Inspire yourself

In my PhD methods class, our professor asked us to pick something that inspired us -- it could be a song, a research article, a movie, a book chapter -- make a brief presentation on it and on how it inspired us in our work. Inspiration can come from unexpected sources and feed us in non-obvious ways. This assignment nudged us into coming out about what we found exciting and how we could use it as a touchstone in our research. Great things are always great, and no matter how they may differ in detail, there is something common in their essence. Now, what inspired my fellow students may not have inspired me, and vice versa. I  recall that someone brought in an academic paper and another brought in a book of haiku. What our professor had us do was look inside ourselves to find our own sources of mental and emotional support; scholarly work is seemingly endless and often tedious, so being able to boost yourself by calling forth your own inspirational touchstones can be life-saving and morale-boosting.

I submitted the following YouTube videos of two artists performing immaculate work. Watch them now, and I'll talk about what I found -- and still find -- inspiring about them.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Tm5Ikl1AXw&feature=BFa&list=PL1B723A83ACB43835

http://vimeo.com/31922652

Good golly, where do I start??

Let's start with the fact that I picked two performing artists -- not sports figures (don't like sports) nor writers (though I fancy myself of the writerly persuasion). I have always loved performers of all stripes -- dancers, jugglers, musicians, magicians, etc. These are people who have the courage to think they can entertain us, to show us something we've not seen before. You could call it hubris, or you can call it confidence. I would call it a belief and faith in their own skills and abilities.

Inspiration #1: If you believe you can, you can.

These are examples of the power of mastery. These are guys whose skills have been crafted, honed, protected, nurtured and sharpened over many years of deliberate practice and creating and performing songs and dances so that they can do what you saw over and over again, flawlessly. (There are other recordings of Jorgensen playing "Ghost Dance" and all of them are played at that fast tempo and sound pristine.) I'd call this the "iceberg principle" of success, except that I'm sure someone's already called it that. How many hundreds of hours of work did it take to conceive and execute those 3-4 minutes of diamond-sharp perfection?

Inspiration #2: Even Fred Astaire had to put in the hours to become Fred Astaire. Getting good doesn't happen overnight. It takes work. To echo Cal Newport's motto: Be so good they can't ignore you.

My banjo teacher has me say the syllables "e-ven" with every pluck of the string, and I am to keep saying it even if my fingers fumble through a particular passage. The goal is to keep the rhythm until I can collect myself and jump back into the song. As he puts it, "The other musicians aren't going to stop if you lose your place and start the song over. They're just going to keep playing."

Lookit how fast Jorgensen is moving those fingers! The pace doesn't stop and the rhythm doesn't slow down if he's having an off night. No matter how fast and frantic the music gets, he's calm, relaxed, poised. Jorgensen and Astaire are not just in the flow, they're controlling the flow. And they make it look easy because they've put in the work that makes the hard look easy.

In life, we don't have a band behind us pushing to keep the beat. But we have calendars and commitments to others and the seasons, among other pacesetters. Life doesn't pause until you have time to catch your breath. You have to breathe while playing like mad.

Inspiration #3: Work hard, keep practicing, and you can set the tempo (and look cool doing it). Eventually, it'll all look easy to anyone who hasn't done the work.

I have these two videos in a YouTube playlist called ENERGY! I return to these videos periodically when I'm flagging or in the doldrums. No matter how many times I see the videos in that playlist, I never tire of them. They always seem fresh. Many books and movies that were touchstones in my youth have not survived with me into adulthood, but these videos (and all the other books and music and DVDs that stock my shelves) have stayed with me for years.

Inspiration #4: Truly inspiring things stay evergreen; you can grow old with them and they will always have lessons to teach.

Finally, looking at these inspiring videos makes me feel like I want to create something as fun, as beautiful, as energetic, and as inspiring. And that, for me, may be the commonality among all inspiring things I hold close. I won't be able to play the guitar or tap dance like these guys, but I can attack what I want to do -- a short story, a blog post, a business, a PowerPoint presentation -- with energy, spirit, discipline, and (I hope) humor. These inspiring things teach me that that the audience or the customer will never see all the hours I put into the work. But if what I create connects, I want it to be a show-stopper.

A student or a scholar

One of the things I discovered about myself during the past year is that I'm a student, not a scholar. I've always thought of myself as a "lifelong student," but I'm not sure I really understood what that meant till recently.

In my view, a master's candidate is a student, a PhD candidate is a scholar. The differences are many: the difference between being an amateur (student) and a professional (scholar), between minor league and major league, between levels of commitment in terms of time, energy, passion, and dedication.

For me, a lifelong student retains the joy of learning new things and loves sampling the buffet. That's been me, that will always, probably, be me. The scholar, I think, takes a deeper interest and is best served (at least in their early years) by not flitting from flower to flower. Also, the way academe is structured, scholars are professionally groomed for a tough job market; the decisions they make today on the research they publish will have repercussions years down the line. The student, I think, lives more in the moment, or at least has a shorter time horizon for the satisfying of their desires.

As I'm sure I've said in other posts, I like taking classes. This seemed to separate the student from the scholar, in my brief experience. I think I'm one of the "Scanners' that Barbara Sher describes in her book Refuse to Choose: someone who loves the novelty and variety of learning and resists constraining themselves to a single specialty.

