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.

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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.