The Interview Series Part 1 of 2: Dr. Kevin M. Cloninger

Dr. Kevin Cloninger is a Past-President of AATC (Denver 2017) and is the Executive Director of The Anthropedia Foundation. Dr. Cloninger was interviewed by Dr. Meg Jacobs, AATC Executive Council Member and Post-doctoral Research Fellow in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.

It was Tuesday morning in Auckland and Monday evening in St. Louis. I had just returned from my mailbox where I found a plain-faced letter from the New Zealand police. It was a speeding ticket; caught on camera while rushing between meetings a week or two before. I didn’t have time to give the ticket much thought because I was starting another meeting a few minutes later with Dr. Kevin Cloninger, the Executive Director and a Co-founder of the Anthropedia Foundation, and the 2017 President of AATC. I managed to schedule a Zoom meeting with Kevin after his return from a work trip to Greece. I’m lucky he had time. Anthropedia has a global reach. If Kevin’s not flying between St. Louis and New York or in San Francisco running initiatives for the Anthropedia Foundation, he’s on a plane to Sweden or France. Recently, universities in Italy and Portugal agreed to launch Anthropedia trainings. For some reason, this hectic schedule never seems to dim the wisdom Kevin brings to any conversation. After some small talk, I asked the first question. Almost immediately, Kevin’s response made me glance sheepishly into the camera, wishing our conversation was only audio-recorded.

Meg: What do you think about when you are driving in the car? Or do you drive?

Kevin:  Yeah, I do. I do actually. I mean depending on where I am, I do drive. These days I’ve been thinking about how much the general level of agitation and self-absorption, self-centeredness and just generally risky kind of environment that we’re living in is reflected in the way people drive.

I can think back I don’t know 10-15 years ago, and I just know that I was not cut off as many times as I am now. I didn’t see these crazy people going 90 miles an hour, pass me in really dangerous circumstances. You know, I live here in Saint Louis so there’s like three million people right now, so it’s like one selfish decision after another. Like in New York, you’ll see this a lot. One guy that just has to get there a little faster creates a traffic jam that goes 20 minutes behind us because he made that one little selfish choice.

I think that’s really a metaphor for me of the problems we have in the world right now. Is that all these really selfish, short-sighted, kind of lack of a global vision, a lack of a sense of being part of a community or a culture or a wider society always looking only you know, like two seconds in front of you. What’s going to make my life better for these next two or three seconds? Instead of thinking over the long term and over the long haul what’s best for my children and their children if I cut this guy off and I risk his life? What am I doing to that family, that community? I actually really reflect on that a lot when I drive (laughs at himself) and the other thing somebody once told me that you drive the way you are. You know a lot about your personality by seeing the way you drive and I’ve always used driving as a way of reflecting on my own life and where I’m at, like am I being patient? So I’m right on the guy in front of me a little more than I normally would be. So when I take that metaphor and I kind of extend it to everyone around me and I look at how reckless everybody’s being right now, I think it’s because we live in such troubled and challenging times between climate change, social inequity, these kinds of tensions. I think here we see it reflected in how everybody’s driving every day.

Meg: (I know I have to say something to Kevin about my own driving. It would be disingenuous not to). Yeah…I actually just went to my mailbox this morning and I found a speeding ticket.

Kevin: You found a what?

Meg: A speeding ticket.

Kevin: Oh, you got a speeding ticket in the mail. Really? (nervous laughter) Sorry. (Kevin doesn’t want me to feel ashamed, but I do.)

Meg: It wasn’t excessive, but on the day it happened and how rushed I was, all the things I had going and then for you to say that is pretty powerful for me.

Kevin: Well, you know, like one thing that drives me a little batty in the car – you’re taught when you learn how to drive that you only go left when you want to pass the person in front of you.

Well, not in New York, not in St. Louis, not in Chicago, not in Denver. You know, I mean nobody does it anymore. So most people are passing on the right now in those places that I’m in because there’s no order any more. Well, I sort of feel like that’s what’s going on in our political system. I feel like that’s what’s going on in our social system. I feel like that’s what’s going on in our environmental system. It’s that logic, right? It’s all me-me-me.

No future thinking, no regard or empathy for the people around us. I see that playing out in front of me on a global stage and that freaks me out a little bit. I end up driving super slow, much slower than I ever drove before.