Reminds me of these quotes by Bill Moyers on the fun of being a journalist:

A journalist is a professional beachcomber on the shores of other people's wisdom ... A journalist is basically a chronicler, not an interpreter of events. Where else in society do you have the license to eavesdrop on so many different conversations as you have in journalism? Where else can you delve into the life of our times? I consider myself a fortunate man to have a forum for my curiosity.

Had I stuck it out in the PhD realm, my chosen research style would have been that of a journalist. The challenge for my life now, I think, is to elevate that curiosity and focus from a hobby done in my spare time to a respected place of prominence at the center of my life and how I choose to spend the rest of my years on the planet.


The end is nigh...

Of my master's degree progress, that is.

I took my comprehensive exam on Friday. At SILS, that is writing 6-8 pages on one of two essay questions that are emailed to you at the start of the day. You have until 3:30pm to finish the task. I started mine at about 10 am and wrapped up around 2:30pm, with a break for lunch. Essay questions are about the easiest task I could be given; I wound up writing 10 pages with I think good detail.

Today, Liz and I took a day trip over to Chapel Hill so I could return a stack of library books and pick up a copy of my advisor's comments on my master's paper. I thought I had done a good-enough job on the paper but that there were too many assumptions and maybe too much hand-waving and magical thinking in the Discussion and Conclusions section. I had spewed dots all over the page without seriously connecting them into a recognizable picture. But I thought the paper was at a stage where there was no more I really wanted to do with it. I could have spent days poring over the data some more, I could have done more research in the literature, and so on. That extra work would have represented the last 15-25% of effort on a paper whose value probably didn't warrant more time or energy. In any case, I'd held on to it long enough. It was time to throw it over the wall and see what my advisor had to say about it.

I was rather surprised at how minimal and non-eventful her comments were. I had rather mixed feelings looking over her comments, which were mainly to do with typos, awkward phrasings, mechanical errors, and the like. There were one or two "I don't accept your conclusion" remarks that I don't know how to address just yet; she gave no indication of what I should do to fix them. That's OK; it'll take less than 3 hours to take care of all her marked items and then format the paper per the school guidelines. Still - that's it?

I suppose what's interesting to me about the paper is how flimsy it feels to me. Had this been turned in by a doctoral student, I think it would have been held up to higher scrutiny and with calls for more justification of my statistics and assumptions. But I must remember: this is a master's paper, and the master's paper is probably the first and last research project most students will ever do. If they find they need to carry out a similar research project in their future jobs, then they have at least been introduced to the rudiments of the practice. That's the real goal of the paper. Contributing to the research dialogue is not a realistic expectation. (Though one of my professors said that many master's students look back on the paper as the most satisfying project of their academic career.)

In the end, I suppose, I believe that I did a good enough job, within my capacities and skills; better than others, perhaps, but not as good as I would like to think I could do. (And got closer to in my Chekhov paper last fall.)

Still, as with all things that have happened to me over the last few years in school, these are yet more opportunities for learning as I go.

  • As I said, this was a learning project: not only about stats and running a research project, but about how to manage myself. I discovered the conditions I needed to produce the text, I had to confront my unease at surveying my neighborhood, I had to hit the wall of statistics with the soft nose of my data. Each gate I had to go through (executing the survey, crunching the numbers, writing up the results) required me to motivate myself, confront my anxieties about that step, ask for help when I needed it, and then ready myself for the next gate.
  • In my dream world, I had honestly expected effusive praise and qualitative feedback from my advisor on my work. And I didn't get it. These were the mixed feelings I described above. I was expecting effusive praise or high disdain, and instead received non-descript mechanical corrections. Isn't that a relief? Kind of. But I was expecting more feedback and interaction and, yes, pats on the head.
  • So the lesson here is I need to give myself my own pats on the head. My advisor is busy with tons of work, other master's papers to read and comment on (and which may need more hands-on involvement on her part), and it's not her job to praise me. I'm nearly 50 years old, for crying out loud; it's about time I learned to give myself the compliments I need.
  • The paper represents the last big thing I need to finish before leaving. And receiving the paper today was a big anti-climax. The big work is actually behind me.
  • A doc student friend of mine said, apropos of finishing the dissertation and graduating, "No one cares." No one is going to hold a parade in your honor or make a big deal out of you. This is your gig that you chose to do, so you need to celebrate it yourself in your own way.
  • Looking back on the paper and the comp exam, it seems pretty clear to me that if I ever mess up, it won't be on the big stuff. If I mess up, it'll be on the little stuff. Example: When I shifted over from PhD to master's last summer, I should have automatically been put on the master's student mailing list. I never was. As a result, I missed the announcement of the deadline for applying for graduation and only heard about the comp exam date a week before it was scheduled. Why did I assume someone would tell me these things, even when the silence was growing more eerie? A little thing - asking someone in the office "why am I not receiving announcements?" - could have caused a major disaster. This is a pattern I've noticed in myself in other contexts, and it's something I need to address.
  • As a result, I will be calling the grad school on Monday to make sure I can graduate in May. I don't want some silly little bureaucratic glitch to prevent my graduation.
  • It's time to move on. This has been a remarkably active and productive period of my life, starting with my first class in the summer of 2006. But it's time to go.

As I see my schedule open up, with very few obligations on the horizon, I am starting to swell with projects that need to be started: selling off old textbooks, clearing my files of all the printed articles i read, cleaning out my closet, fixing stuff around the house, etc.

