All My Cat Needed to Know He Learned at Harvard

“All I really needed to know, I learned from my cat.” “All I really needed to know, I learned in Kindergarten.” “All I really needed to know, I learned from my hamster.” Share. Play well with others. Take naps in the sun. Put things back where you found them. Advice like this sells millions of books.

 

But advice like that only gets you so far. I need more. I need a new book with more sophisticated insights. I’ve gone beyond the wisdom contained in these Kindergarten / Cat / Hamster books. I understand that it’s good to share, not because I read the book, but because I’m not a mean person. And I actually discovered the value of naps on my own, through trial and error.  

Frankly, I’m disappointed. When I got to college, I became more disappointed. I took classes in Political Science and Economics, and so I read expensive textbooks full of long chapters with conclusions such as: “people buy less of something when the price increases” (the Law of Demand) or “the rich and well-connected have a disproportionate influence on American politics” (Classical Elite Theory). 

 

I didn’t know any better back then – to just get up and leave – so instead I sat there taking notes with an intelligent frown on my face, finding layers of unintended meaning in phrases such as “people tend to vote for the candidate they like better” or “the more likeable candidate usually wins.” The really good professors could talk for hours about a sentence like this: “Yes, that’s fine, but what do we really mean by likeable? Are we assuming a Utilitarian framework, or should we assert such subjective criteria in a Rawlsian world? If so, how do we operationalize subjective concepts such as ‘win’? Class, next week, we’ll begin to deconstruct a working definition of ‘people,’ so please read that chapter.”

In graduate school, I studied complex theories of international relations; one theory was actually called “Complex Interdependence Theory,” purporting to be so complex it needed the very adjective in its title, just as a warning. I think more academic subjects ought to have descriptive adjectives in their titles, so students really know what they’re getting into: “Abstract and Paradoxical General Physics;” “Dense and Confusing Organic Chemistry;” “Highly Irrelevant Latin.” When I learned what Complex Interdependence Theory really was, I was disappointed yet again. It wasn’t so complex after all. In fact it was just like Classical Elite Theory – breathtakingly obvious, once you removed the layers of academic bureaucratese. The theory was created by two professors from Harvard and Princeton, and it suggests that countries that trade with each other are less likely to go to war with each other. Stated another way in case you don’t grasp the concept: countries like the United States and Canada are less likely to attack each other because doing so would be bad for their economies.

 

I think we need more social scientific theories declaring the obvious, so let me suggest a few: “Standard Population Diffusion Theory” – this suggests that when there is a crowd of people, people will tend to move towards less crowded areas. “Classical Expense Theory” suggests that consumers will generally spend more money when they have more money to spend. Thanks to “Consumer Preference Analysis,” we now know that people tend to purchase goods that they like, while avoiding items that they dislike.

 

Universities have gotten very good at complexity, and simple common sense is getting lost amidst the abstract dissertations and esoteric lectures. We have an avalanche of dense and multilayered knowledge with pages of footnotes, while actual wisdom is becoming quite rare. Perhaps this is why simple books that deal in simple truths are so popular; they satisfy something that has been otherwise missing – they provide wisdom, not just information. And they use smaller words. “All I Need to Know I Learned From My Cat” does not purport to advance the frontiers of theoretical knowledge, but it does unabashedly proclaim to offer practical advice on living your life – something that is painfully lacking in the modern university, with a few notable exceptions.

 

A new class at Harvard University entitled “Positive Psychology” provides students with nuts and bolts suggestions on how to be a happier person. Not surprisingly, it is the most popular course on campus. Now, you don’t need advice from your cat – you can actually get it in college. But “All I Really Needed to Know I Learned at Harvard” doesn’t sound quite so egalitarian. It was fairer when all you needed was a cat. We now have Harvard professors competing with cats in the advice department. And so the question begs itself: who has the better advice? The answer is not as obvious as you might think; the Harvard Professor actually manages to hold his own when stacked up against the cat.

 

Let’s look at the advice we’re getting from each camp.

 

Tovia Smith, of National Public Radio, outlines the key points of the “Positive Psychology” course taught by Harvard University Professor Tal Ben-Shahar:

 

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5295168

 

1. Give yourself permission to be human.

 

2. Happiness lies at the intersection between pleasure and meaning.

 

3. Keep in mind that happiness is mostly dependent on our state of mind, not on our status or the state of our bank account.

