Last week I interviewed for a new position in the office. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not very good in interviews. As of writing, I have not heard back whether I’m moving to the next round of interviews (successful candidates will have a further interview with the manager and an interview with the College President), however I’m not overly optimistic that I’ll be selected.
When I say that I don’t do well in interviews, I have to own the fact that not doing well in interviews is wholly my fault. For last week’s interview, I spent time studying for the position and about engineering educational accreditation processes, and constructing a presentation about the key domains of the accreditation process, but I spent next to no time preparing my answers to the interview questions themselves. My preparation was largely to watch two mini-courses on Lynda.com on interview prep, and to take notes on some case examples I could bring up for achievement or behaviour questions. Only the night before, for about twenty minutes, did I have my wife run some sample questions past me. My lack of preparation and practice on answering questions is entirely on me.
I did have one insight, though, that gives me some solace. In thinking about how poorly I thought my interview went, I reflected on how many interviews I’ve done in my career to date. This was my 5th interview, and only my third interview for a non-entry level position. I realized that one of the reasons why I was so unprepared, and why I didn’t spend more time prepping my answers is that I don’t know how to prepare for a mid-career interview. The phrase “what got me here won’t get me there,” comes to mind in this scenario. I don’t yet have a clear picture of what I should be aiming at in interview questions.
I know the mechanics of the interviews – I should be demonstrating value to the employer and painting a picture of what I can do for them. I should consider what their questions are trying to elicit from me and tailor the response accordingly. When giving a behavioural- or achievement-based answer, make sure to ground the example using the STAR method (situation, task, action, results). Link strengths back to the job competencies, and identify weaknesses from the job competencies that I’m actively addressing. I know these facts, but because I lack confidence in myself I have a hard time selling it to others because I don’t believe it for myself. No amount of resentment towards the dog-and-pony show process will elevate me above other candidates.
If I want to succeed, I need to get better at playing their game.
I have carried some form of notebook for the last seven years or so. It started back at the tail end of grad school where I felt I needed a way to help me remember important appointments, meetings, and to capture to-do items. I started off by purchasing a Moleskine weekly calendar, which was great, but my cheap student mind didn’t like the added cost of the specialty book, whereas I could make the same book from a regular, ruled Moleskine. For the next two years, I would measure out the spacing and draw in the lines for the year. I appreciated the simplicity of the task and found it almost meditative, however I grew tired of having to do this at the start of each year.
Later, I switched from larger Moleskine notebooks to smaller, pocket books. Over time, I adopted the Field Notes brand of pocket notebooks as my go-to medium to capture thoughts, though I do keep an assortment of notebooks on hand (or on my shelf) for specialty purposes. The early days of Field Notes had me using a notebook until it was full, whether this was notes from a single month or from multiple months.
Eventually I settled on using one book per month, and started a fresh book every month, regardless of whether I fill the book or not. In this post, I’ll show you how I set up a notebook for the month of January, and provide some commentary on my choices.
The first step is to get a fresh notebook. You don’t have to use Field Notes, but I like the brand and the quality of the product. My only criteria when selecting a book is I prefer at least 48-pages that uses good paper and a grid pattern (either solid lines or dots). The paper is important because I use a specific kind of pen (I’ve settled on the Uniball Deluxe Micro as my preferred pen) that can easily bleed or smudge on poor quality paper as I write leftie.
The next step is to go through and number all of my pages. This is important because after I’m done with a book, I use an index (see below) to capture important pages that I want to reference in the future. The index does not capture any of the standard pages I set up at the start of the month, nor does it capture my individual days. Instead, it captures main to-do lists, important notes, or other things that I’ll need to find later. For instance, I use these physical books to remember passwords I rarely need to type. If I update a password, I note the date in my online calendar with a book reference (month, year, and page), so that I can go back and see what I set the password to. This doesn’t work when I’m out of the house, but I find this helps with keeping my rarely used passwords secure (instead of constantly answering security questions to reset the password).
After the index, I titled the second page my dream scratch pad. This is where I can do pie-in-the-sky thinking about things I want to do, accomplish, strive towards, covet, etc. To be honest, I rarely use this page, but I like to keep it on hand in the same place.
Next, any major to-do items get carried over. A lot of these have been on my carried-over to-do’s for some time, but I don’t want to forget about them (things like rolling over my passwords regularly, or little things I want to do around the house. If to-do items can be grouped under a specific theme (say, specific home repairs), they get their own lists later in the book. This page carries over everything else.