What stops me from slapping all sorts of projects into my planner book is another lesson I learned in 2010. I had stopped my banjo lessons due to the pressure of my other responsibilities. We still met weekly, to talk through what I was experiencing and trade strategies. Sometime after the semester ended, I think, I felt much relieved and wanted to resume the lessons. But he refused. His reasoning was sound: I may be in a quiet, stable phase at the moment, but we are not sure how long it will last. It would only put more pressure on me if I were to restart my practicing and then - BAM - life is firing more fastballs at me than i can handle.

And, as I recall, things happened as he said. Not long after, we had to start planning and executing the May workshop and life got crowded indeed. Even after the workshop was over, and life had truly settled down, he held off resuming our lessons. He was right. I needed the rest and needed to come back to a sort of equilibrium. Sometime after I left the program, we started up again and I've been chugging along with the banjer ever since.

All of which to say - I'm keeping my life underscheduled for the immediate future. My top priorities are revamping my resume, starting up a job search, figuring out what the next 5 years should be, etc. But no need to rush in. Relax the taut rubber band before it snaps and breaks. Relax, and pat myself on the head.


Summarizing the past year

Sorry to disappoint my skeptically inquiring readers, but I love reading my weekly Freewill Astrology post.

Rob Brezsny's Libra posts for the last three weeks have swirled around the idea of a cycle ending, taking stock, and looking ahead. Here's how his Aug 12, 2010, reading put it:

If you and I were sitting face to face and I asked you, "What are the most important lessons you've learned these last 11 months?", what would you tell me? I think you need this type of experience: an intense and leisurely conversation with a good listener you trust -- someone who will encourage you to articulate the major developments in your life since your last birthday. Here are some other queries I'd pose: 1. How have you changed? 2. What long-term process needs to come to a climax? 3. What "school" are you ready to graduate from? (And by "school" I mean any situation that has been a hotbed of learning for you.)

Well, of course, the use of the word "school" got my attention. And I think he's right about looking at the sweep of the last year for the big lessons, rather than picking away at the details of this or that assignment., or becoming obsessed with today's details while not acknowledging what has happened to me. I think I had a bit of that conversation on my last call with Cairene, and my just recently ended coaching relationship with Christine also raised some good thoughts about the experience.

So, what are the most important lessons I've learned since August 2009? No doubt I'll come back to this post as more stuff floats to mind. No doubt I'm missing more than a few.

  • Good friends are invaluable. Safe places are always needed. Even though I really couldn't afford the time to do it, I spent one day a week at my old job, where they had kept me on part-time. The extra money was valuable, of course, but simply walking into a place where I felt competent, where people were happy to see me and asked me about what was going on, where I could help out on a project in a pinch -- it did so much for my sense of wholeness. It was a cooling balm. My self-image didn't have to rely only on what was feeding back to me from school, which I often interpreted, rightly or (mostly) wrongly, as negative.
  • But you need to leave the safe places, too. There's Grace Hopper's famous quote about ships being safe in a harbor, but that's not what ships are for. As welcome as my Friday visits to the office were, one of the reasons I went for the degree was that I had reached the limits of my safe job.
  • The universal answer: "It Depends." This is the punchline to most any question posed in classroom discussions. There are too many variables to most situations and so there can be no definitive answers; but there can be better answers for some situations.
  • Be clear about why you're doing anything. There's a famous theatrical anecdote (about George S. Kaufman?) where he was brought in by the producers of a show that was in trouble. "We think there's problems with the second act," they told him. After watching the show, he said, "The problem with the second act is the first act." In my case, I was never really clear about why I wanted the PhD -- what was it going to do for me? How would it serve as a bridge from where I was to where I wanted to be? The PhD is the means, not the end. By starting out not being clear about my goal, I set myself up for the problems I faced later.
  • If your Why is strong enough, you can put up with any What. I think I first saw that phrase in one of Christine's blog posts. One of the main problems of PhD school is simply persisting in the face of many obstacles. If you know why you're doing this thing, you'll put up with whatever you must put up with to get it. It's simply the price you've agreed to pay.
  • Indecision causes suffering. My first coach was PJ Eby, and this is one of his oft-related pieces of advice that I've found useful at work, school, and even when diagnosing character motivations in short stories. I never wholeheartedly said yes to the PhD, which divided my energies and made me susceptible to the pressures. I read one economics gradschool writer who said it's actually a good idea to burn all your bridges and not have a safety net if gradschool doesn't work out -- that way, the only direction to go is forward. You are forced to commit all of your resources to the schoolwork and your research. In this case, it may be that my lifeline back to my old job did me no favors. And even through the spring, I was talking to professors and PhDs about their experiences, trying to find some inspiration or reason to keep going.
  • Know thyself. One of the things I noticed with the other students ahead of me, and other PhDs I talked to, was they all said "You'll enjoy it more when you're done with classes and can get to your own research." But but but...I like classes! That's what I like best about school! I also discovered that I was mostly curious about the PhD experience and I wanted that curiosity satisfied. Consider that desire satisfied.
  • Deadlines and accountability work wonders for your productivity. The Accomplished Dr. Cassidy taught me that lesson: you have to put pressure on yourself. Send in the poster proposal before your data is in so it forces you to do the work. Otherwise, you'll wait and spend time to make it perfect instead of getting it done. As I look back over the time I've been in school (since the summer of 2006), I'm kind of amazed at how much work I've produced, its variety, and the various experiences I've undergone because of it. Left on my own, I'd probably have spent the last years watching Green Hornet videos on YouTube and puttering in my office. And making myself more miserable about my lack of productivity in the process. One of my personal challenges now is finding the right blend of activity and rest and accountability that will keep me producing things, but without the crippling stress.
  • Time will always be wasted. No matter how busy I was, no matter how much I tried to use my commute time to good effect, I still wasted what felt like to me vast amounts of time. I never got the feeling I was working smartly or efficiently; instead, I was working effortfully. Perhaps because I was working on the wrong things? Or that I felt so busy and deadlines felt so short, I had no brainspace left to work out how to do it better?
  • I'm not as smart as I thought I was. Or maybe I'm smart at other things. I took statistics in the Sociology department (reputed to be the toughest stats course on campus) and was astonished at how smart I was not. I quickly reached the limits of my capacity and felt increasingly humiliated when I confronted homework problems that I could barely understand, let alone calculate. This was a different experience for me, as I'd been sailing through most of my other classes up to this point. This, I think, is what most adults who go back to school fear that their experience will be like. Looking back, I could have probably done better if I'd had one fewer course and an extra 20 hours in the week to read the book more closely, do the work, and find supplemental explanations for the concepts. The goal of both stats courses was simply to nudge people a little further along, no matter their starting point, and I certainly do know more now than I did then.
  • Have a support team. During my darker days of the spring, I worked weekly with an in-person counselor and carried on email conversations with an academic coach. And of course, there are the always supportive friends and family and fellow students, who are more than happy to commiserate.
  • Self-care. I learned better how to take care of myself during stressful times. One of the keys being to somehow change panic mode to problem-solving mode. I took one of Havi's ideas for the Book of Me and compiled lists of methods, quotes, ideas, questions, etc. that I could use when I needed a pick-me-up. It also helped me to see a catalog of stuff I "knew" but couldn't always bring to mind when I needed it. Some days, I looked through it often. Lately, now that I'm out of the day-to-day hard stuff, I've not picked it up. But I keep it close by. Another bountiful source of methods to use when in a personal crisis can be found in David Burns' books, Feeling Good and When Panic Attacks, both of which offer mounds of techniques and tools for reducing the anxiety caused by over-thinking and over-imagining.
  • "The end is not fixed." The quote that Ben Casnocha produces in this post summed up some of the best and simplest advice. Liz loved that idea, that the end is not yet written.
  • The experience will fulfill you. Another mantra I held on to, that came from one of my counselors and that I duly wrote in my Book of Me. One of the thoughts here being that the fulfillment may not come soon, may not come for years, but that it will come and then I'll understand the lesson the experience was teaching me. Looking back over the last decades of my adulthood, particularly the bad stuff that caused me pain at the time, I can see the truth of that statement. If nothing else, this experience forced me to deal with a lot of dirt that came up. These were issues that would not have come up otherwise, and that I would not have had to deal with. The PhD hastened my self-education, which I believe is a good thing.