Meg: I was in Jakarta last year. The traffic moves like water. There’s a rhythm. Lots of motorbikes and scooters. The honks are like “I’m here. I’m right behind you.” Like music almost, just to say “I’m really close.” You know, it’s kind of a courtesy. In New Zealand people generally don’t lay on their horns. That’s really poor form here, but compared to Auckland, just the amount of traffic was far more, but the way these guys stand out in the middle of the street at massive intersections sometimes barefoot and sometimes cars will give them a bit of change, but they are just making sure the traffic flows.

Kevin: Yeah, really incredible. I saw a video of traffic in Hanoi and they don’t have any stoplights anywhere or any sort of signs. So they just always move, sounds kind of like this.  It just moves and somehow works itself out. It’s like an example of a self-organizing system.

Meg: It’s a collective. You can’t be selfish like what you’re talking about.

Kevin: So it’s definitely what I think about it, it’s just how the self-importance of our society, you know, like, you know this concept of Earth Overshoot Day? So every year there’s a point at which we outstrip the amount of resources that the planet can provide us. And we go into the storage from the year before, you know, and if everyone lived like Americans live, we’d need five planets to support our consumption.

Meg: Didn’t we already overshoot this year?

Kevin: Yeah, and so every year it’s been moving back. And so I would say that it’s that mentality that got us into that extreme individualism.

Driving is actually a good metaphor because Saint Louis is a very segregated city so depending on which street you would drive down you would be able to observe that social stratification. We have like 10 long streets that cut across the entire city all the way out into the suburbs. They go all the way out. So you can take one of those streets and start in one of the poorest areas in Saint Louis and you can just follow that road and go through all those poor communities and you get to richer communities and you keep going, you know, you see the social stratification. I literally think about this stuff every time I drive. Driving is like a meditation for me on myself and on the world and I really do take it that way.

Meg: Speaking of meditation, how do you go about dealing with criticism? What advice do you have for other members in AATC such as junior scholars and graduate students?

Kevin: So the first thing I think of when I think of criticism is human personality. So I think probably nobody likes criticism, that I’m aware of, but some people deal with it better than others because of their personality. So, people that are very dependent on what others think of them or are really open to warm communication or in general that need some sort of social approbation or anything like that, I think those are the people that are most sensitive to criticism.

And I think people that are really low in that are the kind of people you would never want to ask a favor. They’re aloof and indifferent, they’re cold and seemingly distant and they don’t really care about you and I think those people do a lot better with criticism. I think the issue with teachers is most of us are in that first case where people that are really dependent on what other people think of us and on that sort of social approbation. So I think criticism in the field of education is particularly badly received. Actually, I think it’s an issue in our field as a whole because I think it actually stymies to some extent genuine conversation and improvement in the concepts and in the development of the concepts and the rigor of the study designs and all that. So I think that’s one issue. And so myself personally being in that same kind of category of someone who really is very open and very warm and very close and not at all distant, or aloof, or uncaring, I’ve always had issues with criticism for that reason. I’ve always been sensitive to criticism, but I’ve received a lot of it most of my life. I went to an all-boys private Catholic School growing up. So yeah, it was just constant ribbing and criticism and I mean all the teachers were terrible role models for teaching actually (laughs). Anyway, what I figured out how to do was – this is kind of a highfalutin answer but, as you know, I’m a big fan of ancient philosophy. The ancient Greeks, they made a distinction between different ways of knowing, different forms of epistemological levels, and so they talked about

knowing the world through your senses

knowing the world through reason and

knowing the world through intuition.

and I think that when we’re faced with criticism we need – there are metaphors that occur to me facing criticism: You either need an anchor to weather a storm or you need a buoy, or you need some way to fly above it. I think if you operate in that level of sensory understanding, empirical understanding and it’s all about you and your creation and it’s very personal to you, I don’t think there’s any anchor that’s ever going to help you. And I don’t think there’s any way to fly anywhere above it. Whereas if you can anchor what you do in solid reasoning, principles that are sound and necessarily came from things that came before – they always talk about standing on the shoulder shoulders of giants that preceded you and if you ever actually managed to articulate something really important it’s because all that knowledge has been developed long before you were ever there. Say you can stand on their shoulders and then you’re quite strong in that because you have all these principles underneath you and you’re just a mouthpiece. So I think that’s how you anchor yourself is it that you anchor yourself in history, you anchor yourself in the wisdom and the principles and the concepts of those who preceded you. Then if you get criticism you don’t care as much because you know how you got there and why you got there and so when someone criticizes you can respond

without taking it personally.

