### The Transformative Power of Lying to Yourself

Sarah Rugheimer is a truly amazing person who I've had the great privilege of getting to know better since moving to Harvard. She climbs mountains, collects pond water to teach kids about astrobiology, performs traditional Irish dance, and she also happens to be an outstanding graduate student in the Harvard Astronomy Department working on the remote detection of biomarkers in terrestrial exoplanets. Outside of the department, she is the Director of Communications and Senior Editor of the policylab.org blog. We recently had a conversation about the power of the brain to fool itself into going beyond its limitations, and I asked her to write her experiences with this for a guest post.

I hated my hornpipe dance. I hated everything about it. I hated its music. I hated its rhythm. I hated the dance choreography. But I had to dance it at the qualifier in eight months for the World Irish dance championships. But even the most passionate hate can be transformed to love and success…by lying. This is the story of how I lied to myself long enough to eventually fall in love with my hornpipe. And how I learned lying to oneself is a powerful psychological tool that can lead to success in pursuits far removed from Irish dance, like, for instance, academia.

Similar to getting your PhD where you learn more and more about less and less, in Irish dance you specialize in fewer dances at the upper levels. As I moved up through the ranks of Irish dance competition, no longer did I have the luxury of choosing which dances to do in the major competitions. For the Worlds qualifier and the North American Dance Championships two of four possible dances were chosen for each age category. I had escaped dancing the hornpipe for the first few years by sheer luck. But this year they drew—you guessed it—the hornpipe. My chest tightened when I learned about the choice.  At age 17, my competitive career would be doomed.  How could I ever dance such a horrible dance? The music, rather nasally and slow (see video below), did not inspire me. It was longer than the other dances, and had a peculiar beat, which challenged my rhythm, something that doesn’t come naturally to me. I hated the hornpipe!

One day at my mentor’s house, I was moping about this as only an emotional teenager can. She just looked at me and said with a big smile, “You love your hornpipe!”

I said, “No, really, I don’t.”

She pushed, “Say it with me, you love your hornpipe!”

Through gritted teeth, I said, “I love my hornpipe.” All the while knowing to the core of my being, this couldn’t be further from the truth. I really hated it. Deep down. The hornpipe and I were not friends.

My mentor made me say it every day for the next several months. She made me say it every time I started to practice the hornpipe. I didn’t fall for the lie. I knew I hated it, I was never going to like it, no matter how many times I repeated the lie. I only said: “I love my hornpipe” to appease her, invariably gritting my teeth, adding the internal rebuttal, No, I don’t!

 Image credit: science-craft.com
But something started to happen. Day after day, I practiced my hornpipe, each time lying to myself that I loved this dance. After maybe 3 or 4 months, I could tolerate my hornpipe. It wasn’t my favorite, certainly not compared to the other dances I loved. But I finally began to see there were some redeeming qualities.

Eight months later and without realizing it, I really enjoyed dancing my hornpipe. Not long after, I began to love it. It became my favorite dance. I started to win the hornpipe in dance competitions. In fact, it is still my favorite dance. Before writing this blog post, I danced it for ol’ times sake and it brought a big grin to my face. It is my hornpipe! The rhythm is quirky and the music brings joy to my heart.

The mind is a powerful tool.  Lying to myself about loving the hornpipe became my touchstone for the power of positive thinking. We all find ourselves in positions where we must do something we hate in order to achieve a laudable goal, be it writing a proposal, debugging a code, believing you not an impostor, working out, or even eating more kale. It doesn’t really matter what your hornpipe is, if you can convince yourself you love the task, you will be rewarded with success.

We humans have a weird (and sometimes scary) ability to lie to ourselves, and to eventually believe the lie. Often this is used for ill in this world, or we do it unintentionally and delude ourselves with unfortunate consequences.

But I say let us reclaim this superpower for good. Lie to yourself (with intension) about what you want to become or accomplish. Repeat it day after day, month after month, even for a year if necessary. Set a Google calendar reminder if it helps, or print out a mantra on a sheet of paper that you say out loud upon waking. Eventually, you might just look back and realize you no longer hate your hornpipe and wonder how you ever could have hated such a beautiful thing.

For more, here's a press release in the Wall Street Journal about some research relating to self-deception and its positive and negative effects.

### On the Height of J.J. Barea

Dallas Mavericks point guard J.J. Barea standing between two very tall people (from: Picassa user photoasisphoto).

Congrats to the Dallas Mavericks, who beat the Miami Heat tonight in game six to win the NBA championship.

Okay, with that out of the way, just how tall is the busy-footed Maverick point guard J.J. Barea? He's listed as 6-foot on NBA.com, but no one, not even the sports casters, believes that he can possibly be that tall. He looks like a super-fast Hobbit out there. But could that just be relative scaling, with him standing next to a bunch of extremely tall people? People on Yahoo! Answers think so---I know because I've been Google searching "J.J. Barea Height" for the past 15 minutes.

So I decided to find a photo and settle the issue once and for all.

I then used the basketball as my metric. Wikipedia states that an NBA basketball is 29.5 inches in circumfe…

### The Force is strong with this one...

Last night we were reviewing multiplication tables with Owen. The family fired off doublets of numbers and Owen confidently multiplied away. In the middle of the review Owen stopped and said, "I noticed something. 2 times 2 is 4. If you subtract 1 it's 3. That's equal to taking 2 and adding 1, and then taking 2 and subtracting 1, and multiplying. So 1 times 3 is 2 times 2 minus 1."

I have to admit, that I didn't quite get it at first. I asked him to repeat with another number and he did with six: "6 times 6 is 36. 36 minus 1 is 35. That's the same as 6-1 times 6+1, which is 35."

Ummmmm....wait. Huh? Lemme see...oh. OH! WOW! Owen figured out

x^2 - 1 = (x - 1) (x +1)

So $6 \times 8 = 7 \times 7 - 1 = (7-1) (7+1) = 48$. That's actually pretty handy!

You can see it in the image above. Look at the elements perpendicular to the diagonal. There's 48 bracketing 49, 35 bracketing 36, etc... After a bit more thought we…

### The Long Con

Hiding in Plain Sight

ESPN has a series of sports documentaries called 30 For 30. One of my favorites is called Broke which is about how professional athletes often make tens of millions of dollars in their careers yet retire with nothing. One of the major "leaks" turns out to be con artists, who lure athletes into elaborate real estate schemes or business ventures. This naturally raises the question: In a tightly-knit social structure that is a sports team, how can con artists operate so effectively and extensively? The answer is quite simple: very few people taken in by con artists ever tell anyone what happened. Thus, con artists can operate out in the open with little fear of consequences because they are shielded by the collective silence of their victims.
I can empathize with this. I've lost money in two different con schemes. One was when I was in college, and I received a phone call that I had won an all-expenses-paid trip to the Bahamas. All I needed to do was p…