Fall 2009 chicken

Taking a leaf from Havi’s Friday Chicken, this post will review the semester just past, but with a few additional headings.

The Hard

  • I never got around to writing all the blog posts documenting my semester, its ups and downs—which is one of the reasons I started the blog, so that it could serve as my diary/journal for this trip. It became one of many obligations I had to ignore as the semester limped along.
  • About 3 or 4 weeks into the semester, I said to people that I wasn’t coping with school—I was trying to get to a point where I could start coping.
  • The work, oy, the work. Mounds of it. Only some it was horrendously difficult, but it was all mostly time-consuming and came pelting on my windshield in clumpy wet blotchy gusts. And because few of the work products resembled each other, there was no way to build up any momentum so that you could leverage a day’s work on 2 projects, for example. Each task was too unique. This meant thin-slicing my attention to where nothing got my full attention (I hated this condition) or waiting till a deadline or question from a stakeholder forced me to pay attention to the thing. I was never able to work ahead to my satisfaction.
  • Statistics. The homework that soaked up hours, the 56-question midterm that I could not complete in 75 minutes, the feeling that I was 4-6 weeks behind in understanding the Niagara of information washing over me, the frequent panics and dark moments when it hit me forcefully that I wasn’t getting it.  Realizing I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was. Definitely the worst experiences of my college career.
  • Dialing down my expectations. Part of what made the semester hard was the writing on the inside of my skull that said everything had to be perfect, every page of every assignment had to be read, every commitment had to be honored. Re-negotiating my expectations for what I could realistically (as opposed to idealistically) accomplish was a major hit to the ego.
  • Letting things go—and these were assignments and commitments I was on the hook for producing. It hurt to have to drop or ignore them because I didn’t have time for them.
  • Not letting things go—the snack-information pellets I continued to read, the idea that I needed to give myself frequent breaks—the trying to hold on to the old parts of my life and personality that are holding me back from embracing what I think has to be a new part of my personality.
  • Felt like I was still using too much nervous energy, not enough smarts, to get things done. I felt that I was counting too much on the Thanksgiving break and random days off to work on or finish assignments that could have been completed in a more reasonable, less nerve-wracking fashion.
  • Always predicting disaster and failure erodes my nerve-endings and makes me no fun to hang out with.
  • Found myself leading two groups and feeling very inadequate in the role of leader and project manager. Always the feeling that that I’m not measuring up and that I’m letting people down. This is a feeling that is not going away anytime soon.
  • Guilt, guilt, and more guilt for not reading enough, doing enough, staying up late enough, accomplishing enough, being enough.
  • The hours spent commuting. Some time can be filled with reading on the way to school, but I was too tired at the end of the day to get any good reading done. Still haven’t found a good way to use that down time except to relax and mull, which is probably what I need to do anyway.
  • Felt like a whiner for most of the semester.
  • Seeing my mentor graduate with her dissertation and leave the school; hers is the face I will always see first when I think of this school. Will miss her advice and availability.
  • Flipping between two and three different time management systems through the semester, never quite finding The One.
  • Forecasting mountains of hard work that makes it easy to want to give up. I have the following coming up in the spring: helping with a 3-day event in early January, helping with a student event in mid-January, conducting actual research for my advisors and writing up a draft, writing quarterly reports for our grant, helping plan and run a major week-long event in May—and did I mention I’m taking three courses (including the second statistics course)? And there will be extra impromptu projects that arise—they always do.
  • Comparing myself to others who seem to be doing this gig more effortlessly than me.
  • Trying to find 10 hours/week for my part-time job. Sometimes I couldn’t.
  • Working against my natural rhythms—I really shouldn’t try to do hard-focus work from 2-5pm.
  • Is there a good, easy, simple way to manage multiple projects that doesn’t require spending hours feeding tasks and end dates into an application? This is another case where I’m using too much brute force and brain cells instead of trusted routines and systems. I’m convinced I can manage most of these things with pen and paper or a text file and a calendar, but I haven’t found it yet.
  • Giving up the comfortable, familiar handrails of a job, of a place where I felt competent and accomplished. Struggling still with the idea of whether this academic enterprise is something I really want, or whether it wants me. The idea of a life spent working is not at all attractive to me—unless it’s work I enjoy (and that’s a new thought for me). At this point in the game, I’m still taking orders from people and struggling to meet the expectations of others, so enjoyment is not part of the agenda.
  • Fighting my distractions: YouTube, web smurfing. There’s more joy in my distractions than in the work.
  • Wanting to hide when someone suggested a new project or new task when I didn’t know how I was going to handle my current tasks. Feeling very protective of my time.
  • Discovering I’m not as smart as I thought as I was. But then, one of my goals was to get smarter, to learn to think more critically. As one of my advisors said early on, you’ll stretch and it’ll hurt.

