What You Say “No” To

Last week I discussed some thoughts on being busy.  Near the start of the post, I made an off-hand comment about why I’m typically busy:

It’s often less of an issue of seeking achievement, and more the result of me absent-mindedly saying “yes” to obligations without regard to the impact it has on my time and calendar.

This is the perfect example of an answer to those interview questions of “what is a weakness of yours?”  It took a lot of self-reflection to realize that a lot of stuff I do is less because it fits within a plan, and more because it sounded like a cool thing at the time.  It was a habit I formed when I was single and life was simple.  However, as things started piling up, it made it really difficult to prioritize.  The most important things in my life (love, sleep, exercise, etc.) end up taking a back seat to those things that seemed cool when I said “yes” to an ask.

I was watching a video from Jon Call, aka Jujimufu on YouTube, and he was discussing email tips that he uses to stay organized.  However, around the 3:30 mark of the video, he drops a fascinating insight:

“If I said yes…, I’m basically saying ‘no’ to (my wife) Sam, I’m saying ‘no’ to (my friend) Tom, (and) I’m saying no to you guys…”

Whether you are talking about your email inbox, your work, or the important people in your life, it’s important to reflect on what you are saying “no” to when you decide to say “yes.”  It’s a hard lesson that I am still struggling with, and I’m thankful with how patient my loved ones have been.

I invite you to reflect on your own life: what are you saying “no” to?

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

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“You’re an over-achiever”

Right off the top, I want to make clear that this post is not intended to be a humble-brag.  I’m hoping to use the observation in the title as a jumping-point for a meditation on my career and professional life.

I’m a busy guy.  It’s often less of an issue of seeking achievement, and more the result of me absent-mindedly saying “yes” to obligations without regard to the impact it has on my time and calendar.  I find it satisfying to be involved in all sorts of cool projects, but I also rationally know that “being busy” is a cop out.

Busy people are often flakey.

Busy people often use it as a status marker.

Busy people are often less effective than they believe.

That’s not to say that effective people aren’t busy.  However, I bet that the ratio of effective people to the merely busy is skewed.  But that’s besides the point.

The other day, a coworker and I were talking about career advancement and our track-records for interviewing for jobs and getting turned down.  I commented to my coworker that they could invest more in themselves through courses at the College.  They dismissed the idea as it didn’t fit their current career position (they are mid-career, so the investment in training has a lower return in their mind), but commented that it’s a good strategy for me.  Then they dropped the line from the title:

“You’re an over-achiever.”

The comment was meant in the context of working at the College, working as a bouncer at a bar, teaching, taking a class, podcasting, etc., and it wasn’t meant to be dismissive or condescending.

The funny thing is that I don’t associate “over-achiever” with me.  It’s not that I reject the idea being applied to me, but more that if I’m to associate words to describe me, it’s not one I would have thought of.  My colleague also referred to me as “ambitious,” which I would agree is a closer description of me, except I would code that word to be synonymous with “foolishly hoping for a good outcome”.

The problem I have with the concept of being an “over-achiever” is I associate it more with outcomes instead of process.  “Over-achievers,” to me, get results irrespective of how hard they may or may not work.  I’m critical of my successes because I don’t think I achieve a lot (especially relative to the effort I put in – how busy I am).

That’s the disconnect for me.  I often feel that for all my busyness, I’m not making a lot of headway.  I’m not landing jobs that I interview for, I have a lot of projects that are idle or slow-moving, and I’m constantly filling up my evenings with stuff to do while also wishing I had more downtime.

This might not be a fair evaluation of my professional life, but it’s a reflection of the standards I have on myself.  From a career perspective, I feel adrift and treading water.  Each day slips by as more time I didn’t use wisely towards some further goal.  Having these feelings hasn’t yet translated into action or a change of behaviour, and I don’t know if and when that might happen.

Other people I know (I won’t name names), whom I consider to have achieved something with their professional life, are also called under-achievers by people who know them best.  When I heard that, I compared it to my own life, and felt bad.  If they are under-achievers, what does that mean about me?

All is not lost.  During orientation at the college, I joked with some engineering students that I have two philosophy degrees and three jobs, so clearly I’m beating the odds.  I know that, rationally, I’m doing just fine; that I’m being too hard on myself, or I have unrealistic expectations on myself.  Progression through one’s career is about building (skills, knowledge, connections, etc).  It’s slow and methodical, not characterized by leaps forward.  I need to keep reminding myself of this.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Admin, Prof, and Student? 

