Reflections on Self-Help and Diminishing Returns

If you were to ask my fiancee, she’d tell you I have a book-buying problem.  I buy books faster than I can read them, and I have a small collection weighing down my shelves at home.  In a month’s time, we will be moving houses and part of the burden is to box the books and be mindful just how heavy books in boxes can actually be.  I prefer printed books, but I also have a steadily growing Kindle library and now an Audible library.

For 2018, the pace of my reading has slowed down significantly since 2016 and 2017.  At present, I have only completed 10 books for the year (with many half-read books strewn around the house).

If you go through the books I’ve read since my first reading list in 2016, you will notice a large proportion of my books fall under the self-help and personal development banners.  While I acknowledge that these books have been helpful in kicking off my attempts to make positive changes at work and in my life, I’m noticing a trend – I’m not really getting as much out of the books as I used to.  I seem to have hit a point of diminishing returns.  I started noticing it in the books I was reading, but it’s also spilled over into the daily lists of articles I get from Quora, Pocket, Medium, etc.

There is an over-saturation of the same studies being cited and a dearth of tips, tricks, tactics, protocols, hacks, systems, routines, mental models, and insights that tend to recycle similar themes.  Especially mental models – those seem to be in vogue right now with the online think-pieces and people creating courses for you to enroll in.

I also noticed that the further out from primary sources you get, the more recycling you find.  There tends to be four broad classes of folks who populate this domain:

  1. the innovators who write reflectively about what they did or the systems they created (the Ramit’s, the Dalio’s, the Covey’s, etc.);
  2. the populizers who interview, report, and connect ideas from the innovators (the Gladwell’s, the Duhigg’s, the Ferriss’s, etc.) ;
  3. the repeaters who recycle from columns one and two (this is typically the people writing Medium and Quora posts and asking you to sign-up for their email lists); and
  4. the folks who spend a year doing a thing then write a book about it, which pairs something they experienced with a study/book/system that is supposed to give insight or explain what happened in case study format (I won’t name names here, but the books are usually structured like those in group 3 above).

I wish the insight above was mine, but in full disclosure I had read this idea from someone and for the life of me I can’t remember where (the irony is not lost on me).  I suppose the only thing I’ve added to the above is item four.

I know it’s not fair to pigeon-hole people into only these four categories.  Some people in the second group produce novel insights that place them in group one, and some who write in group one are also guilty of slipping into group two from time to time.  The point is not to dismiss the books that are coming out, but rather to try and objectively draw circles around them in meaningful categories.

I think the diminishing returns I’m seeing is a result of my desire to find a magic bullet to fix whatever problem is “holding me back” from being in a place I want to be, mixed with one of my greatest flaws – I will read, and read, and read, and never make behavioural changes to take action.  Instead of making progress towards my goals in a meaningful way, I instead stay “productive” by reading.

Will this stop me from reading these kinds of books?  Probably not. Let’s be honest, these books are designed to be appealing.  They are a mix of relatable narratives and the promise of a better tomorrow.  They are my harlequin romance novels, my pulp reads.  They are easy to digest because someone else has done the thinking for you.  It’s my own kind of soma that keeps me peaceful and happy.  I know it’s not really that nutritious, but I enjoy it as a guilty pleasure nonetheless.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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A Reminder to Myself

Last week was a crazy week.  At work, it was the perfect storm between closing out the business of the previous semester, getting the next semester off the ground, and working to start all program reviews before the college faculty disappear for the summer.  In that time, I had meetings on top of meetings (and in one case, two meetings running concurrently).  I had students queuing up to see me for help.  There are agendas to be set, committees to chair, and a hundred messages waiting to be read.  Last week was hell, but I survived.

I had to remind myself of one important thing.  In my job, nothing is so important that it can’t wait.  Sure, there are critical deadlines looming over my head, and a number of people rely on me for deliverables.  However, despite the pressure I was feeling, I knew that there was nothing that was so critical that it couldn’t be added to the list of things I needed to do in favour of focusing on more important tasks.

I’m lucky, because not all jobs have this kind of luxury.

This reminder to myself isn’t meant to show-off or flaunt my job.  It’s not to show that I don’t have accountability, or that I’m allowed to slack off.

It’s a reminder of Eisenhower’s Matrix – there are lots of things that are urgent, but it’s critical to recognize and prioritize what’s important.  In Covey’s language, you put first things first.  For Koch, 20% of your tasks will create 80% of the value.  And on, and on.

Last week, it was important to remember these lessons.  I couldn’t serve everyone at once, and that’s ok.  The best thing to do was to focus on making headway where I could, and leave the rest for next week.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

A Lesson in Networking

I had a networking success moment last week.  After returning from the ethics board conference, I started doing the standard follow-ups.  One of my follow-up messages was to the director of the Portage network of Canadian institutions whose mission is to promote good data management practices for research institutes.  I noticed at the Portage presentation that Ontario Colleges were typically not included in their activities on account of the fact that Colleges are only now making concerted efforts towards research and data.  It’s still too early for the Colleges to have caught up with what Universities have been doing all along, so the two organizational structures are out of alignment.