The Good

  • I know a little better now how I want next semester to go, insofar as planning my schedule, managing commitments, dealing with technical courses, etc.
  • It’s probably just as well that I didn’t document on this blog everything that happened to me, as it would have been extremely tedious reading throughout the semester. Also, writing about it probably would have made me feel worse; I’d be spending the time practicing my angst rather than working on my projects.
  • I passed Statistics, but not in the way I would have liked. My homework partner carried the burden of the hours-long homework sets, and my contributions were minimal. But I passed. (“P’s make degrees.”)
  • Help is all around—fellow students, professors, friends, my wife. I just need to let them know what’s going on and ask for help or for some time to vent. I found that when I vented my fears in public, others also confessed their misgivings. So I’m not alone in this.
  • Things usually—well, pretty much always—turned out better than I expected. How about that.
  • Commuting via TTA worked out really well. I filled up my car maybe every other week, and rode the bus when possible. Mondays at home all day. Terribly essential when I needed big gobs of time to read or write or research. Discovering that one of our professors is interested in an esoteric subject that I’ve been interested in for years. I followed up on this with my advisor, who said this could perhaps be worked into a dissertation, but would require some massaging. The sooner I can find and define a dissertation topic, the better life will get.
  • I got through the semester.
  • I can look back and see how much work I produced at school while also mentoring a friend who took over my old job through the busiest time of the company’s fiscal year. One of the reasons for this career change was to improve my productivity, and I’m certainly doing that.
  • Having a part-time job to make up the income deficit, and being able to mostly squeeze it into the tiny gaps of my day.
  • My professor’s knack for assigning intermediate deadlines for term projects that forced me to create smaller products and thus engage with the material on a smaller scale over a longer period of time. When it came time to write the final paper, the ground had been well-broken and was familiar to me. This is a technique I need to remember and employ for myself. Trusting my writing instincts and creative intelligence—I know I don’t have to have it all figured out before I write things down. The very act of writing and sifting the material, and thinking about it as I walk or commute, creates the connections. I don’t have to force anything. It was good to be reminded of this.
  • Settling at last on Google Calendar and a page-per-day planner book with my Autofocus lists in the back.
  • The Pomodoro technique for breaking work into units. I would often start a work session thinking, “I need to get 3 pages written” or “I need to find 10 pieces of literature for the review”; instead, by allotting 25 minutes of focused time to the task—and then using as many of those 25-minute slots as needed or as I had time for—I still felt as if I was progressing. These were often useful at the start of a project, when I really didn’t know which way was up or how to get into the material.
  • Discovering I could produce a lot in a little amount of time. Parkinson’s Law should be remembered; impossible deadlines tend to elicit focused work from me in an annoyingly productive way. Don’t tell me you want it next month, tell me you need it by Friday. But can I do this for myself? To myself?
  • Deciding that going to bed by midnight was non-negotiable. For a while there, 1 a.m. was my limit, until I wised up. I hope to work this down to 11 pm in 2010, and then to simply going to bed when I’m tired. Never skimp on your sleep. Were I to fall ill, my empire would topple.
  • During my last week of paper-writing, I stuck a big post-it to my monitor that said “80%”. A reminder that perfection isn’t needed for some jobs, just a good effort, and sometimes good enough is good enough; even if the paper isn’t as perfect as you’d like, let it go and move to the next one. Don’t go crazy.

