“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

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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

What I’ve Been Reading (as of August 21st)

I enjoyed writing my last reading update from back in June, so I thought I’d give an updated list.  In full disclosure, I have only completed three of the five books I mentioned (the two outstanding books are Brooks’s Character and the biography of Cato), so I won’t include those on this list.

Here are five more books I’m reading at present.

Montaigne: A Life by Philippe Desan 

Considered the father of the modern essay, Montaigne has popped up in various references during my reading, from stoicism to observational commentary and timeless meditations.  I’m a sucker for biographies, and this book was recently released in English as a fairly authoritative account of Montaigne’s life, not as an extraction from his essays, but as a picture of the historical figure.

William Tecumseh Sherman: In Service of My Country: A Life by James Lee McDonough

Did I mention I’m a sucker for biographies?  This was a birthday present to myself last year, but I’ve only started digging into it.  Sherman is held up as an exemplar of restrained greatness.  He’s considered great in equal parts from talent, study, and luck (though often it was luck that helped him out).  But the reason why I picked this up was how he is often held up as a contrast to Ulysses S. Grant, another U.S. Northern Civil War General, who mismanaged his life and the U.S. Presidency after the war, whereas Sherman quietly continued his duties in the army until retirement and didn’t seek political office (or so I’ve heard, I haven’t read very far into the book).  Like Washington before him who declined to be the first king of the United States, I like reading about figures who manage to avoid the hard fall from grace after they acquire fame, power, or authority.  Also like Washington, I think it’s important to understand a full picture of history, warts and all.

168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think by Laura Vanderkam

I don’t actually own this book.  It was laying around my fiancee’s office for about a year, so I decided to start reading it one day and take it home.  I don’t expect a lot of insight from this book, but I do like reading anecdotes of how other people manage their time so that I can glean possible tips and tricks to apply to my own life.  In the last year or so, I’ve started being more mindful of my time, hence why my reading lists include a disproportionate amount of productivity and personal development books.

80,000 Hours: Finding a Fulfilling Career That Does Good by Benjamin J Todd

I’ve also been more mindful of my career recently.  With losing out on a few jobs recently (before and after interviewing), I’ve been considering my options for improving my career prospects through opening up opportunities, strategic skill acquisition, and relationship building.  While the content of this book is entirely online for free through the 80,000 Hours website, I purchased the book anyway to have all the information in one place.

Middlemarch by George Eliot

This book is brand new to the list as I only grabbed it from the library this past weekend.  I read about George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) in Brooks’s Character book (from the last list) and I was struck by her lauding of the average person in her fiction.  I, like many others, have found myself buying-in to the aspiration to greatness narrative – that to have a good life also means to be great, have impact, and cement yourself in history.  Middlemarch, and many other books by Eliot/Evans, chooses to laud the quiet efforts of the average person, who does their part and is praiseworthy in their steadfastness.  Brooks quoted the closing lines of Middlemarch in Road to Character that celebrated humble lives,

“But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who life faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Stay Awesome,

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