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Q&A #2: Wave a Magic Wand...

Q: If someone could wave a magic wand and give you three skills you don't currently have, what would these be? And why these three?
--energeia5

At first, when I thought about this question, I was trying to figure out which skills I'd want to instantly learn. But then I started thinking about the question itself: Why do people answer questions like this--about wishing for something to magically happen--the way they do?

Thinking about the could-have-been and might-be of the world is an essentially human thing, isn't it? When my cat sits on the windowsill, watching the world go by, I doubt she's thinking about the bird she might see tomorrow, or the rain that might be falling if it weren't sunny. I, on the other hand, live almost entirely in the possibilities of the world. In fact, I've been exhorted by therapists many times that I should "live in the moment" more if I want to lower anxiety levels. I've never really been able to do that particularly effectively, though--only when I'm engaged in a special interest do I ever enter the momentary enjoyment state of mind that my cat seems to access so easily.

When people wish for things, they usually wish for one of four basic things:
1. They wish for things that will make other people happier. The classic wish for world peace, for example. (Also, the classic cop-out, because who can deny that peace would be a good thing, provided it comes with harmony rather than oppression?)
2. They wish for things that will make their enemies more unhappy. This isn't a socially acceptable wish, but it sure does come up an awful lot. Most people don't admit it, but they've probably wished that somebody could be taken down a peg, or lose an undeserved privilege, or suffer some misfortune that seems like poetic justice to the wisher.
3. They wish for things to make their own lives better. Here's another classic wish: A million dollars. Or, immortality. Either one. Oddly enough, in all the stories, these wishes seem to backfire. Maybe it's because we tend to believe that people ought to earn their happiness, rather than having it given to them by a genie?
4. They wish for the bad things in their lives to vanish. Resurrection of a loved one is common--though, of course, just like the wish for immortality, in the stories it always backfires. Yeah, you can have Grandma back; just expect her to be a little more hungry for brains than she used to be! 

Wishes and daydreams have a lot in common. People like to think about what might be. I think it must be that we need to spend a lot of time exercising our ability to plan and think about the future. Daydreams and wishes, even really unrealistic ones, let us run simulated scenarios and think about the cause-and-effect, so that when we really make decisions, we might be able to make better ones. And, in that respect, daydreaming is a good thing (though, if done in class, still lowers your grades.)

One of my daydreams, a recurrent one, is of suddenly gaining the power to magically absorb all the information in any book I touch. I imagine myself going to the library and softly running my fingers across the spines of the books, reading each one in an instant and gaining knowledge at an astounding rate. Anything written becomes accessible to me if I can only touch the book that holds the information.

Why this daydream? Well, I love learning. I love thinking and connecting new things to old ideas. And there just isn't enough time in the day to learn everything I want to learn. The knowledge of the world is increasing faster than I can take it in; and I know I can never learn everything there is to know. Every time I choose to read one book, I have to reject a hundred others. That makes me just a little sad.

Which skills would I wish for, then? Assuming that magical abilities aren't in the running--only everyday skills--I think I'd have to say...

1. I want to know how to make people feel better. This is one of those pro-social, world-peace wishes; but it's a skill I really do want to learn. With poor social skills and a tendency toward bluntness, when I see a person in distress I often just tend to try to solve their problem, whatever it is. But people--neurotypicals, especially--seem to want in many cases to have a person comfort them with words and gestures. That's a skill I'm just not very good at. I may be able to say "I'm sorry", or "I hope things get better," or, "That really sucks'; and it's easier in writing when I can think about the connotations; but... it's still very shaky. If I knew how the NTs figured out the right things to say and do, maybe I might be able to be more effective at it. These days, my best bet seems to be to come straight out and ask if there's something I can do to make them feel better. It might be blunt and to the point, but I've never had it taken as offensive.