The Questions

  • Too much introspection and hand-wringing? Not enough action?
  • What if I went forward in all my pursuits with the expectation that I will succeed and everything will come out all right? How would that feel?
  • Can I schedule my distractions so that I can focus for longer periods of time? Knowing that I’ll have time to read or play, will that keep my attention from wandering?
  • Can I set myself impossible deadlines so I can get routine work done faster?
  • Can I make Cal Newport’s 9-to5 schedule work for me? Maybe on some days, not so much on class days. But in order to stem the flood of work and build in some down-time, the only way to do that, it seems to me, is to establish pretty rigid time boundaries and say, “I’ll commit to doing the work at this time for this duration, and then I stop.” Even so, I’m still at the early point in my career when I’m not as in control of my schedule as I will be in 2 years. Also, I’m way too overcommitted—but no way to get out of them for a while, so must grit my teeth…

Lessons Learned

  • Front-load the semester—do as much work as possible as early in the semester as possible. This is particularly the case for long-term projects. As the semester wears on, there is less and less time to devote to big projects. One of the old project management sayings I remember is, “There’s always more time at the beginning of a project than there is at the end.” Don’t wait; I’m kinder to myself tomorrow when I get something done today.
  • Leverage asynchronous communications. I don’t have to respond to most emails immediately, and I shouldn’t expect other people to do so. I can usually tell when a phone call will work better.
  • I experimented with one composition book per class, but that fell by the wayside for the seminar classes. I now use a single Moleskine large-format cahier to take all class and meeting notes. I date each page. As I process each page into meeting minutes or, in the case of my Statistics class, into a separate notebook where my scribbles are cleaned up, I draw a slash through the page to indicate that it’s “done.” This becomes my everything book and user-capture device. (I don’t always carry my MacBook with me, but I always have this book with me.) I also kept a separate notebook for statistics homework, but I may incorporate it into the flow of my class notes next semester. I think keeping too many things in separate buckets fragments my attention.
  • Learn as I go. This is especially true with statistics, where I trusted that I would have time and intelligence enough to figure it out later. That did not work. Next semester, take frequent office-hours meetings with the professor or TA (if the TA is helpful) starting the first week, start the homework early early early, ask the questions early, and make as much use of YouTube and web stats tutorials as I can. I believe that stats, for me, is a case of both hard-focus and lots of time. Don’t expect I can cram 14 weeks of conceptual material into a weekend. Also—I can understand things if they’re explained clearly enough and if I practice them often enough.
  • Skimming is OK to do and I can still contribute in class.
  • Feeling scared and intimidated is OK and is almost encouraged. These are feelings that have to be negotiated with no matter where you are in life.
  • The Ineradicable Cassidy’s dissertation defense illuminated what had been often said: it’s up to the student. The student drives the process because the advisor is too busy to look after him/her. The student has to dog the advisor, the student has to harangue the committee, the student has to seek help if help is needed. Also, the student has to learn to put the pressure on themselves via deadlines—send in a poster proposal before the results are in, set a date with your advisor for the draft even if you haven’t started it. Without that pressure, none of us would get anything done. And this is in part how an academic must progress in their career. (Whether you want to continually be tricking yourself this way for the next 20-30 years, well, that’s a different discussion and part of my lingering discontent with this academic project. But that might also be a part of my old self resisting the changes to my new life.)
  • When I had to push something out quickly—a lit review, research for a presentation—I was able to clear my calendar and do it. And, weirdly, the sooner I did this work, the more in control I felt of what was happening to me. The feeling of being on top of things is so powerful. There’s no reason to wait to start working on a project; some progress can always be made.

The bones beneath the skin

A few months ago, I was struck by this tweet from HiroBoga. For whatever reason, a circuit snapped in my head and I Got It. All my little productivity obsessions and systems were all about creating my own infrastructure: my calendar, my to-do list, my inbox, my habits, all of it. If I were to look at myself and my life as if it were a business, then these are the tools I need to make sure the business runs efficiently and doesn't fall behind. We all do it with our reminders for paying the bills, balancing the checkbook, getting the car's oil changed, keeping receipts in a shoebox for income taxes, etc.

But these systems are not the thing itself that I want to accomplish; rather, they're the mundane roads and bridges that help me get where I need to go.

Transitioning now to the grad-student life, I see that I'll be an entrepreneur of a sort: I have to define my domain of interest, find interested backers and supporters (faculty to be on my committee), find funding (grants, fellowships), create a product line (articles, studies), create a network of professional contacts, etc. And this "business" needs to be supported by an infrastructure that helps me get the work done.

Reading that tweet helped me realize that what I've been doing this year and especially the past few months was preparing infrastructure to support me in my new life. I couldn't have said what I was doing or why, but now I can.