Next is my tracker page. This is where I track habits and other regularly occurring items so I can see them at glance. I list the dates along the left side (weekends get doubled-up so I can fit the entire month in), and each category of things to be tracked gets its own column. Some metrics are good things to track, while some of them I want to use to monitor my general health and well-being.
Since the entries per day are pretty short (not a lot of space), I keep this facing-page blank for additional notes on the month, if I need it.
On page 6, I capture my intentions and goals. I track goals and intentions a few ways. First, I have a “soul,” “mind,” “body” theme which allows me to focus on specific areas of my life (soul – social, philosophical, spiritual, etc.), (mind – learning, planning, etc.), and (body – physical health and wellness). I realize you can’t try and change too many habits at once and be successful, so these are just ways of helping me to prioritize things into themes, short-term and longer-term goals, and things I want to change. If page 6 is my capture page, page 7 would be where I would focus myself to a limited number of things. I would pick something from the previous page and devote more time or attention to it with specific plans and actions.
On page 8, I track some specific health indicators – my weight on the scale (left side), and my waist measurements (on the right axis) over time (the x-axis). Static views of single health metrics aren’t very helpful, so I’ve chosen to track weight and my waist as a better indicator of my overall progress in fitness. I’ve also started tracking blood pressure, which I input results for the day the data is collected as the systolic/diastolic reading.
Then, on page 9, I borrow a system I found on Reddit to track excuses. This is where I can measure intentions against action. For instance, if I set an intention to exercise and I skip it, I can capture what my excuse is for skipping it, assess whether it is legitimate (yes/no), and make notes on any ways I can mitigate the reality or implement solutions to keep my intentions.
Finally, on page 10, I start my first entry. Every day that I record in my notebook will receive a new page. I put the date across the top, then fill in tasks for the day, ideas, interesting quotes, or things to remember. Sometimes I’ll migrate thematic lists into this section, such as tasks I need to complete as Board Chair or for things around the house to repair.
This is the system I currently use. It borrows from a couple different sources, such as the original Moleskine planner I began with, elements from the Bullet Journal method, and good ideas I’ve found rambling through sites like Reddit. The notebook set-up iterates over time. I add and remove things depending on how useful I find them. Some of the items discussed above might get removed soon since I haven’t done a good job of keeping up with them, and therefore are no longer useful to me.
It is a little tedious to set up a new notebook every 30 or so days, but on the whole I like the systems I’ve developed and have found it immensely useful in my day-to-day life.
Share with me down below what kind of systems you use to help keep yourself on top of things. I’m always looking to borrow good ideas! I hope you found something here that was useful.
One of the hardest lessons I grapple with is treating systems (especially bureaucracies) as a series of “games.” By games, I’m treating it in the academic sense as a series of interactions between parties that has rules, outcomes/payoffs, and strategies. Being the meek person that I am, I tend to default to the assumption that the stated rules are all that there is, and you are expected to follow the prescribed process if you are seeking an outcome. The truth is, in most cases there are multiple strategies that you can use to seek out advantageous outcomes for yourself. Depending on how the rules are set up, you can avail yourself of several options, both sanctioned and unsanctioned.
For instance, in the case of students, you need to achieve a certain grade to pass a course (say, a 55%). There are a number of strategies you can use depending on what outcome you are seeking:
If you are seeking the highest grade possible – you study the textbook, attend lectures, attend office hours, learn the rubric, do well on assessments, and challenge grades to bump your marks up.
If you are seeking mastery of the content – you study the textbook, attend lectures, attend office hours to resolve unclear topics, research the topic, create good study notes, take practice tests, and learn from mistakes.
If you are seeking a moderate pass – you prioritize the work and tackle the highest value graded units to achieve at least a minimal passing grade, and you disregard low-return work that requires lots of effort for little ROI, you attend only the lectures required to get information you need, and likely get notes from peers.
If you are seeking a pass regardless of content mastery – you can cheat and hope you are not discovered by your professor, then deny any wrong-doing if caught or present excuses to justify your behaviour. If that doesn’t work, you appeal using the institutions mechanism.
Something to keep in mind is that cheating is still considered at “legitimate” strategy as long as you don’t get caught, because the goal is to secure your desired outcome. If you aren’t caught, it’s because your strategy beat out your opponent, and you won your outcome. It might be that cheating goes against the system or the intended processes put in place, but if an adequate system to police the rules isn’t in place, you can exploit that strategy to your advantage.
