Learned Helplessness and a reply from Steven Pinker

I sent Steven Pinker some fan mail not long ago, and Great Scotts, he actually replied. I’d been reading How the Mind Works and the compulsion hit me: I had to email him to explain the benefit I was getting. I figured, so what if he gets hundreds of letters and emails; he’s still a human being who would surely appreciate knowing he’s helped someone. Turns out he did, and the below reply came within 24 hours. To put it in perspective, the guy’s one of the world’s leading public intellectuals and I’m a huge fan of his, so it may as well have come from Elvis.


The reason I’m posting it here, is that it broke through a thick ceiling of learned helplessness in my life — a pop-psychological term that’s gained a lot of social traction over the past year or so. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s explained pretty well in this video:

My background is several dimensions away from the likes of the Ivy league elite and the sophistication of The New Yorker, to the point it’s all seemed fantastical and otherworldly. As it turns out, we happen to inhabit the same planet, and there’s nothing separating our worlds but geography and a mouse-click.

This isn’t at all about talent; it’s about perception. Lower socio-economic backgrounds can be an incubator for self-doubt; marginalising personal goals and imposing intimidatingly high walls of uncertainty throughout our social landscape. Many people don’t experience this, but to varying degrees, billions do. Statistically speaking there must be millions of talented people who never achieve their most suitable social role for that reason; causing society’s leadership to be somewhat nepotistic in appearance. But it doesn’t need to be.

The only thing preventing any of us from achieving our potential level of success and communal value, is our mindset. The unchecked attitude of a poor-man corrodes talent like pissing on a growing rose bush: it may mature in size, but it’ll end up deformed and flowerless. (Don’t ask how I know that).

I’m obviously no-where near as talented as Steven Pinker (or anyone close to the same oxygen supply as him), but until this year I didn’t even think I was talented enough for university. I’d already made the connection before receiving his gracious reply, but let me tell you, it’s been a boost I never expected; giving me the confidence to seek-out mentorship and advice in places I’d never have considered otherwise.

If you’re an aspiring filmmaker or writer or computer programmer—an aspiring anything—why not engage with the best? Reaching for the stars doesn’t require a skyrocket, it just needs an email address.


18 thoughts on “Learned Helplessness and a reply from Steven Pinker”

  1. Oh man, as a linguistics student with an interest in sociology and anthropology, I am slacking on the Steven Pinker. That’s so cool that he wrote back! And the learned helplessness concept is something I’ve learned about in the past year. So tricky and insidious to overcome!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It certainly can be! Getting over it requires the ability to think very abstractly; thinking about it as simply being an added boundary can make it extremely challenging to overcome: it’s easier to be in denial about it.Thanks for stopping by! I’m studying language and psychology next year so there’s a strong chance I’ll pick your brain down the track. Be warned!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Being thankful, and being recognized do not always travel the same paths, but when they do, the mutual exchange is worth it.


    1. I may have to use this in future (will be sure to send you the necessary royalties). There needs to be a lot more gratitude shared in the world and less complaints given. Thanks for commenting :-)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you so much for the follow on my blog! AND, this piece is wonderful and states something I struggle with incredibly clearly. It seems so obvious and yet so obscure…at times……thanks again!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great stuff, Garry. That’s where I’m stuck, the intentional voice. I still just sit down and hope for it, but I know you’re right, that’s where I need to get to.

    The rest of your points here – I hope they’re all true too, and I think I may be having just your experience with Pinker, I mean not with him, but with someone who definitely breathes the same oxygen, an equally famous scientist. It’s incredible, you can just email these authors! I must have piqued his curiosity with a theory I’m developing and I think we’ll be corresponding. So I’m a high school dropout, I was sure there was no way to reach anyone at any university – but somehow you can go straight to the guy at the top? And I can go either way right now, crazy and losing everything – to collaborating on a science theory with a top, famous person – WTF is all I can say.

    Also, I’ve been reading Steven too, How the Mind works was very cool, and I forget the detail right now, but it’s improving my writing too – helps us keep it straight about who the actors are and what verbs apply to what, sort of thing, right? Like grammar makes sense now and it’s not just a matter of memorizing the rules?

    Good stuff, Man.



    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Jeff, cheers for commenting! Awesome you’ve had a similar experience :) Pinker’s a great writer in his own right actually. That’s a hell of a crossroads to be on mate! Hope it all works out well.


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