So this is what I did:

  • Back in March, Liz and I sat down with a spreadsheet and looked at our finances and began thinking about how to make this transition work, could we afford it, what about health insurance, professional dues, subscriptions, mortgage, car insurance, groceries, etc. I told a friend of mine at school we were doing this and she said, "That's so grown up!"
  • I bought a 23" Dell widescreen monitor, with an external speaker, so that I had a big, bright screen where I could tile windows and not have to squint. The speaker lets me listen to my iTunes music while I work. As has been well-documented, the biggest productivity gains come from having large or multiple monitors, and I have to say it's been the best purchase I've made in a long time.
  • An Apple external keyboard, with the number pad, lots of function keys, etc. to trick out my 13" BlackBook. Great key action and easier to type on than the laptop's keyboard. (I bought this and the monitor over the no-sales-tax weekend.)
  • The above purchases also meant a total re-think of my desk and office layout at home, and that arrangement is still ongoing. But still, part of the process.
  • Bought a new pair of walking shoes since I'm walking a lot more now on campus and to and from the bus. (Also bought with no sales tax.)
  • Speaking of the bus: I got a TTA transit card (free rides for a year, courtesy UNC's CAP program) and a gatecard that lets me park at the American Tobacco parking deck near the Durham bus terminals. The Beauteous Liz and I made a test run of the TTA route beforehand to get a feel for how long it takes. I decided I could live with the longer ride-time since it means I now don't have to drive through traffic, and it lets me get some last-minute reading in before class.
  • I've been reading tons of blog posts from Cal Newport's Study Hacks site, which I think is an essential read for students of whatever stripe. It's geared mainly to undergraduates, but graduate students will find plenty here to help them. Cal recently turned in his dissertation -- Congratulations! -- and I'm adopting several of his techniques for reading, notetaking, filing, etc. as part of my systems infrastructure.
  • I bought several hundredweight of Mac programs too -- DevonThink and Bookends spring immediately to mind -- to help me manage the various information streams flowing into my tiny head.
  • I also bought a cheap telephone to keep in my office, since I'm lucky enough to have a phone jack already installed. Randy Pausch recommended in his time management lecture to make sure there's a speakerphone option, so you can work while listening to the soothing on-hold music.

Even my silly posts on writing lit reviews and research papers document my experiments with creating repeatable processes to reduce the chaos and mechanical effort of getting through school. There will always be thinking and writing, and they will always take time and will be hard work. but I want the tools, habits, and systems to help with some of the heavy lifting so I don't have to spend thought and energy engineering a new process every time. I'll be using this blog as a place to document some of those terribly nerdy student things.

And I hope these tools can be adapted and re-fitted to other jobs and assignments I take on as I move through the academy's alimentary canal.

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Downstream, Upstream

One of the ways to make sure a change in your life sticks is to make what you want to do so easy to do, you can't avoid it. Another way is to adjust your environment so that going back to the old way is more difficult. Not given to easy solutions, I suppose, I opted for the latter.

I've now started my first semester as a doctoral student at UNC-Chapel Hill's School of Information and Library Science (SILS). I was 12 hours from finishing my master's, but it was clear to me that the master's wasn't going to help me; I was going to stay where I was, career-wise. Unlike my friend Mike, who'd gotten his MBA in the same time period and thus had both the sheepskin and the experience, I would have only had the diploma with no relevant work experience or internship to back up the education.

But I saw that I loved the campus environment and was good at this type of work. I also found very encouraging support from fellow students and key faculty. And some opportunities came my way that I did not want to ignore. So, for many many reasons too numerous and tedious to list here (though "100 reasons I'm in PhD School" would be a good topic for a post), I opted to make some severe changes in my life.

The most critical one was to leave my full-time job and drop down to about 10 hours a week--enough to cover my weekly car payment and provide some spending money. I also helped to interview and train my successor. The finality of my decision really didn't hit home with me till we started interviewing candidates: someone else will have this job and, if the school thing doesn't work out, there's no going back. That's when this whole adventure started getting Real for me.

(This may be because I'm from a generation and upbringing where Having a Job is the primary sign of worth and usefulness to yourself, your family, and your self-esteem. Not having a Real Job is just strange and odd to me, like looking at a picture of myself printed backwards.)

The image I use to describe this to people is that of a ratchet: turn the ratchet, it clicks past the notch--and can't turn backward. The ratchet only turns one way. Likewise, I've made changes to my environment such that I can only move forward; I can't go back. And while it's a little terrifying, this commitment is a good thing for me. I've left jobs before without a second thought, because I was fortunate enough to have some safety nets in place--my parents, The Beauteous Liz--and I was confident I could find another job in the local tech-writing field if I needed one. My skills were portable and I had the freedom to go where I thought the jobs were the most interesting (though after 4 years at a place, I was always ready to leave and try something new).

In this case, I am my safety net. Liz is still there, of course, as is our house, our friends, etc. But there are hardly any tech-writing jobs out there nowadays, and the good times are past when the table was so full you could live off the crumbs. This, among many many other reasons, was why I made this choice to take the fellowship and invest in myself now, rather than wait. The wave was cresting, and I wanted to ride that current as it moved downstream rather than continue to paddle and waste my energy trying to make it back upstream. And the commitment that this racheting effect enforces is important to me right now. There's no easy escape hatch back to my old life -- it's up to me to make this work. It's a challenge I feel ready for.

My future is assured

Vaynerchuk tells anecdotes, but his main activities veer more into the uncool profession of teaching. In the above-linked interview he admits to being a "class clown," and I have found in my twenty years of teaching that that one characteristic is a better predictor of who ends up a teacher in life than any other. The class clown seems to be the opposite of the teacher-- loud, disruptive, dismissive, and seeming to want to be anywhere else but class-- but in reality, I've found, the clown feels completely at home in class, envies the teacher's ability to hog all the attention, and secretly wants to be the one in front of the whiteboard with the dry erase marker, telling everyone what matters.

Breakfast with Pandora: Gary Vaynerchuk, storyteller?

Writing the Lit Review for Research Methods

Research. Olin Warner (completed by Herbert Ad...

I recently finished a pretty big, for me, literature review that totaled about 17 pages, including the title page and two pages of references. Here are some scattered thoughts and lessons learned, at my customarily hideous length:

  • I saw the wisdom of The Scholarly Cassidy's advice to begin the search haphazardly. I spent much early time floundering but tried various keywords that eventually led me to articles of interest. Have to get used to the feeling of confusion at beginning and make friends with it.
  • As with most of the work at SILS, what I did wasn't really hard so much as it was time consuming. The keys are starting early (a lesson I'm always re-learning) and letting the work marinate. Because I'm deeply into self-justification, I am obliged to tell you that I started late because I was finishing up a different assignment and dealing with my full-time job, of course, so my research was tucked into the margins of my daily schedule (i.e., at night before bedtime) or relegated to weekends.
  • I remembered advice to break the writing into three fairly equal time-sized chunks: a third searching, a third compiling and sifting, and a third writing. I altered that to make the writing take only one day, but this division let me know when to stop active searching and when to start writing. Although I did occasional follow-up searches, the bulk of my active searching had stopped days before I started writing.
  • I adapted Cal Newton's Newport's Excel-based research database. I added a worksheet to track the lists of keywords I searched against. I kept a list of all of my sources in the main tab, with their citation (if it was easy to get), a URL to the abstract or document, the year it was published, its abstract, a theme or category to which the article belonged (such as "Community Attachment" or "Personal Networks") and a link to a PDF of the full-text article I'd downloaded to my hard drive. I pretty quickly compiled about 125 sources (plus some duplicates). I started scanning for quotations, but discerned that precise quoting wasn't called for (though page references to specific ideas were). I didn't need quotes so much as synthesis. That said, I still had way too many quotes -- the old reporter habits of tucking the evidence into the story die hard.
  • I used the spreadsheet to scan the abstracts and judge immediately whether an article had relevance to me. (I kept reminding myself this was a short paper, not written to last 20 years.) Instead of deleting those rows, I colored the citation cell red. If I liked the abstract, I assigned a theme or category (and duplicated the row if the article fit into more than one category). This got me familiar with the breadth of my article grabs. Then I sorted on the Year Published column (earliest at the top), and auto-filtered by theme. I could then see this haphazard list snap into place: all the articles for the themes sorted from earliest to most recent, and the progression of thought visible in the abstracts. I'd already decided I only needed about 3-4 themes for this paper, so this process helped me identify weak themes (only one or two articles) and combine similar themes for later processing.
  • When it was clear that I had too many articles for a category (about 25 for the Sense of Community theme, for example), I reduced the number to 3-5, which forced me to generate selection criteria and think about how they would fit into the story I was telling. I then printed out only these articles and read them more closely since they would form the spine of the lit review.
  • I spent most of the days leading up to my writing in working this spreadsheet, finding new sources until I reached saturation (the same titles or authors cropping up), and in thinking about the story -- or as some may call it, "building an argument." Same thing, really. Set up the foundation with the themes you'll come back to, remind the reader of them as you go into the middle introducing new concepts, and by the end, you twine and braid the concepts, draw analogies, point out disagreement or overlap, and so on. As always, I found that these connections leapt out at me as I was writing or during my editing. They weren't there to start with.
  • I took a day of vacation to do the actual writing, and the day went smoothly, without much stress. (Had there been an emergency that had taken me away from my home office, though, I would have been doomed.) I suppose, though, that I had a secret weapon, which is that I've been writing in one form or another since 1984. Most of the lit review writing advice I researched struck me as assuming you don't have much writing experience. I, however, know my writing process pretty well. I figured that if I soaked myself in the literature, and could come up with a logical storyline, then the writing would take care of itself. And I'm relieved to say that is, indeed, what happened (to my satisfaction, anyway).
  • One section I left out of the first draft was the conclusion. I felt it was better to wait and do that after I had let the paper cool down and I had put in my edits. Having spent the day intensely with my chosen material, I was able to write a more coherent conclusion that reflected connections that developed during the first-draft writing.
  • Still, I was up till, oh, the wee small hours. After I finished my draft, I took a two-hour break to do a workout, eat, watch a TV show, and practice my banjo. I edited a hardcopy printout, made notes to myself, and then typed in the edits and my conclusion. Ensuring the paper adhered to the APA style guide (and formatting my citations accordingly) actually was more time-consuming or felt like it.
  • The night of the day I finished the assignment, still tired but unable to sleep, I started reading my assignments for the next week. Taking time to pause and rest was probably as much celebration as I could emotionally afford. The best thing to do, I'm learning, is to have another project or task to pour that nervous energy into. (And this has implications for the night of graduation day, whenever that will arrive.)
  • I realized afterward my brain can make the connections between ideas all on its own without me having to force them, and that's rather a relief to discover. If I've stated the problem correctly, I'm interested in the question, and I'm not in a hurry, then all goes well. I don't have to be an expert, but I can be a sense-maker.
  • Always interesting to reflect that any piece of writing is the tip of an iceberg hiding the hours and pages of thinking and drafts. Would be interesting to study the ratio of material/effort expended for a paper to the final page count, so you could calculate that a page of manuscript will require 12-24 hours of effort, or something like that. I imagine someone's already done that.
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