The pitfalls of ‘magical thinking’


“You do not receive an education any more than you receive a meal. You have to seek it, order it or prepare it, and assimilate and digest it for yourself.” —Frank H.T. Rhodes, President Emeritus, Cornell University

I’ll never forget walking down Dorrance Street in Providence, R.I., with my sister 35 years ago, on the day I realized that paying money to an institution for a self-improvement course does not automatically improve you as a person.

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Lise and I had signed up for a famous speed-reading program and were excited just thinking about the transformation we were about to undergo in just a few weeks. We understood the bargain we had entered into to be as follows: We had contributed a hefty chunk of change to the coffers of this company. Therefore, this company’s duty was to see to it that our reading speed increased fivefold within the promised time.

How the company got that done was of no concern to us. We had their name on a document and were holding them to the obligation to crank us out of their school with the skimming and comprehension abilities of John F. Kennedy. This was indeed (the way we saw it) their duty and sworn pledge. It was entirely their responsibility, because our part had been the monetary contribution. It was almost, though not quite, as if I were to sit at my desk in their classroom, cross my arms, and say to the teacher with a Clint Eastwood snare, “Go ahead. I dare you. Make me a reader.”

This naïve attitude—Lise and I came to realize walking back to the car after a few speed-reading sessions—is a form of what some call “magical thinking.” It places its faith in a scheme that five minutes’ sober reflection would reveal as illogical and fanciful. It overlooks the intermediate steps and the hard work necessary to achieve a goal, and embraces a fantasy. For the truth of the matter, as Lise and I discovered, is that at the end of the day, no matter how good the teacher, it is you who must do the learning. As the old saying goes, “They can lead you to water but they can’t make you drink.”

This delusionary notion that if I pay enough money—if I enroll myself in Weight Watchers, if I get my 5-year-old into the priciest kindergarten in the city, if I send my teenager to church every Sunday—success will crank out at the other end ex opera operato, is a view of life that the Providence speed reading course finally disabused me of. Only a fool draws a direct correlation between money spent and learning or self-improvement acquired. For all the fancy technology we have at our disposal, the invention has not yet been created that does the learning for us.

Andrée Seu Peterson
Andrée Seu Peterson

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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