I hope it’s obvious that I’m not advocating for academic cheating. I do my best to guard against cheating because I think it runs counter to my goals as a teacher. I want my students to learn to play the game as I see it should be played, because the skills and strategies used for my class are both useful and valuable outside of my class – the ability to read a variety of perspectives with an open-mind, the ability to articulate your position with evidence, the ability to connect ideas across different knowledge domains, etc.
I exploit the same rules when I help students navigate their way through the institution’s byzantine labyrinths and silo’d departments when they come to me with problems in their program. I want them to get through their education with the least institutional friction and cost possible – school is hard enough and I don’t want them wasting time jumping through frivolous hoops because the systems aren’t set up optimally.
I sometimes feel irked or offended when I catch a student cheating, or catch someone lying to me. I try to check myself in those instances because I know it’s not meant as a personal slight against me when these things happen; it’s because of the incentive structures in place. A legitimate strategy is not available to the person, so they seek an alternative strategy to get what they want. They are playing a game and their strategy is competing against mine when they submit plagiarized work, or hand me a fake ID at the bar I work at. If my strategy is sufficiently robust, I can catch and counter their strategy. But if I’m also using a sub-optimal strategy, then it’s more likely the case that their strategy will exploit my complacency.
It’s nothing personal. It’s just how the institutional games work.
Post-secondary education has never been more accessible to the average person. We may have a long ways to go in terms of making courses more accessible for learners and reducing the financial barriers that keep students from being successful in school, but it is nevertheless an undeniable fact that there are more people who have been to post-secondary schooling than the entire history of people attending higher learning.
One issue with the proliferation of access is that it’s getting harder to stand-out in the workforce. With so many people carrying credentials, the golden ticket that a diploma or degree used to confer has lost some of its value. Your choices are to either go to industries where they are starving for workers (if you are looking for a solid career with good prospects, you should become a welder NOW), or figure out a way to become a better problem-solver to stand out amongst the crowd.
Another issue that complicates matters is that industry and technology is changing at such a rapid rate that you can no longer rest on your laurels that your program of study will adequately prepare you for work in your industry. The techniques, technologies, and skills you learn in your first year may be obsolete by the end of your final year.
Therefore, it’s important to develop your ability to self-educate. Knowing where you can find free or cheap resources can be a huge advantage when developing yourself in your career. Here are some of the resources I use to teach myself.
Top Spot: your Public Library
In my humble opinion, the public library is one of the greatest inventions of all time. Whether you are taking classes they offer, using resources in their catalog, or availing yourself of the free access to materials like online journals and portals, there is almost no limit to the access your library card can provide. When my HVAC system went on the fritz, I was able to check out an HVAC manual to help me learn just what the heck an HVAC system does so that I could understand what repairs were needed, and how to better care for the system in the future.
YouTube changed the game when it comes to sharing knowledge. Don’t get me wrong, books are great (the necessary precursor to the greatest invention of all time; see: public library entry), but unless your book has incredibly detailed diagrams, the video format will always be the superior resource for teaching hands-on skills. When I had to fix my roof, I turned to videos to learn how to remove individual shingles and replace them myself.
Coursera is all the benefits of attending lectures without the associated costs. Granted, if you want formal recognition of completing Coursera courses, you’ll need to pay for the access. However, nearly every Coursera course has the option for you to audit the course for free, which gives you access to the lecture content and some of the supplementary material.
Reddit (and other specialty discussion forums)
I suppose I should have used “Google” as the category here since I often will search for solutions through Google’s indexed results. However, dedicated online communities are some of the best resources to learn from. They often post comprehensive resources and how-to manuals, and are usually great about providing solutions when you are stuck on specific problems. If you can find a good community that isn’t locked behind a paywall, you can lose yourself for hours in it’s wealth of information.
While not a free resource, this is something that my employer has provided to its employees at no cost. You should check to see if your employer offers any services for employees to self-develop because you might be missing out on a ton of non-financial benefits. Lynda is a great resource for comprehensive courses on a wide variety of tech and business topics. It’s a bit restrictive if you are looking for non-business courses, but it’s worth checking out for learning the basics you’ll need to navigate your early career development.
Another paid service, I find Udemy great for high tech courses where I want to develop specific skills, such as in Python or in using Adobe software. I wait for courses to go on sale, and I snap up courses up to 90% off their full price.