 

4. Simplify!

 

5. Remember the mind-body connection.

 

6. Express gratitude, whenever possible.

 

That’s pretty good. I was kind of hoping for another long-winded declaration of the obvious, so I could just dismiss academia once and for all. But that’s not what we’re getting from this class. The ideas are surprisingly fresh and real.

 

Now let’s look at the advice we’re getting from the cat. Here are some excerpts from Suzy Becker’s book, “All I Need to Know I Learned From My Cat:” (Workman, 1990)

 

http://www.workman.com/products/9780761147664/

 

“Know all the sunny places.”

 

“Get mad when you’re stepped on.”

 

“Take some time to eat the flowers.”

 

“Be tolerant-but not overly accommodating.”

 

“Make your own hours.”

 

“Scratch when it itches.”

 

“Depend on others without losing your independence.”

 

“Avoid company you do not like.”

 

“Be good at hellos.”

 

“Don’t drag out goodbyes.”

 

“Don’t think too far beyond your next meal.”

 

“Celebrate the days you can open the windows.”

 

“First one in has to warm up the bed.”

 

That’s just a sample. The cat has ninety lessons like this, throughout the course of the book. What strikes me first is that the cat has a lot more to say than the Harvard professor. The Harvard professor summarized his entire course with six short bullet points, while the cat goes on for ninety pages, with a new edition including forty eight additional pages of advice. I never thought this would be the case, but the cat is more verbose than the professor. But in all fairness, I doubt that the entire book was actually written by the cat. The cat owner, Suzy Becker, gives credit to her Holstein Cat Binky for these insights, but I think we all know that Binky probably only wrote about half of the book, if that.

 

The Harvard professor tells us first that we should “give ourselves permission to be human.” Binky the cat never mentions this, as far as I can tell. Binky might have said, “Give yourself permission to be cat,” but that wouldn’t have resonated with most people. The cat tells us that we should “Know all the sunny places,” and “Get mad when we’re stepped on,” while the Harvard professor suggests that “Happiness lies at the intersection between pleasure and meaning.” Sunny places are good, and being stepped on is definitely bad, so the cat is clearly on to something, but the Harvard professor is now telling us the very location of happiness. Where is it? “It lies at the intersection between pleasure and meaning.” Nice. Binky never tells the reader where happiness lies. But Binky definitely points the reader in the right direction with “Take some time to eat the flowers,” and “Celebrate the days you can open the windows.” I like that. I always celebrate when my cat opens the window. And while the Harvard professor has nothing to say about eating flowers, he does tell us to “express gratitude, whenever possible,” and I assume that would include all the moments in our lives when we’re not being stepped on.

 

So, who has the better advice? Who should we listen to? Actually, they both have a lot of good things to say. They just say them in different ways, being of different species and education levels. The down-home common sense of Binky the cat is just as prescient as the well-researched and thoroughly foot-noted lectures of the professor. What is remarkable is that the university is no longer just imparting knowledge to its students; it has entered the new and controversial field of common sense. And in this field, academia is quite the freshman. But at least Harvard can now match wits with a cat. And that is quite remarkable. And for that, we should express gratitude, because gratitude is good for happiness, according to Harvard University.

 

Of course, many people are not grateful for this. Many people are still very unhappy. And some would argue, with a very ungrateful expression on their face, that universities shouldn’t teach such “fluffy” things like “Simplify!” and “Express Gratitude!” “That’s so obvious! So basic! It’s common sense – it has no place in a university.” Students should be studying serious subjects like Economics, where they learn more sophisticated concepts like: “People buy more of something when the price decreases.”

 

We do need college level Economics courses to tell us why we buy more of something when the price decreases. But we also need a forward thinking Harvard Professor and one very wise cat to tell us how to be grateful when buying much, much less.

 

Carl McCoy, copyright 2011

In the Bah-Humbug of Christmas Present, Would Tiny Tim Get Scrooged?

Would Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" be published today, or would it be considered overly sentimental and naive in an age of dystopian vampire fiction? 

