Just Say No to E + R = O

School starts for my two high schoolers in a week. Today was pick-up-the-schedule day, and I was required to be there with them for various little administrative tasks. It all went well except for one thing: “E + R = O.”

“E + R = O” is a motivational concept developed by Jack Canfield, the guy who came up with the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” books. The kids’ school introduced it as some guiding concept of their own a year ago and, from the looks of things, it’ll be back for the 2019-20 school year.Why is a public high school in Ohio running with some motivational speaker’s schtick? Probably because it was very prominently adopted by former Ohio State University football coach Urban Meyer, who made it part of his motivational schtick several years ago.

Meyer put it in his leadership book and won a ton of football games and a national championship while giving voice to the concept. If you’re from central Ohio and understand just how insane people here are about Buckeye football, it’s not hard to imagine how such a thing might be picked up by school administrators who want to associate themselves with success. I mean, there may be a lot of smart educational ideas floating around out there, but how many of them were used to go 7-0 against Michigan? ​Yeah, I thought so.

So what is E + R = O?

The letters stand for “Events + Response = Outcomes.” Here’s a short version of the idea, as put by Canfield:

If unlimited success is your goal, looking outside of yourself is a strategic error. The most important lesson you must understand that you are 100 percent responsible for your life – the good and the bad . . . The basic idea is that every outcome you experience in life (whether it’s success or failure, wealth or poverty, wellness or illness, intimacy or estrangement, joy or frustration) is the result of how you have responded to an earlier event in your life. Likewise, if you want to change the results you get in the future, you must change how you respond to events in your life … starting today.

Meyer has his own spin on it, but it’s basically the same thing:

You can’t control the Es of life—the Events you encounter. And you don’t have direct control over the Os—the Outcomes. The only thing you do have total control over is the Rs—your Responses to the Events you encounter.

Successful people focus on the R part of the equation while unsuccessful people tend to focus too much on the E part.

​Once you understand that, the next step is to make sure you’re Responding to Events in a way that leads to a positive Outcome

Meyer’s version goes on to set forth six mental techniques to make sure your Responses to Events help you achieve optimal Outcomes. Things like “press pause” to give yourself time to think about how you react and “get your mind right” to focus on positive things rather than negative things. Taken together, these techniques are called “The R Factor.” The idea is to use “The R Factor” to “Own your R,” or your Response, and thereby achieve good Outcomes when confronted by life’s Events.

My kids’ school’s version of this is basically identical to Meyer’s. There’s lots of talk about the R-Factor and “Owning your R.” They had a months-long program about it last year, complete with video seminars and rallies and stuff. They hand out the wristbands shown above to kids who want ’em. They even had a damn logo.

Given the misuse of the word “everyday” on it, it’s pretty clear that this is 100% a function of school administrators and that the English teachers were not consulted.

Maybe more than just the English teachers should’ve been consulted, actually, because if they were, maybe someone would’ve pointed out how fucked up all of this really is.

It’s fucked up because E + R = O is not just a means of supplying kids with problem-solving tools. As is made plain by Canfield and Meyer, with it comes an inherent promise — you will be successful if you do this — that cannot possibly be kept, it completely discounts the nature of the “Events” people face in the real world, and it demands that we ignore the advantages and disadvantages some people have to begin with, which changes the nature of the Events they face. Some people will fail in life, at least temporarily, no matter how much they “Own Their R.” Others will succeed, no matter what, even if they do very little.

That’s because not all “Events” are created equally. Nor, despite what we are so often told to believe, are all people. At least in terms of means and privilege.

In the real world, some kids wake up in the morning with no food to eat or go to bed at night having suffered abuse at the hands of those who are supposed to care for them. In the real world the deck is stacked in favor of the wealthy, white people, straight people and men while it is stacked against the poor, people of color, LGBTQ+ people and women. In the real world people get sick or suffer from chronic diseases. In the real world people suffer from mental illness. There’s a lot of bad shit out there wrapped up in that “E.”

People like Canfield and Meyer, however, would have us discount all of that. “You are 100% responsible for your life,” says Canfield. “Unsuccessful people focus too much on the E part,” says Meyer. I’m struggling to think of how anyone other than someone who has not had to deal with much in the way of adversity — or someone who has far more non-self-motivational tools at their disposal to deal with it such as money, power or privilege — could discount the potential power and magnitude of adversity so cavalierly.

Which, in some ways, makes it understandable why my kids’ school so readily took up the E + R = O concept.

​New Albany is a wealthy community. While not everyone here is rich, there is much more money here than in almost any town or any school district in the state. Everyone is fighting a battle outsiders know nothing about, but it’s also the case that most people in New Albany have much greater resources to fight those battles. Poverty or economic insecurity is not a concern for the vast majority of kids here. Neither is crime. It’s an overwhelmingly white place too, so most of the kids at my kids’ school have never and will never have to deal with discrimination or bigotry the way many kids do.

In light of all of that it’s probably true that, in a great many cases here, some simple positive thinking and R-owning will result in a great many positive Outcomes. But that’s because almost any techniques — be it “getting one’s mind right” or “calling Daddy for help” — is going to result in a great many positive Outcomes for kids in New Albany. The deck is stacked in favor of most of them and most of them are going to be dealt a better hand regardless.

That state of affairs underscores just how pernicious E + R = O is as a philosophy. It  demands that people forget external inputs such as basic inequality and biased institutions and credit themselves with all outcomes. When the idea is applied to a group of people who are inherently privileged, it serves primarily to reinforce that privilege by having its practitioners believe that they, and nothing else, are responsible for their success. It demands that they forget that they were born on third base while giving them permission to celebrate hitting a triple. Meanwhile, it demands that they look at those who are not so privileged — those who may be crushed by a wave of Events far bigger than most New Albany kids will ever know — and blame them for their failure to achieve good Outcomes.  Studies have also shown that constantly telling disadvantaged kids that society is inherently fair can be harmful.

No, I don’t think that’s what New Albany school administrators had in mind when they adopted E + R = O. I don’t think they rolled it out as an explicit means of reinforcing the plutocracy or whatever. To the contrary, I suspect that aspect of it wasn’t dwelled on much if at all and, instead, the idea’s proponents focused on the “R Factor” stuff which, boiled down to its essence, is some pretty straightforward power of positive thinking stuff.

And I’m sympathetic to that.

There are better and worse ways to respond to life’s challenges. It’s true that it’s better to be positive rather than negative if possible. It’s true that it’s best to find constructive ways to address adversity if we can. I want my kids to be good problem-solvers and I want them to face adversity with as much rationality, determination and positivity as they can muster. I’ve spent their whole lives trying as best I can to instill those ideas in them and if the school wants to help me with that, I’m happy for them to do it.

But it’s possible to do that without going all-in with a toxic, prepackaged and celebrity-endorsed philosophy like E + R = O. A philosophy that casts anyone who falls short of their goals as a failure and blames them for that failure when, often, they are not to blame, and credits anyone who has achieved success as responsible for and worthy of that success even when, often, they did nothing but be born to achieve it.

And I’d say that even if Urban Meyer wasn’t suspended and then forced into an early retirement because he refused to Own his R in the face of a big E that happened with one of his employees about a year ago. God, screw that guy.

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the author of the daily baseball (and other things) newsletter, Cup of Coffee. He writes about other things at Craigcalcaterra.com. He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.