2. I want to learn how to get myself to do things when they need to be done. I'm horribly disorganized; and yet, in order to think and learn properly, I need order. On top of that, switching from one thing to another is horrendously difficult for me. On the other hand, there are plus sides to both traits: Because my brain naturally thrives on order, I'm very, very good at organizing things and ideas. It makes me great at statistics, and I can manage a database or spreadsheet like nobody's business. When I get done putting a room in order, it's in order. Even the task-switching problems have their upside: When I get in the groove, I shut the world out, hyperfocus, and do my best work. Getting "stuck", mentally, may be a bad thing; but when I focus on something, the results can be amazing.

So, rather than getting rid of my need for order and inability to switch, what I want to do is find out how to use those traits to my benefit. I'm learning a bit of this already: Because I can plan ahead of time (I can't plan in the moment, but ahead of time I have superior planning ability), I use lots of lists, reminders, calendars, etc. as well as a phone that has reminders on it. I take stimulant medication, which makes it a little easier to organize. My computer is programmed to remind me to do things. Even my cat has been taught that it's a good thing to nudge your owner out of bed in the morning (which he does with an acceptable 90% accuracy rate). I'm learning, slowly. But it's such a difficult process. If I could magically finish learning how to get things done whenever I wanted to do them, I'd jump on the opportunity!

3. I want to learn how to do math, error-free and efficiently. Ah, math... What, you thought that because I'm an aspiring scientist, I must automatically be wonderful at math? Not so! In fact, as a very small child, I was behind in math until the fourth grade. In the third grade, I tested into first-grade math, though I caught up fairly quickly once I realized you could mentally count on your fingers. I didn't memorize the multiplication tables until high school; and it wasn't until I got to algebra that I realized that math wasn't all memorization and procedures--that algebra was all about logic. And logic is something I'm good at. I understood multiplication fully once I realized it was a special case of "xy" and associated it with the sides of a rectangle. Then it made sense. Factors became the side-lengths of all the possible rectangles with the same area. And then I realized you could extend the idea into three dimensions, and four, and five...

But I'm still really very inaccurate at math. I make stupid mistakes, constantly. I lose track, have to go back to the beginning, have to do the problem twice to make sure I've got it right. I've lost points on tests for errors as simple as "1+1=1" (don't ask me how I managed that one). I take twice as long as anyone else to take math-based tests. When I get done, if I know the material, I pass the test just like any of my classmates might--but it's still a struggle. Being naturally bad at something you enjoy can be a real annoyance; and getting all the way to differential equations and past that has been something that took a lot of work and a lot of effort. So, if I had my way about it, I'd wish for my skill with math to increase to match my natural love of logic and problem-solving.

Well, there you go--three wishes, and the genie's back in the lamp.

But, somehow, I'm secretly glad that you can't wave a magic wand and learn how to do things without having to spend the effort. After all, this brain of mine--this socially awkward, disorganized, not-so-mathematical brain--is the one I've lived with all my life. My deficits are just as much a part of me as my abilities; and there are many things that are more important than having some useful skill. Being yourself is one of those things.

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Comments

I would agree about maths too. I can do mental arithmetic and stuff like that but I am horrifyingly slow that it is almost embarassing substracting my score when I am playing darts at a pub . I am much faster when it is written down, not super fast but normal fast .
also I can only do the small multiplication tables (up to 11) mentally by heart, and the squares up to 20 but apart from easy singled out ones,(such as 8*12 which is the same as 6*16) multiplication (between 12 and 19) I have to actually calculate them . (I use some that I know as step points or I do it all from scratch)

Also when I was learning maths in primary school in year 1 I had no concept of subtracting at first and only with the effort of my parents and the scheme'taking away' I figured it out although even now I am faster in addition and multiplication than I am in subtraction and division. Another thing that I had problems in was (and which i am still not terribly good at) was going over the tens or hundreds as it I have no problem with 5+5 or 15+4 or 1956 + 34 but rather with 5+8 , 16+7 or 154 + 76 .
Anyway that is all mental arithmetic, I am better at written arithmetic because I can see the numbers and don't forget my calculation half way either xD)

the only thing from which I turn crap at maths later on is vectors and analysis . I like equations with lots of brackets and quadratic equation but I was never good at doing any vector calculations, I go integrals from imagining the mass under a curve but I am worse at differentials lol.