 

View this essay at csmonitor.com

Slide and the Family Bone

 

My first musical instrument was the trombone.  My trombone studies began in the fifth grade, at an age when I didn’t really understand the larger significance of most things as they were happening to me.  I was just kind of there, amused and confused, and mostly floating along for the ride.  If you see me in pictures taken from this time, I’m this blurry object of blond hair and motion, always careening around something or bouncing off of another thing.  In those pictures I was usually smiling with an evil grin that suggested trouble, excitement, and total bedlam fully integrated into one being.  At that age, life was a playful ride of constant energy, soccer, GI Joe action figures and video games.  Lots of video games.  Video games were more important than people.  I was gliding along on a wide-eyed fifth grade video game of life where everything was fun and interesting and surely would last forever.

 

At that age, I didn’t know how powerful music could be, or what an important role it would eventually play in my life.  I didn’t know much about loss or emptiness, or why people might really need music on a level that I couldn’t yet understand.  I hadn’t been through any major break-ups yet; the one failed relationship I had in the fourth grade involved a two minute dispute over a soccer ball, and I had put that behind me.  Feelings of great emotional depth were yet to come.  At the moment, there was only joyful chaos.  And I was completely whole, with my video games and my soccer ball and my total frenzied state of motion.  It was in this state of perpetual motion that I began my first relationship with a musical instrument.  I didn’t really know why I was learning to play the trombone.  It happened by accident; there was no great motivation behind it.  I supposed that it was a cool thing to do, and I enjoyed carrying that big case around with me after school; it made me feel important and dignified in a way that video games couldn’t.  I carried the case with a certain gravity and importance beyond my years.  Perhaps, on some intuitive level, I knew I was holding in my hands a kind of messenger from another world.  It was the world of music, and this world would become a very important one for me in later years.  But not yet.

 

One day the elementary school music teacher came into the classroom and made a sales pitch, trying to recruit us students into the fifth grade symphonic band.  His sales pitch consisted of playing the different instruments before our impressionable fifth grade eyes and ears, illustrating their abilities as we looked on with curiosity.  The trombone had a very cool glissando sound that sounded kind of like a horse, and that was appealing, but the instrument that really captured me was the trumpet.  I enjoyed its regal sound, and I liked the fact that it only had three buttons, which in my mind meant that it was easy to play.  Probably there were only three notes.  Anybody could do that.  I routinely played video games that demanded mastery of at least five or six buttons.  Three buttons was nothing.  I decided to play the trumpet.

 

But destiny intervened, and it was not to be.  The music teacher informed me that my mouth was not well suited to the trumpet, and suggested that I play the trombone instead.  “People with fat lips like yours shouldn’t go near the trumpet.  You could damage the instrument.  You have a dangerous mouth, kid – the lips of a horse.  You should play the trombone.”

 

And so because of my large horse lips, I would play the trombone throughout middle school and well into high school, before I stopped.  It accompanied me through the prime of my adolescence, but it was never my true instrument.  We would have some good times together in the eighth grade, but I didn’t give it enough attention, and I never truly appreciated its potential.  I resented its horse-like glissando sounds, and the fact that I was creating that sound with my giant lips and my increasingly long arms and legs.  It was also not a very melodic or gentle instrument.  I envied the guitar and the piano, which always played the melody.  People would gather around the piano at Christmas time and sing “Silent Night.”  Nobody ever gathered around the trombone and sang along to the horn version of “Silent Night.”  And it wasn’t sexy either.  The trombone had something called a “spit valve.”  There was nothing you could do about this; it was part of the instrument’s nature, and you just had to accept it.  But there was no spitting involved with the piano or the guitar, and I resented that too.  You always had to empty the spit valve onto the floor, after you’d been playing for a while.  The spit would accumulate inside the instrument and it had to go somewhere.  So I would open the valve, and blow the spit all over the floor, using the power of my abundant horse lips to propel the spit out into the world.  Invariably, while emptying my spit, one of the middle school girls that I liked would glance in my direction, just as the spit landed on my shoe.