My final suggestion is to tap your friends to see if anyone can help you learn new skills. Obviously, you don’t want to exploit your friends – you should pay for their services where appropriate. However, in some cases your friends can be great resources to tackle projects. Not only do you get to leverage their unique skills or experience, but you also get quality time together. My entire podcast and music run for Woot Suit Riot has been some of the most formative experiences I’ve had, all because I was making stuff with friends.
All of this is framed as advice to help you in your career, however the truth is that you should be seeking to educate yourself for any project your’re interested in, regardless of whether you can get paid for the skills or not. I took painting classes earlier this year at my local art store because I wanted to learn how to paint. This isn’t a skillset that directly will get me promoted, but it rounds me out and allows me to explore my creative side.
The point of self-education or self-development is for you to become more of the person you want to be. It’s often hard work, but the experiences are well-worth the effort.
I carry a physical notebook with me pretty much at all times so that I can jot down to-do lists, ideas, quotes, etc. While my commonplace book system is great, I wanted a better system for tracking those spur of the moment ideas that I want to file away for later, such as blog posts, vlog ideas, career ideas, etc. I could record it in my notebook, but then I would either need a way to collect them at the end of each month when I switch to a new notebook, or I would be forced to copy them over month to month.
The system needed two things. First, it needed to be mobile. My notebook is mobile, but for the reasons above, it was proving to be inadequate. Tracking ideas in a document or spreadsheet from my computer solves the ease of use problem, but it limits the mobility. Similarly, just having a digital file on something like Dropbox is cumbersome because, while I can access it from my smartphone, navigating the file directory on my phone is tedious and updating files on a small screen is frustrating for something that I wanted to be quick and painless.
The second need, alluded to in the problems above, is that it needs to be frictionless. The more complex a system is, the less likely I am to use it over time. Hacks, systems, tricks, and tips are great, but if it’s a chore to use and implement, I tend to abandon them relatively quickly because, let’s face it, I’m weak-willed and lazy (see any of my posts about failing to go to the gym…)
With those two considerations in mind, I stumbled on an option and found inspiration in a video my vlogging partner, Jim, posted on Youtube:
I set about to appropriate his system and adapted it for my own use.
I created an IFTTT (IF This Then That) action that when I made a note from a homescreen widget on my phone, it would automatically save it to a designated spreadsheet in my Google Drive.
I have it set up to just record the date and time of the note, and the notes content to the next empty row.
In Google Drive, I set up a new spreadsheet with multiple tabs. This way, all the ideas come from my phone to the first tab of the spreadsheet. From there, I can move the ideas to different tabs to better organize them by category. In the green cells, I note where I moved the idea, then I hide the relevant row when the information is copied over. This allows me to have all the ideas collected in one place (the front page), but completed actions are hidden to streamline the process.
All that was left to do was set up a widget on my phone and start recording ideas. The widget for IFTTT was already available as an option, so I didn’t need to download any extra applications.
It’s been a handy system so far. I can access the sheet from my phone, but primarily I need it on my computer, so the cross-platform utility is great for me. It also allows me to captures a wide variety of ideas without needing to put them to separate lists initially, whereas if I captured these in my notebook, it would be hard to sort, search, and categorize without dedicated lists. I like the flexibility and the streamlined process.
Let me know if you have any systems that you find handy. I’m always on the lookout for good ideas to test out.
There seems to be a publishing cycle, where every year a new slew of articles are released to damn personality tests, such as the Myers-Briggs. Lifehacker published one recently, and a book was released at the end of summer about the mother-daughter duo who created the assessment tool, which can be paired with a book released a decade ago discussing personality tests more broadly.
A few years back, I was thinking about my career, and I happened to take the test. According to it, I’m a INTP, the Logician, an introverted big-thinker who is logical but adaptive. A year later, I took the test again and I drifted into ENTJ territory; apparently in that time I became more extroverted and more rigid in my planning.
This, of course, is the biggest issue with these personality tests. They tend to overly rely on generalizations of fluid behaviours and attitudes. People rarely have stable traits over time, and the test tends to loosely clump these together in attempt to create a meaningful picture. In this, the Myers-Briggs is nether reliable nor valid from a scientific point of view. As the Lifehacker article points out, along with many others, it’s dangerous when you base decisions on the conclusions drawn from these tests for things like dealing with others or hiring employees. The best thing you can do, the article claims, is to use it as a fun conversation starter and nothing more.
But I find value in the tests for another reason.