I saw this bit of oversight as a good opportunity to introduce myself and suggest that I could connect Portage with my home institution library if there wasn’t already an existing working relationship.  In my follow-up message, I asked for some details for an upcoming event that I could pass along to the director of our library.

I then reached out to our director with the information and filled her in on the details from the conference, and what value a connection with Portage might offer.  Keep in mind that I don’t really know a lot about the library, its operations, or its institutional priorities.  I was merely offering a potential connection without knowing whether things would be a good fit.

At this point, it’s out of my hands, but I did my part to facilitate the introduction.  I think this is the overlooked side of networking.  Most of the time, we think of networking as “what can this do for me.”  Instead, it might be more useful to flip the question around and ask “how best can I help this person with my network.”  You get more value from offering value to others than if you just treat everything as an opportunity to gain for yourself.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

5 Post-Conference Thoughts

I was away in Montreal for the Canadian Association of Research Ethics Boards conference last week, so I didn’t get a chance to write a blog post leading up to today (hence why the post is late).  However, I didn’t want to leave you hanging, so here are some thoughts on attending the conference.

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This was the first conference I attended where work paid for it.  It was nice not needing to pay for the entrance, the flight, or the hotel room (previously, I would billet with conference organizers to cut down on cost).  It was pretty rad to stay at the same hotel that the conference was operating out of, which made life way easier.

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Conferences can actually be a great learning opportunity.  I learned a lot from the experiences of others as we shared stories and case studies, all of which I have brought back with me to bring to my boards.  I took around 11-pages of notes over the three days, so lots of stuff to review and implement.

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Networking is not something I have a lot of experience in.  In general, I’m terrible with schmoozing and making small talk.  On the plane from Toronto to Montreal, I downloaded my copy of Keith Ferrazzi’s Never Eat Alone and brushed up on some conference networking best practices.  That hour I spent reading on the flight was pretty helpful over the next three days.

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I handed out business cards and collected them while in town.  I’ve already received an email from the President and CEO of an organization out of the US to follow-up on our conversation about receiving accreditation.  This is an example of what you should do with business card swaps – you go in, make a personal connection with the person, and give them a reason to follow-up.  If you give out your card, make sure to follow-up shortly after the conference to keep the connection going.

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Attending the conference put me a little out of my comfort zone.  I could have stayed comfortably in the hotel the entire time and avail myself of the amenities.  However, at various people’s prompting, I did venture out to explore the downtown core.  I made friends with one of the local bartenders as we smack-talked KW, and I was able to enjoy some genuine Montreal poutine.  For my first dinner, I went out alone, but on the second night, I made sure to go out for dinner with a group of people.  Meeting new people is challenging and not a natural thing for me, so I had to intentionally choose to put myself out there.  Having said that, I also respected downtime, and spent the evenings quietly in my hotel room enjoying movies and YouTube to recharge after the day.  I think it’s possible to strike a balance, and it’s good to respect your own personal limit.

All in all, it was a great experience.  I’m glad I went, but I was very happy to return home.  In the end, I felt “conferenced-out” and was looking forward to seeing my fiance after an intense three days of talking about research ethics.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

Thoughts on Providing Feedback

I had a heartwarming moment this past week where a student provided some positive feedback about my teaching.  I “teach” an online course through the college and have been one of the instructors for the past year.  I find online courses a difficult medium to engage with students because you never get face to face interaction with them, so you need to find other ways to reach out and build a rapport.

One of the methods I choose, and use when I teach in-class as well, is to take time to provide comments and feedback on assignments.  I think of assignments as ways for me to provide real, concrete feedback on student performance (rather than just a grade).  In addition to the marking rubric, I will give three kinds of feedback:

  • comments on how well a student engaged with material according to a certain criteria;
  • areas where the student did not measure up to the criteria and why;
  • (most importantly) guidance on how the student could improve in the future.

That last bullet point is important to me because when I reflect back on my own learning in school, I realize that grades are often a poor way of gauging how well you understand the material.  Instead, the numeric grade stands as a proxy for how many “answers” you got right.  For the purposes of education, I’m concerned of the other side of the grade – the marks that you didn’t get; why you didn’t get 100%.  If I, as an instructor, can fill in the details of what the student missed, I can guide them towards improving in the future.

It takes me a while to grade assignments because I spend the extra time giving constructive feedback to the students.  If I simply told them what they  got wrong, the student won’t have a sense of what steps they could take to do better next time.  I don’t want the students to use trial and error to figure out how to improve skills.  Instead, I will give them explicit feedback on what I want them to do differently in the future.

Perhaps you are thinking that I’m coddling the students too much.  Maybe you are right, but I assume the students are here to learn, that I’m positioned as the expert, and that teaching is more about molding and guiding students, not expecting them to stumble across the correct answers.  I want the students to be mindful of what I expect of them (and it forces me to reflect on what I want to see in the student’s progress, which is significantly harder than a capricious grade you slap on after reading through a paper).