 

The guitar and the piano were sexy instruments.  And since this was the eighties, the saxophone still enjoyed a prominent role in the contemporary sexual landscape.  Rock stars played the guitar and sometimes the piano; they jumped off the piano and they smashed their guitars on the stage.  At the time, there were no rock stars smashing their trombones on the stage.  The closest thing I saw to a trombone rock star was a jazz master trombonist I went to see perform for extra credit in middle school.  This guy was one of the best trombone players in the world, but he wasn’t cool at all.  He was up there blowing spit around and working the slide while running through jazz tunes as if he were very cool, but I knew he wasn’t.  The audience was gushing all over him, cheering him on and giving him high fives while he created sounds that nobody had ever heard before.  He reached high notes that demonstrated the previously unknown whale-song potential of the instrument, and then proceeded to belch out extremely low and unattractive notes that actually smelled like farts.  It wasn’t cool.  At one point, he stuck his face into the bell of the trombone and played it backwards, and the audience just went nuts over this.  One particularly exuberant member of the audience leapt from his chair and shouted out: “Yes!” at the sight of the Jazz Master’s face entering the bell.  I just thought it was weird, like sticking your face up somebody’s ass just because you could.  I don’t know how he was able to play the instrument backwards, with his lips in the bell, but he did it.  He had those freakishly big horse lips just like me.  Destructively powerful lips perfectly suited to the trombone.  I hated those lips.

 

One day, not so long before I quit the instrument I was asked by the high school music teacher to join in the Memorial Day Marching Band.  We trombone players would march in the front, since we were all tall, growing boys with long arms and big lips filled with spit and we obviously needed a lot of space to maneuver ourselves and the trombone slide.  We were dangerous.  If anyone got in front of us, we would kill them.  So we took up our positions in the front row, and we marched.  That year, the music teacher, herself a trombone player, decided that our marching band uniforms would be jeans, orange tie-dyed tee-shirts and sunglasses, which in my mind was a perfect metaphor for our desperate attempt to appear cool.  But once again, we weren’t cool.  There we were, holding our trombones up high, spit flying all over the street, with our sunglasses and big sneakers and awkward arms and giant lips.  The music teacher would blow her whistle, and the drummer would strike up a cadence, and there was lots of noise and shuffling of giant feet and emptying of spit valves and then we were on some kind of mad warpath.  It must have been terrifying for people walking down the street in our path that Memorial Day.  They would hear the whistle, the drumbeat, and then they would turn and see this oncoming rush of high school boys with their wild arms and big feet and trombone slides and weird farting horn sounds approaching with sunglasses, spit and tie-dyed tee shirts.  This is how we pay our respects on Memorial Day in this town.  Spit, sunglasses and fart noises.  Delightful.

 

The worst part of it was that I wasn’t even marching on the beat.  So not only was it awkward and un-cool to be in this tie-dyed, salivating marching band, but it was also really difficult.  I tried to keep in step, to march to the beat, but it’s not so easy when you’re in the tenth grade and your body is still growing faster than the rhythmic section of your brain and it’s hard enough to walk down the street on a clear day without collapsing on yourself.  I didn’t fall down that day, and I didn’t spit on anyone, but I never marched in step.  And apparently, I was the only guy who had trouble with this, because there was a picture of our awkwardly messy marching band on the cover of the local paper, and one of our overly zealous and musically inclined neighbors had been kind enough to cut out this picture and circle my foot and point to it with a big red arrow, to illustrate how wrong I was.  “This boy can’t march to the beat!  Look at his foot!  You can’t miss it in those giant Nike high-top sneakers!  Do you see how his foot is in the wrong direction?  His giant foot is doing exactly the opposite thing as everybody else’s normal feet.  Their feet are right but his foot is wrong!  People: this is exactly what not to do with your foot when you are marching!”  And then the music teacher posted it on the wall of our rehearsal room so my foot would be an example to all the other feet.

 

By the end of my sophomore year of high school, I knew that my days with the trombone were numbered.  I didn’t have the time to invest in the relationship anymore, and I wanted things that the trombone couldn’t give me.  My emotions were changing from the loud, boisterous frenzied excitement of childhood and early adolescence to the more pensive, thoughtful and often confused feelings of the later teenaged years.  The trombone couldn’t support these emotions, as far as I could tell.  There was hardly anything soft or pensive about this awkward, brassy, spit-filled horse of an instrument.  I needed more.  I knew it was time to end the relationship, I just didn’t know how or when to do it.  For better or worse, the trombone was a part of my adolescence, and I wasn’t ready to say goodbye.  How would I know when it was time to let go?  The answer to that question presented itself in a particular gruesome and biting way, one afternoon when I decided to play the trombone before an audience of our two golden retrievers.

