even ponder the very meaning of life itself, change us irreversibly and cultivate our sense of empathy for others, for the world, and for ourselves.

For me, hardly anything remained the same. I transformed during my dark cocoon period and suddenly could not look at myself, my life or even my work the same way. This explains my infatuation with caterpillars too. Did you know that the body of a caterpillar quite literally melts into this mess of tiny organs, limbs and tissue, and inside the chrysalis the little insect completely restructures itself into something unimaginably different. Well, I was that caterpillar a few years ago. (Note from the editor: Yes, I did, Emilia… 🙂 )

Nowadays I am an outspoken anti-domestic violence advocate and my purpose is to enable cultural change in the way how we speak about this atrocity. According to WHO (2013) one woman three experiences domestic violence or sexual abuse during their lifetime (and often it is in the hands of those who were supposed to protect and cherish them). These women and also men (one in eight) are often silenced by the stigma that comes with it – stigma that should always be only on the perpetrator. My life is a living example of how things can turn around when own our story, tap into our inner sisu and reach out for caring connections in our lives. It’s been a long journey but I am now where I belong. Now it’s my time to help others.

How is Sisu tied to the Finnish culture?

Sisu is tightly woven onto the fibers of Finnish culture, and it has even been said that one needs to understand the meaning of sisu in order to truly understand Finns. Why sisu became a concept in Finland in particular relates to the country’s history which includes a lot foreign occupation, hard weather conditions and invasions. Finns learned that having sisu was the way to sustain life when things got really bad. The construct is still deeply embedded within the Finnish mainstream dialogue and I am incredibly excited to examine how its full brilliance can be unfolded and possibly leveraged to bring about systems wide positive change. Language is the foundation of how we communicate, and up to this point Sisu as a construct has remained understudied and rather elusive. Reframing something from “untranslatable” and “unfathomable” (like has often been described) to a word or description which carries meaning can be a potent game-changer. It opens up a whole new world around the construct and brings it within people´s reach.

Can I profit from Sisu –  even though I´m German?

As a former employee of the Finnish Embassy, I know I have to try and give some kind of a diplomatic answer! Just kidding. Ja, yes, kyllä! Even though Finland may have the first take on sisu as a cultural construct, it is a universal power capacity for which the potential exists within all individuals. There are numerous examples of sisu in different cultures and I would love to have someone research this, since I know it is beyond the scope of my upcoming PhD. Somewhat similar constructs (though not exactly) are the Yiddish term chutzpah and the Japanese word ganbaru. It would be great to put together a repository of all these constructs as well as the narratives that relate to them. You Germans as a nation have your own powerful sisu stories, too. Hey! You even dance with Sauerkraut in deine Lederhosen! Even I don’t think I could pull off that stunt! ❤

 

Kiitos Emilia, for being my interview partner for the very first Mappsterview. I can confirm there´s a German notion of Sisu as well – but I´ll leave those words to Oliver Kahn, (in)famous former soccer goalie of Bayern Munich and the German National Team:

For those of you who can´t understand German – he says: “Balls. We need balls!”. You know, as in: Cojones…

 

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