In line with my desire to take positive steps for my career, I’ve been exploring options on how to get more experience. One option available to me is to take classes at work. A great benefit of working for a college is that you can have amazing discounts on classes. At my college, support staff can take classes for a flat rate of $20.  How could you not take advantage of that?

When I started this blog, I was taking a biology course to prepare for my entry into paramedicine. Having since abandoned that career path, I haven’t seen the need to enroll in classes. However, when I missed out on some recent career moves, I thought the time has come to see what courses I could take.

Looking through the course offerings, I stumbled across some management courses. One stood out to me:

MGMT1960 – Performance Management
This subject will focus on performance analysis, counselling, constructive feedback, conflict resolution, performance management systems and overall strategies for performance management.

Given my recent job shift towards student advising, it seemed like a good option to pursue. My boss signed-off on it, and now I’m course-loaded for a management class starting on Tuesday. The course is thankfully offered online, so it’ll give me some latitude to fit it into my schedule.

This also means that I am straddling three different areas at the college. I’m continuing my main duties as a administrative support staff, and I’m slated to teach another round of Quest for Wisdom online, and now I’ll also be a student. If nothing, I seem to like things interesting and keeping busy. Let’s see how this goes.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Cross-Domain Skills Sets

A few months back, I met with a career adviser at my alma mater to help me start planning out what my next steps should be for my career.  Having established myself, it’s time to think about where I want to go, and what I need to do/learn to get there.  One thing that stuck out to me at the session was that as she was reviewing my resume, she commented that she didn’t see my security (bouncing) experience listed.  I did not include it, figuring it wasn’t relevant enough to an office job, however she demanded I put it on there as it’s an important set of skills that I’ll need if I’m shooting for managerial roles.

Flash forward to last week, and I’m really starting to appreciate how much working as a door guy at a bar can help.

It’s the last weeks of the summer term for the college, which means that we are balancing the demands of the incoming semester with the final business of the outgoing semester, including students who fail courses.

In one of our programs, we had a number of student perform poorly on the final exam, which means they subsequently did poorly in the course.  Understandably upset, they are coming to us in the office seeking guidance or some way of redeeming themselves.  It’s a very delicate situation, which is proving a challenge as we try to give the students as much leeway as we can within the confines of our policies and procedures.

In some cases, the decisions we are making are not in the student’s favour, and they are, again, understandably upset by this.  They are really advocating for improving their situation, which is quite commendable, and I interacted with several of them almost every day lastweek.  When meeting with them, you need to strike the right balance of fairness, openness, but firm adherence to our policies and academic standards.

A few coworkers have commented on my tact and negotiation skills in talking with the students, even when there is nothing I can do to help them improve their marks, complementing me how smoothly the conversations are going with (sometimes) large groups of students in our office.

I gave a somewhat sarcastic response that dealing with the students is easy when I know they aren’t going to swing at me, as might happen at the bar on a security shift.  But in truth, the skills I have learned as a security guard are wholly translating to this situation.

As a security guard, to do my job well, I must be open-minded, calm, and patient when dealing with intoxicated or angry patrons.  The adage that “the customer is always right” is false, and when the rules and reality of the situation come to head with the patron’s expectations, it sometimes leads to raised tempers and hostile interactions.  My job requires me to step-back from my ego, not take anything personally, and use every tool at my disposal to de-escalate the situation and bring about as calm of a resolution as I can.  Most of the time, we are successful and the patron leaves on their own.  Sometimes, we have to drag them out kicking and screaming.

I’ve worked as a security guard for 5-years now, so I have a fair amount of experience, which I’m starting to appreciate how cross-domain it can be when dealing with students.  The ability to not be dismissive or authoritarian in communicating our decisions is critical for maintaining a good relationship and a healthy work environment.  Suffice to say, cross-domain skills sets that help me avoid getting decked in the face are awesome!

Stay Calm,

Ryan

The Silent Mentor

I stumbled across an interesting thought recently while browsing Quora.  Apologies for the morbid nature of this post.

A member of the Quora community asked about what happens to cadavers after medical students are finished with them, to which user Daniel Lim offer this answer regarding medical schools in Taiwan.  You can read his full answer linked here.

“The students spend a year dissecting the body, and at the end replace the organs and sew back the skin. They then conduct a mass remembrance ceremony and funeral for the Silent Mentors.”

The concept of the silent mentor is bound up in the following quote from Li He-zhen:

“I will give you my body to experiment; you can make as many mistakes on me, but never make a mistake on the patient.”

I found this to be a power quote that exemplifies an element of education that is sometimes overlooked in the modern economy.  From my experiences, higher education is often seen as training first, before considerations of growth and development.  When you complete your program, you will have been signed-off as competent in a field.  This competence is granted after a series of lectures and tests; tests that you must not fail.

But failure is almost always viewed negatively.  Bad grades are seen as a sign of deficiency – you are not smart if you are getting bad grades.  Failure is costly to students as it sets them back, which costs time, money, reputation, etc.  Education is cut-throat in the modern economy and everyone is in competition for a scarcity of jobs.  If you fail, you are moved backwards relative to the pack.

Yet, failure can be an opportunity.  It’s a chance to see where you have avenues of growth and development.  Rather than seeing failure as an end-point, failure should be viewed constructively as the points that we need to focus on.  Teachers shouldn’t be seen as punishing students for failing, nor should students be seen as inadequate for failing.  Students should have permission to fail.  School is the best time to fail, because the stakes (tuition notwithstanding) are so low.  It’s a chance to test ideas, try things out and learn from the outcomes.  Making mistakes should be instructive.  Expertise is not just knowing the right answers, but also about having a powerful command of all the mistakes that are possible, too.  Teacher have an obligation to instruct pupils properly, not to attempt to download the contents of their brains into the minds of the students.  Education does not work that way.

If we approach failure this way, and encourage making mistakes in safe environments like school, then students will be better prepared to succeed when something as precious as life is on the line.

You can read further on the topic of the medical education and use of cadavers in Taiwan here and here.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

Books That Helped Me Connect With People

Last year, I made a concerted effort to read more.  Having reflected on what I had read in 2015, I was disappointed with how few books I read, so I made the conscious choice to change it.  While I’m not saying that every book I read in 2016 was transformative or personally edifying, I’ve found that reading more has changed some of my behaviours as I’m able to draw up the experience of others and see connections between ideas.

A perfect example from work has illustrated this for me.  At the College, we are in the middle of several program review cycles.  A few engineering programs in my portfolio are undergoing major program reviews and revision, while every program is also currently engaging in their yearly reflection.  As with any quality assurance process, the fact-finding and documentation phases are at best detail-orientated, and at worst an endless stream of forms and checkboxes.  If left unstructured, all parties involved find the process long, boring, and frustrating.

Part of my expanded role has been to provide support to the parties involved.  The upfront result is that I can provide easier access to information and a sense of continuity with other programs in the School of Engineering, while the backend result is that I can help keep these reviews from spiralling out of control and going way over time.

Last week, I received a very warm and heartening piece of feedback from a faculty member.  After spending 3-hours locked in a room with the program team, we emerged with a decent SWOT analysis and some potential action items.  A faculty member approached me and praised me for my facilitation.  He noted that sometimes faculty can put on an air of negativity towards change or events that are beyond their control, and he felt that not only had I done a good job of redirecting negativity into something more constructive, but I also added a lot of valuable insight into the process, despite not being an engineer myself.

I thanked him for his comments and reflected on the process.  I realized that a lot of the tricks I used during facilitation were borne from books and ideas I’ve read recently.  I would be lying if I pretended to have come up with these ideas by myself.  Instead, I want to credit some of the books I’ve read with helping me to do my job better.

The following books are offered as potential sources of information.  I’m not including them because they are the best or the only authorities in their domains.  Instead, I include them because I found something valuable within their pages; value that helped me do my job better.

In no particular order, and with some brief comments, here are books that helped me connect with people and do my job better.

***

How To Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie

Slight disclosure – I haven’t had a chance to finish this book!  Perhaps a bad choice to kick off this list, but of the material I read it was already incredibly valuable.  Sure, this book is quite dated and perhaps is a reflection of a era that we have since abandoned.  However, as a person who found connecting with people difficult, I found the simple advice of empathy and seeking to solve the problems of others from their point of view to be useful in the workplace.  I often approach problems more collaboratively and with an open ear to the issues concerning others, which makes working with faculty a lot more productive.

***

Never Split The Difference by Chris Voss

Another confession – I haven’t finished this book yet (I only started it last week).  Chris Voss was an FBI hostage and terrorist negotiator, and has distilled his experience into this book.  Many of his suggestions run counter-intuitive to previous practices, but his claim is that they are effective.  Am I negotiating for the lives of hostages with faculty?  Absolutely not.  But am I working to find common ground with a group of people with diverse and unique needs?  You betcha I am.  Negotiation is all about establishing a report and making a connection with the other person, and I found that information in this book helps to open those doors with people who may or may not be fully invested in the process (or have agendas of their own).

***

The 80/20 Principle by Richard Koch

Finally, a book I’ve finished reading!  Including this book is less about helping me communicate with others and instead has helped me think differently on what we, as a team, need to put our effort towards.  Not every problem is worthy of our attention.  Through this book, I gained an appreciation for understanding that there is often an imbalance between the number of things that cause the bulk of our problems.  I’ve since started playing around with our review process and am proposing a radical reversal of how we think of program reviews.  Early feedback from Chairs and the Dean are quite positive, so I think I’m onto something when I propose that we find the key performance indicators for the top reasons why college programs do poorly.

***

Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek

Rather than a practical application book (though don’t misunderstand me, there is a lot of practical advice found here), I found the leadership philosophies discussed in this book to be insightful.  In order to get a collection of people moving in the same direction, you need to focus on what’s important and establish a top-down view of the organization.  Leadership starts at the top, but you need to also ensure that the people all down the line are empowered with a sense of direction, purpose and autonomy, and most importantly, a sense of trust.  While I don’t pretend to lead the team of faculty I’m working with, I can take steps to set up a safe environment where we can be free to discuss hard ideas, and we have a common direction to push towards.

***

Left of Bang by Patrick Van Horne and Jason A. Riley

I’m not including this to suggest that working at a College is like being in a war.  However, the same principles that this book discusses that keep Marines alive in combat can also be applied in everyday life.  I originally read this book to help me identify danger as a security guard at the bar, but I’ve also found that cluing into behavioural and environmental cues helps me to connect with others.  You learn to pick up on subtle nuances about how others think and feel, which can help you avoid problems and find common ground to work together.  Combat might be the extreme outlier, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn something from it.

***

Tribes by Seth Godin

Another leadership entry on this list to close things off.  While I don’t pretend to have any authority over my colleagues, I make sure to, at minimum, function as a supportive member of a team, and often provide leadership to help guide and decide the direction of the process.  This isn’t necessarily a top-down authoritative act, though.  Leaders need to help the group feel cohesive and unified, and more importantly, needs to give a sense of purpose and direction to the group.  At the College, we are seeking to provide the best educational experience for our students so that they go out and become supportive, contributing members of their communities (whether that’s the larger social community they live within, or the workplace they belong to).  To get people on board, you have to be willing to make others feel like they are a part of the team, rather than a means to your own ends.  We all have jobs to do, and we rely on others in order to do our own jobs, but that doesn’t mean you can make the process feel more like a collaboration.

***

Let me know what books you’ve found helpful to connect with others.  I’m always looking for book recommendations!

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Evolving Job Description

Having lost out on the competition for the new job at work, I’ve been motivated to consider how to position myself for future advancement at the college.  I’m trying to figure out what steps I can take to make myself a more attractive candidate.  One way I’m looking into is to turn back towards education and find a part-time online program I can take to add more credentials to my name.  I won’t dive too deep into what I’ve turned up yet, but I’m exploring a few options that could result in an additional bachelors degree in education, or even have me return for doctorate graduate studies.

Setting those aside for now, another way of improving myself is taking on additional roles and responsibility at work.  This is not to say that I’m looking to make myself busier, or becoming a martyr to work.  Instead, I’m looking at selectively adding roles that require me to learn more about curriculum and post-secondary education delivery.

I just got out of a meeting with my boss, where we discussed some avenues of growth she’s looking to take me in regarding student academic advising and program review process management.  By necessity, these new roles will require me to understand how curriculum fits together, and how students progress through their programs.  This deeper understanding will benefit me in the long-run and expose me to new areas of the college.

Coming out of this meeting, I reflected on my job at the college to date, and how it has evolved over time.  I realized that for each September I have been here (new academic year), my job changed from the previous year.

I started out as a temporary research assistant.

The next year, I was an assistant for the program advisory committees.

Then I added program review support the following year.

At the start of this year, I began teaching and I took on a more significant role with program reviews.  With this increased responsibility, my boss has also added academic advising at the start of 2017 – both to current and prospective students.

At each level, my job description has changed and evolved.  I’ve lost some minor, menial tasks, and I’ve automated others to free up cognitive space.  This is ultimately a good thing for me.  While I’ve been slowly improving my place at work (moving from contract, to part time, to full time permanent, and slowly earning more money along the way), I’ve been turning heads and catching people’s attention.  I may feel stagnant a times during the day-to-day grind, but it’s important to remind myself that I’ve been going nowhere but up since I started here.

 

Stay Awesome,

Ryan