 

Anybody who has ever met a golden retriever knows that they have an indefatigable good nature.  They’re probably the nicest creatures on the planet.  They approach every living thing as a potential friend and every new experience with joy and enthusiasm.  And so their reaction was quite remarkable on the day when I first played my trombone for them.  They were in the other room smiling and resting when I decided to introduce them to the sounds of a real live brass horn.  Surely they would appreciate the sweet melodies; after all, music is the universal language, and certainly dogs could understand the universal language.  This would be a big moment for the three of us in terms of communication and mutual understanding between the species.  At last, I would speak to my dogs in a language that didn’t require words.  I was very excited.

 

I removed the trombone from the case, put it together, and sorted through my music.  I chose a piece with my audience in my mind.  It would be a tune that my dogs would enjoy - something good natured and spirited.  What a nice gesture!  In a stroke of brilliance, I settled on the opening sequence to Superman.  This was the perfect melody for dogs - it was bright, declarative, and dignified.  Images of my dogs flying through the air with red capes immediately came to my mind.  I would unleash their inner superpowers with my transformative playing.  We would all fly through the sky together, basking in the universal language of music.  They would really love this offering from mankind.  What a great friend of the dog I was!

 

I placed the instrument on my shoulder and took a deep breath with proper chest support, so that I would create a bellowing and lush sound to fill the halls of our house.  My lungs expelled the air forcefully and my giant horse lips came to life, happy to once again breathe life into this great brass horn of power and spit.  I played that opening sequence to Superman with all the gusto and bravado I could muster with my giant lips and massive teenaged lungs.  The notes rang through the air with great power and triumph.  It was awesome.

 

Within seconds, the door to my room flung open violently and my dogs burst onto the scene in what can only be described as a state of complete unbridled dog panic.  They had a wild look in their eyes and they were shaking and pawing and clawing and salivating at the mouth.  It was madness.  In the midst of the chaos and excitement, Max, the larger alpha dog, somehow managed to stick his face into the bell of the trombone just like that great jazz master had done a few years back in front of the adoring audience.  Only Max wasn’t trying to play the trombone; he was trying to kill the trombone.

 

It was immediately obvious to me that my dogs didn’t like my playing at all.  And before I could play another note, they had peed on the rug and fled the room, running wildly to the opposite end of the house, still yelping and muttering from a distance.  It was not the harmonious and ground-breaking reception that I had hoped for.  Clearly, something has gone dreadfully wrong with your performance when your audience urinates and flees the scene.

 

That day marked the end of my trombone playing career.  I knew it was time to end it, but now there were more immediate concerns, such as maintaining my dogs’ sanity.  They simply wouldn’t allow any more spontaneous concerts, and that made it difficult for me to practice.  Even worse, I feared for my trombone’s life, so I kept it safely tucked away in its case, in my closet, far away from the mad clutches of a lunging golden retriever.  A few years later, a new instrument would enter my life; the piano.  It was soft, understated, and debonair.  It made no mess, and it offended no one.  My dogs even liked the sound of its voice.  Where the trombone was once awkward and unruly, the piano was now smooth and genteel.  It would be my new instrument, and it would accompany me into my adult life.  An instrument that could support nuance and melancholy, it spoke to me during my twenties as it does now in my thirties.  It is a beautiful instrument, possessing subtlety, maturity, and deep expressiveness.

 

But I must admit, as I’ve grown more confident, more mature and less clumsy with age, I sometimes miss the old horse of an instrument.  What would it think of me now, so grown up, and so calm?  I know someday I’ll take it out of the closet, and I’ll put the old horse back on my shoulder and we’ll take a ride together, just like we used to.  My lips will come alive, and the bell will ring out its familiar tune.  There might even be some spit flying.  But I wonder if together we’ll ever be so awkward, so clumsy, so filled with unbridled energy and sweet chaos ever again.

 

Carl McCoy, copyright 2010

An Essay on Doing What You Love

Below is a link to an essay of mine that appeared in the Wall Street Journal as an Op-Ed piece in May of 2013. The title that was chosen by the WSJ was unfortunately blunt and didn't reflect what I believe was a more nuanced message in the actual essay. Even so, I wrote this piece 5 years ago, when I was feeling a bit more pessimistic about life, and since then, my thinking on this topic has changed considerably. I would never have written this essay today. With a little more perspective and life experience, I absolutely believe that we owe it to ourselves to follow our passions and "do what we love." Steve Jobs was right, as he said in his famous Stanford commencement speech in 2005: "And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become." I didn't know it then, but I really know it now - he's right. 

View this essay at wsj.com