If done right, you should see a general improvement in the quality of the assignments you receive over the semester.  Students who are looking to improve will pay attention to your feedback and will get better over time.

I’ll close off with an excerpt from the student who emailed me:

I struggle with philosophy but I wanted to try out this elective. Your feedback has really helped me to know where I have gone wrong and what to work on for the future assignments. I have never got so much feedback from teacher, so thank you.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Study Strategies #5 – Application

One of the hardest things I find my students struggling with is not grappling with deep philosophical thoughts, or technical jargon (to be fair, they do struggle with these as well), but it’s in the application of course material.  Most often, when my students submit work for me to evaluate, they submit work that is either:

  • straight opinion (read: a submission that is not structured as an argument with evidence and connecting ideas through logic); or
  • an attempt to solve or provide a definitive response for all the problems of this philosophical issue in about a page.

The thing my students don’t realize is that I don’t care whether they “solve” the philosophical problem.  Granted, I don’t expect them to be able to solve the problem in a page, but that’s not the point.

The purpose of the exercise is for me to check the thought-process of whether they are able to understand the material and work with it.

I was recently chatting with a Program Chair about her time teaching engineering courses.  She noted that often she’d give problem sets that lacked defined measurements, and her students would pause to ask what the length or value of the unknowns are.  She was very frank that she didn’t care what number their calculator displayed because it was more important for her to see whether the students could think through the problem, manipulate the equations, and understand how to go about solving a problem.  For her, the solution was extraneous for the purposes of the class – it was a quick and convenient way to mark an answer right or wrong, but not entirely indicative of whether the student was understanding the concepts.

Now, you may say that this is all well and good for engineering, but how does that apply to philosophy (“But, philosophy has no right answers!!!) or any of the other soft sciences or humanities disciplines.

The truth is that the faster you try to apply the concepts, the easier it is to learn and make the concepts stick, and it’s not all that different across disciplines.  If you are trying to learn a concept, the best thing you can do is to try to take what you think you are learning, and apply it to a novel situation.  By focusing less on the details and working with the core concepts, you get a chance to see what makes sense to you and where your gaps in knowledge are.

For the course I teach, the students work their way through the online module materials, which includes extra readings, embedded videos, probing questions, links to additional sources, etc.  Then, after a round of discussion board posts, the students have a weekly essay prompt related to the week’s topic.

Early in the course, my students will often reply strictly to the essay question with what they think the right answer is.  Through my weekly rubric feedback and general emails to the class, I encourage them to go back to the module content and apply the concepts they are learning to the essay prompt.  What would so and so say about this concept?  How does this school of thought define this concept?  Do you agree with how this concept gets framed?

The point of undergraduate philosophy courses is not for students to generate original philosophical thought.  That is an aim, but it shouldn’t be the outcome.  Instead, the instructor should be guiding the students to think better and understand the concepts being covered so that they can then apply it in novel situations.

When studying, a good way to learn the concepts it to try and extract the ideas from how the author framed them and see how you can apply those ideas in new ways.  It reinforces the learning and helps to spot gaps in understanding in a way that straight memorization doesn’t provide.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

I (Finally) Cancelled My Gym Membership

I finally got around to cancelling my membership to my gym.

My last visit to the gym was at the end of November last year (I thought it was October, initially, so I wasn’t doing *that* bad…).

I have been away from the gym for so long that the branding and colour scheme has all changed to Crunch Fitness in my absence.  It was strange to walk in and see all the same equipment, but with new branding stickers adorning the equipment and different paint on the walls.  The vibrant reds and blacks have given way to more muted blues and greys – a shadowy ghost of the former company.

I’ve written before about my poor habits with going to the gym, and how much it costs me when I fail to go for months at a time.  I’ve had some successes, but mostly I tend to fall off the wagon.  The longest string of success I’ve had with exercise is using the elliptical at home with the Zombies, Run! app.

The decision to cancel my membership is motivated by three reasons.  First, since we are moving in May, I will be too far away to reasonably commute to the gym (and if I was inconsistent before while living close to the gym, there is almost no chance that anything would change in my habits after the move).

Second, I reviewed my finances and wanted to clean up some unnecessary recurring charges to my credit card.  Things like the gym and my subscription to Crave TV were cancelled since I rarely use them.

Third, with the move to the new house, I’d like to take a crack at exercising more from home.  I’m fairly regular with the elliptical running, and I would like to purchase a few more items to create a bit of a home gym.  While I doubt I’ll have a home gym like Jujimufu on YouTube anytime soon, I can add a few pieces that will allow me to get a reasonably comprehensive workout from home, such as a barbell, bench, and maybe a squat rack.  Stretch goals would include battle ropes, a heavy bag, and kettlebells.

If the home gym fails, there is a commercial gym and a more specialized gym in the town I’m moving to, so I could always sign back up when things settle down.

In the meantime, here’s a salute to World Gym (and Cruch Fitness who took over all the World Gym locations here in town).  I very much liked my experiences at World Gym, and I don’t regret our time together.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan