My Best Blog Post (to date)

I set up  this blog as a way to force myself to write.  With a few minor exceptions, I’ve managed to put out a post every Monday morning for the last few years.  While the tone and theme of the blog shifts around a bit, it’s been a pretty consistent thing.

One thing that is surprising to me is the top blog post on the site.  There is one post that consistently gets more traffic than any of the others (almost daily, in fact).  If I didn’t have access to the metrics, I would have never guessed which one it is.

My best blog post, to date is ……. (*drum roll*)….

Zombies, Run! 5K Training App Review

Yeah, no kidding.

It’s far and away the most popular post.  It’s more popular than my landing page, which means that people often find my blog through a Google search before clicking through to the rest of the site.  Below is my top 15 pages according to views.

Top 15

I suppose there are a few good takeaways I could make use of if I were looking to optimize this blog for hits or monetization.  First, writing reviews of popular apps gets a lot of clicks.  As does talking about health and fitness (or, more specifically, failing at health and fitness).  And finally, people like reading about life/career developments – and posting your content to Facebook for your friends and family to read will get you a good number of hits each time.

I suppose now I have a goal to write something that will drive more traffic than Zombie, Run!  Good luck to me.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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Office Cards

Until I started working in an office, I had never experienced the “office cards” thing myself.  I actually didn’t realize it was a thing until recently, either.  This is likely to be attributed to the gendered roles of emotional labour – I, as a man, don’t really think about these sorts of things because they aren’t expected of me.  But, in our office, cards are reliably circulated and initiated by the women of our office.  I’m not saying this is right or fair.  The truth is, I should take a more proactive role in these sorts of community-building activities because of my membership to the group.   In my personal life, I’ve taken the habit with a few friends to regularly send letters or thank-you cards for things that happen, but within a work context, I’ve yet to take the initiative.

Before I left the office for my wedding, my colleagues and bosses gathered around my cubicle to give me a card and wish me well for my upcoming nuptials.  The gave me a card with a gift inside.  The gift was thoughtful, but truthfully I appreciate the card more.  Everyone in the office had signed it without me knowing (as is protocol).  A part of me knows that taking a moment to sign a card (especially when everyone is doing it) is a fairly low-effort discharge of obligation; you sign it because someone puts it in front of you and you’d be rude to refuse.

Nevertheless, when I read over the card, and saw everyone’s signatures and well-wishes, it made me happy to be included.  I felt a surge of warmth that my colleagues took the time to do this for me.  I felt the same way when some of the faculty also signed a card to my wife and I.

And this morning, a card was circulated to celebrate one of our faculty members becoming a grandmother.  I felt joy to sign the card, to wish my colleague well and celebrate the birth of her grandchild.  It’s such a small but powerful gesture.

But it’s something I felt like I’ve lost until only recently.  I don’t know if it’s because it wasn’t as common with my family to give cards when I was growing up, or (the more likely case) that as a child I didn’t understand its significance.  That lack of understanding and awareness then was transformed during my transition to adulthood by my lack of care for these sorts of emotional efforts in general.  As I mentioned at the top of the post, men aren’t socialized or expected to perform these sorts of tasks, and I’m no exception to this.  It isn’t asked of me, nor am I expected to think of these things.  Further, no one would blame me for not thinking of this, and I would likely receive a lot of praise if I did.

Truthfully, I’m a lazy person, and I like that this kind of expectation isn’t placed on me.  It gives me a free pass to coast and disengage.  But, I also acknowledge two things: first, it’s not fair that I get a pass for being a guy while these tasks are expected of women; and second, that receiving signed cards brings me joy, which should motivate me to do the same for others in similar circumstances.

Card that express joy for others fortunes, or cards that acknowledge pain and grief in others are worth sending, because it’s a small, uncommon way to stay connected to others in personal ways.  It’s something I should do more often.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Student Coaching

Lately, I’ve noticed that in addition to my roles of administration and teaching, I’ve been spending more time coaching students.  It tends to come up in small ways, such as offering suggestions on how to word emails or how a student should approach talking to their professor about something in their class.  At first I was a little uncomfortable with taking on a coaching role when it wasn’t really part of my job.  That’s not to say I’m uncomfortable with doing tasks that are not explicitly written into my job description.  Instead, I was uncomfortable because I wasn’t sure if it was my place to offer guidance.  Sure, I might be a decade older than most of the students, but I sometimes struggle with the impostor syndrome: what do I know?  I’m just a lowly administrative assistant.

Having said that, I recognized a fundamental truth that I think many people take for granted – students are young.  I don’t just mean young in age, but also young in experience.  Most students haven’t had the same experiences I’ve had, whether that is my post-secondary schooling, grad school, or work.  Things that I take for granted that come second nature to me are wildly new for students just coming into school.  It’s even worse for students who are first-generation college/university students (like I was).  For some, they haven’t had a lot of experience navigating systems on their own.

We bemoan the helicopter parents and make snide remarks that students don’t know anything (i.e. “life skills”), but I think we should have more empathy.  Post-secondary is a big, scary place to navigate.  If it’s your first time living away from home, having to manage your own schedule, finances, and life, would you not also feel overwhelmed?

Instead of starting with the assumption that students are lazy, or wanting everything fed to them on a silver spoon, I try to take the approach that students don’t know how to narrow down their options or choose a path.  They are the modern Buridan’s ass stuck between competing options with no practical way of making decisions or selecting priorities.  Instead they focus on what’s immediate and take the path of least resistance (for them at the time).  Without a longer view and a chain of successes, their choices may seem short-sighted, but in their context it makes sense to them.  If you couple that kind of decision framework with the complex, convoluted machinery that is “real life,” you can hardly be surprised when students make sub-optimal decisions.

In light of this, my response is not to infantilize them, nor chide them for what one would judge to be their bad decisions.  Instead, I offer my perspective and anecdotes to provide teachable moments.  I provide insight into byzantine rule structures and explain my reasoning.  And I ultimately leave decisions or action up to them.  They must take ownership of the process because they have to be accountable for the outcomes.  The point of education is to create a safe space to fail and learn.  Therefore, our goal should be to set students up for success but also provide them with the opportunity to learn through their mistakes, not by punishing them into doing the right thing.  Rote learning works in some contexts, but in order to make deeper connections between ideas and develop ones ability to reason, students need to be coached on how to shift their perspective and see new connections.

And so, I sometimes coach students.  It’s pretty interesting so far.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

Public Speaking Bomb

Happy Labour Day!  Things have been busy here at work while we gear up for the new academic year.  Students are around, schedules are messed up, and people are scrambling to get back into the right mindset to kick off the new term.  Things are bustling and busy.

I don’t intent to keep a post trend going, but I wanted to ride some of the wave from last week’s psych-out post and talk about another recent failure I experienced at work.

Last week, I had to give a short presentation to college faculty about the research ethics board I’m on.  The purpose of the presentation was to remind faculty that the board exists, and to have them consider whether an ethics review is needed for their or their student’s projects.  I had a 15-minute block of time and a slide-deck provided by our board coordinator.

After the presentation, I sat down and wrote out all the ways the presentation sucked.  In fairness, two of my colleagues went out of their way to complement my presentation,  and that they took away the two main deliverables (that student research projects should be run by the board, and that I’m available on campus to answer questions).  I checked in with my boss and she, too, agreed that the presentation was not a failure as I saw it.  I know that my perception of how things went will be dramatically different than how others perceive me.  Nevertheless, I know that I am capable of doing much better and the main culprit of my failure was because I didn’t practice out loud before the talk.

Here is the list I generated:

Everything that went wrong (and why):

  • Didn’t practice the slides
  • Didn’t build the deck (it was pre-made and sent to me; building the deck would have made me more familiar with the content by necessity)
  • Too rushed
  • Unstable speaking patterns (rambling ticks)
  • Poor intro
  • Poor conclusion
  • Didn’t plan my transitions
  • Didn’t know how the transitions were set in the slide (i.e. need to click to reveal text)
  • Missed content from the page.
  • Had to look at screen to figure out where I was
  • Didn’t know I’d have to hold a microphone (I knew this from past All Faculty meetings, but I should have anticipated it)
  • I was holding the mic and the presentation remote – my hands were full
  • Didn’t pause to calm down or collect my thoughts
  • Bad presentation but saved with good will from prior relationships with faculty + my position (junior to the faculty)
  • finished in 8min or 15min.
  • Didn’t have a firm point in mind that I wanted them to take away from talk.
  • Didn’t edit slides to remove non-essential content

You can’t win them all, but it’s important to know where you go wrong so you don’t make the same mistakes again.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

Policy vs. Guidance Pedagogy

During an ethics board meeting recently, we discussed ways of providing direction to faculty members who have student-based research in their courses.  For faculty who have research elements built into their courses, it can be a challenge to determine what counts as research, and whether said research is subject to the rules governing conducting research at an institution (specifically in our case, whether an ethics application would need to be submitted to the board).  Not every scholarly activity necessarily counts as research, and not every kind of research requires an approval from the institutional research ethics board.  Since this can be a bit of a murky area, we have been considering ways of providing direction.

The conversation abstracted away from the specifics of this case, and we discussed some of the issues concerning policy and guidance, which applies to education and pedagogy more generally.

The benefit of policy is that it spells out clear expectations of what is expected, what the division of responsibility looks like, and what consequences might be considered in the event of a policy breach.  Policy is designed to protect the institution through due diligence, and it focuses on expressing what rules need to be followed in order to not get into trouble.  Loopholes arise when the policies are not sufficiently rigorous the cover contingency cases and when policies are not harmonized laterally or vertically with other policies.  Policy documents focus on the “ends.”

On the other hand, guidance documents focus on the “means” by providing suggestions and best practices that could be followed.  Guidance documents typically do not include comprehensive rules unless it’s appropriate.  Instead, the purpose of the guidance document is to provide clarity in ambiguity without necessarily spelling things out.  They are deliberately left open because guidance documents are meant to supplement and add to ongoing conversations within a field or system.  While guidance documents also do not provide comprehensive options to contingent situations, the strength of the guidance document is that it’s educational in intent – it provides reasoning that helps the reader understand the position it takes, and paints a vision of what success looks like.

I realized in the meeting that this has a lot of crossover into considerations for teaching.  It’s is better, in my opinion, to teach students frameworks for thinking, rather than rules for success.  In the case of ethics, I would avoid teaching students what rules they need to follow, and what they need to do to avoid getting into trouble.  Instead, I would seek to build good practices and habits into the material I’m teaching so that I can model what success looks like and help them understand why.  This way of conceiving the material is forward-thinking.  It gets the students to envision what the end-step looks like, and allows them to work backwards to figure out how they want to arrive there.  By focusing on the principles you want the students to uphold (as opposed to rules to follow), the students learn to think for themselves and are able to justify the decisions they make.  This also has the benefit of avoiding the problem with prescriptive policies – students are prepared to reason through novel situations based on principles.

 

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

It’s Not Easy Being Chair

I recently took over as Chair of the Board for the non-profit I sit on.  So far, I’ve chaired two meetings and I have to admit I feel out of my element.  I don’t mean that I’m not able to carry out the job – I seem to be doing alright by the feedback I’m receiving from the other board members.

It’s one thing to sit as a board member and evaluate how a meeting is being run, spotting pieces here and there that could be run more efficiently, or structured different, but it’s an entirely different thing to actually run the show.  I think the past Chair did a fantastic job, so when I say there were things that could be more efficient, I don’t mean it as a criticism.  What I mean is, when someone else is putting things into motion, it’s easy to see various areas where something could be done better.  But when you are the one putting things into motion and steering the ship, you spend so much time keeping things going that you don’t have the time or the mental bandwidth to evaluate things in real time and adjust for efficiency.

Before, I would receive the agenda, figure out where I could contribute to the discussion, show up and sit in as part of the group (which sometimes amounted to sitting back and letting others run the discussion).  Now, I make the agenda and set the tone, then I have to be the one to get the discussion rolling.  It falls to me to manage the Board’s caseload, and lead any strategic directions we choose to go.  In time, it’ll also fall to me to work within my mandate from the Board and start the generative process of strengthening the organization and planning for the future.

Based on these last two meetings, it’s going to be a long time before I’m leading in any meaningful sense of the word.  The best way I can describe my performance is managing how much force is getting applied to the flywheel to ensure momentum isn’t lost.  When I reflect on my performance, it feels awkward and a little weak (wishy-washy, as opposed to done with a sense of conviction).

My default state is to excessively talk and look to the body language of others to see if they are receptive to what I’m saying.  If I sense they are not understanding me, I keep talking and hope that if I throw everything at them, they’ll understand what I’m saying.  A friend once likened it to a faucet.  Where I should be dialing things back, I instead open the valve and give them a fire hose of information.   Of course, this is the opposite of what I should be doing as a leader of a group like this.  I should spend less time talking and more time listening to the wisdom of the group.

The good thing is that it’s early in my tenure so there is plenty of time to get more comfortable in the role and learn how to settle into a groove.  Like I said, I’m not doing a bad job.  The rest of the group is fine with how the last two meetings went.  This is merely my critical self-reflection coupled with my desire to do better.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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