Humans are drawn to stories. We like crafting narratives to explain events and give meaning to our lives. While we would want our stories to align with true accounts of history or phenomena (a book I recently bought argues that it’s not possible), we can still find value in stories that are not, strictly speaking, true (I’m appealing to a coherence-model of truth, rather than a correspondence-model of truth; I never thought I’d drag that grad course back up in conversation again…). We can find value in a story even if we are agnostic towards it being literally true or corresponding to a fact “out there” in the world.
When it comes to my career, one problem I have is that I have a hard time knowing how to sell myself. When you are crafting your resume or CV, or when you are interviewing for a position, you are trying to create an appealing story of yourself. You are painting a picture of the kind of person you are that aligns with the demands of the job or the needs of the employer. Sometimes, it’s hard to create a compelling story for yourself. You don’t know what to include, what to leave out, and what needs some mild spin. You have to decide how to play-up key points and downplay unsavory details. How you choose to connect the dots can make a large impact on what others will think of you as a candidate. You don’t want to be dishonest, but sometimes the “truth” is very compelling.
One critical area that the Myers-Briggs can offer value is providing inspiration for how to tell that story. It creates neat little packages that arranges details in interesting ways. It allows you to take the generalizations and apply them to your own experiences. It’s the same trick astrology uses – if you make a statement sufficiently ambiguous, you can find confirming evidence to support it. Using this to your advantage, you can create a compelling backstory for yourself while also prompting you to fill in the details with good stories.
And if something does fit? Leave it out and move on.
As long as you don’t pigeonhole yourself, you can tell a story about you that shows how valuable, interesting, and desirable you are to others. The Myers-Briggs can offer some themes and typologies to help sell the best version of you. Just don’t believe everything you read.
Post-Script: After I drafted this post last week, Seth Godin posted some thoughts about changing your story. If I’m randomly coming up with ideas that coheres with advice from Seth, I count myself in good company.
While I haven’t finished reading it, I have been thinking about the book Principles by Ray Dalio. As the title of the book suggests, Dalio has published his comprehensive list of principles that Bridgewater Associates uses as part of its decision-making framework. He encourages others to adopt this method for refining processes and capturing on paper a person’s or organization’s core beliefs through carefully considered principles. The thinking is that these principles create a process for filtering information so that decisions remain within scope by removing extraneous considerations.
I have a notebook that I use to jot down thoughts about myself and my personal development. I needed a place to collect my thoughts in one place about where I am, what direction I am heading, and where I want to go in both life and career.
Recently, I started sketching out some ideas for what my own list of Principles would look like. I suppose “principles” might be the wrong word. “Beliefs” might be a better word; “aspirations” also fits in there because I know that I don’t always do the things that I believe I should do (for instance, 5a and 5b below are things I conveniently forget when I’m mad at someone).
This is an incomplete, work-in-progress list. I’m not even sure that I’m heading in the right direction, but these were the five things that came to mind when I first sat down to start collecting these thoughts. Below, I have transcribed the notes seen in the photo above.
Many of these ideas have been taken from the various books I’ve read over the last few years. I suppose it’s a bit of a distillation of all the ideas that were strong enough to make an impression with me. I expect that this list will need many more additions and revisions, but keeping it a living document would be beneficial to capture how I grow as a person over time.
1.) Establish a locus of control
a.) Live intentionally, not reactionary/re-actively
b.) Don’t fly on autopilot on non-value added things (watching Netflix, YouTube)
c.) Automate necessary tasks; set-it-and-forget-it routines
2.) Extreme Ownership
a.) Take ownership over outcomes
b.) Bad stuff happening might not be your fault, but it’s your problem and your responsibility for the solution
c. View setbacks as opportunities for new or different things (“Good” ~Jocko)
3.) Radical Forgiveness
a.) Accept that you are flawed and subject to irrationality
b.) You will make mistakes (and have bad judgement)* – be comfortable with that
c.) Mistakes are fine as long as you learn and grow from them. Don’t do it again
d.) Dust-off, re-centre, recalibrate, re-engage
4.) Define the problem – Gene Kranz
a.) Determine the scope
b.) Focus on delta’s, not negatives
c.) Never bring problems to your boss unless you genuinely can’t solve them
a.) Remember the Fundamental Attribution Error
b.) You don’t know the struggles people are grappling with, or their history prior to your interaction
c.) People want assurance that they are being heard; that they matter
d.) Never attribute to malice which can be accounted for by ego, ignorance, or differing priorities
*Note added after I photographed the page from my notebook