And then there’s the other way which I don’t think happens very often, but that’s that highest form of knowing. It’s that intuitive way. And that’s when you fly above it. It’s that you don’t really care what anybody else is saying because you’re so enraptured by what it is you’re exploring that they can talk all they want, you’re just happy and flying above it all. And so I use one of those two strategies to deal with criticism these days and that’s helped me a lot actually as a teacher because I think before I would think I’ve spent all this time on what I’ve done – my beautiful little piece of work and I walked out there I was so fragile and exposed and the littlest thing they would say, I would just crumble.  I can remember crying many days in the beginning of my teacher apprenticeship and then one day I figured out that I needed to be clear about what I was doing and why I was doing it. I needed to have sound reasoning as to why I was doing that and then when people would criticize me, I would just listen to them calmly and patiently. I didn’t like it, but who likes it? Right? And then I would respond and say “Well I appreciate your point of view, but here’s why I’m doing this and here’s why I’m teaching you this and here’s why I’m using this style. And it doesn’t bother me anymore because I’ve got that anchor and at my best, at my absolute best when I’m flying above it, I just don’t even pay any attention. That’s how I’ve learned to deal with it. I think that’s the best advice I can give is you’ve got to find an anchor or you’re going to find a parachute or find some way to fly.

Meg: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of ego in the academy and you’re really hitting on this idea that we have to resist that ego and remind ourselves that it’s not about us. It’s about contributing to the field and improving the well-being of others. Can you talk about a time you were able to fly above it?

Kevin: These days I’m spending a lot of time teaching health care professionals with this wellness coach training that we developed and I often have doctors who will do the training in groups of like 25 people. We might have three or four doctors and they are always the most critical people in the room because they’re just so knowledgeable most of the time because they’ve been through so much schooling over such long periods of time and they’re being held to such high ethical standards. You spend all this time alone preparing and then you walk into that room and it’s like, you know, you’ve got to get your shield up (Kevin gestures a pretty convincing shield at this point in the conversation) and put on that persona that’s going to help you face whatever’s coming. I’ve noticed that when I have people in the room like that, when I know that I’ve got five very smart doctors waiting to pounce on anything that I say wrong, any line of that course that’s not totally on track, they’re going to just pounce on it, they’re going to grandstand. I did the rounds at a local hospital recently and I was asked to give a speech to all of the doctors. I had to walk in knowing. I got my shield up. What’s the most important stuff in this course that I feel really passionate about or that I feel is like the essence or the most important thing that they need to know? I just held that in my mind as I walked in the room.

I was thinking of Duckworth who talked a lot about wonder and learning. When you’re in that higher flying kind of thing is when you can get other people in the room to wonder at the subject that you’re studying or reading or discussing or experiencing, whatever it is. And so that’s what I always try to do. Try to find what is the most transcendent thing that’s going to inspire people to feel wonder or excitement and I hold onto that and when the criticisms come, if they do, I’ll just kind of lean this way (Kevin physically leans sharply to one side). You let that come by and then go back to the wonder.

I gave a talk to the doctors at this hospital. What does it mean to live well in the 21st century? I started by showing all the statistics on burnout in the medical profession and it turns out that the mean burnout rate in the medical profession is 50 percent right now high-end 70 percent for people that are in emergency medicine and then low-end 30 percent. I knew that would both interest them and also maybe make them want to pounce. And so I knew that that was leading me towards my main point which was that if we’re going to live well in the 21st century, we have to think much bigger. Instead of materialism, we have to think about holism. The world isn’t just a material thing. It’s also a mental thing and probably a spiritual thing and a social thing. So in a moment like that, I would walk in knowing they’re going to attack me in this way and I’m going to hold onto holism and why that inspires me and I’m going to smile at them as they criticize me and hold onto my truth. There’s space. Yeah, and that’s how I handle it. That truth becomes my shield. But in fact, it’s not a shield anymore. It’s a buoy. You’ve suddenly – you’re far above them. I don’t know where they are anymore. I don’t know if that’s practical enough, but that’s how I do it.

I think that’s the way out of criticism. Because if you go focusing on the negative then it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, right? If you anticipate all the criticisms and that’s all you focus on then that’s all you’re going to see. Focus on what matters most, what’s important. What is it in what you’re saying or trying to communicate that matters? A lot of it doesn’t matter, there are just those little nuggets that do. I think if you can identify what those are and hang on to them, then you won’t be thinking about the criticism so you’ll be able to handle it. And you can accept the fact that not everybody is going to agree with you and who cares because it’s a big conversation.

To be continued….