“Kids These Days” Part 2

Last week, I reflected on the grading process and the tendency for us as faculty to sometimes judge that a student’s performance is more tied to internal motivation issues rather than external issues and a lack of experience.  When you think of a cohort of students, you can group them into three categories – the group that “gets it” and performs well, the group that is motivated but has knowledge gaps, and the group that lacks the motivation to want to meet the course outcomes.  Of course, these are simplistic categories, but I think it’s a useful illustration of how faculty approach their class, because how we choose to define the middle category impacts how we think about students and their performance.  If you frame the discussion around a group of students who want to be helped (are motivated to succeed), then you are more likely to want to extend yourself to help the student.  However, if you frame the conversation around whether the student should bootstrap themselves to catch up, you might be less willing to take extenuating circumstances into account.

When we assume that students are the sole reason for their failure, it’s possible for us to close off other considerations that questions whether we are dealing with a level playing field.  I don’t mean to say that students should not be responsible for their performance (and by extension, failure).  We as teachers must hold students accountable to their performance.  Yet, when a student fails to meet an objective, we should ask ourselves a number of questions:

  • Was the assessment fair?
  • Was the assessment clearly communicated?
  • Should the student have worked “harder” or “smarter”?
  • Is there something I could have done to better prepare the student?
  • Was there factors that influenced the student’s performance?

It is this last bullet point I’d like to discuss, because I think there is something really interesting going on that we often miss.

Engineering programs share a common trait – the problems are hard and the only way you will get the material is by slogging through the practice problems.  Many of the concepts are difficult to master, and the only way you can see the internal logic is to grind through problems, get feedback, and understand where you go wrong so that you can fix your methodology.  Some students appear gifted and grasp concepts easier, but most engineers will tell you stories of how they spent huge chunks of their time on manual computation.

Setting aside discussions about learning styles, this way of learning how to be an engineer is a good reflection of how the brain works.  The brain really hasn’t changed much in the last few thousand years, and we haven’t found genuine shortcuts to get around this limitation.  Structured education, being the only systematic way that allows you to efficiently teach advanced concepts, is the best approach to bringing someone to proficiency.

BUT

Students aren’t just students.  They are also members of this cultural and historical epoch.  Outside of the classroom, their lives are informed by culture, technology, and social norms, and increasingly over the last several decades, culture and technology has prioritized reducing friction.  Technology and corporations are incentivized to innovate ways of reducing barriers in our lives.  The technologies and corporations that achieve this end up shaping culture.  We spend less time focusing on basic survival, sustenance, communication, and transportation, because technology, innovation, and scale has reduced the time and resources we need to devote to these tasks.

As an experiment, consider this: when was the last time you had to carry cash?  For the average person, you can go weeks without needing to go to a bank.  Almost everything in your life can be handled through banking cards, e-transfers, direct deposits, and apps that instantaneously resolve payment upon the completion of service.  These services are available to us because they make things frictionless (and this is good for corporations because it helps us spend more).

If you want to buy stuff, you order it online.  If you want entertainment, you can find it on-demand.  If you don’t know something, a search algorithm will sort and rank answers for you.  If you don’t know how to do something, video tutorials are freely available with a few keystrokes and clicks to walk you through it.

Life outside of the classroom is frictionless, and yet we are insulted when students expect their experience in the classroom to conform to every other experience they live through in their daily lives.  Students ask for shortcuts to mastering hard concepts because literally everything else in their life operates this way.  The surface level encounters they experience have been refined through intentionally designing the user-interface (UI) and user-experience (UX).  Students have little grasp of the underlying mechanisms that hold this up because they’ve never had to worry about it.  If something breaks, it is either repaired as a service, or we cast away the broken and move on with purchasing new.

I was an undergrad student in the mid-aughts, and when I look at what life is like for students now compared to when I was a freshman in the dorm, I am startled at how easy it was for me to be a student.  I didn’t have the distractions that students experience today.  My life was less guided by algorithms and the whims of corporations and technology.  You may argue that technology has put the world at student’s fingertips today, but I think that the signal-to-noise ratio has shifted from my time.  Yes, I had to work harder to get answers, but that’s because there was less distraction clogging my search.  And don’t get me started on the attention economy and designing to maximize user engagement…

When we dismiss performance as being the result of “kids these days” not valuing hard work, we miss the fact that there is no incentive for the kids to work hard when life has grown frictionless.  I personally now value friction, because I understand what friction does for the learning process.  Much in the same way that you have to introduce low level stress to the body (exercise) in order to promote health, the introduction of friction can be a good thing.  But without understanding the motivations and lived experiences of your students, your demand for frictioned lives reduces you down to an old person yelling at the clouds.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

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Was My “Really Good Day” Healthy?

Last week, I discussed how I felt really good after a particularly productive day.  Just as I was drafting the post, I shared my thoughts with my wife.  She was happy for my sense of accomplishment and expressed encouraging words about the value of feeling fulfilled, productive, and useful.  But, I didn’t just marry her to build me up; my wife is also my best sounding board to check my intuitions.

In her wisdom, she asked if that kind of feeling of satisfaction is a healthy one.  I knew what she was getting at right away.  She wasn’t expressing skepticism about this one instance, but instead she was gesturing at a longer trend of mine.

I have a mindset and set of expectations on myself that are dangerously close to being unhealthy, to the point where I know I would never try and convince a person to adopt it themselves.

You see, I hate feeling like I’m wasting my time.  I don’t mean this in a hustle/grind sort of way, nor does this mean that I don’t waste loads of my time (hello YouTube; you are my true weakness).

I hate napping because I feel like it’s a waste of my time.

I should qualify that a little bit.  When I say a waste of my time, I don’t mean that napping isn’t good for me.  I know that sleep is good.  Sleep will rejuvenate you, help your brain work better, help you feel better, etc.

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A friend conveniently shared this meme on Facebook while I was brainstorming this post.

When I say that napping is a waste of my time, I mean it in an existential sense.  When I sleep, I am unconscious, and when I’m unconscious, time slips past me faster.  It’s almost like time travel.  I go to sleep and wake up in the future.  All the time in the middle is gone, and I can never get it back.  I have done nothing, and made no memories.

This line of thinking extends to downtime.  I don’t handle downtime very well, often feeling guilty to take time to myself to mindlessly indulge in “non-productive” things (the aforementioned YouTube, movies/tv, videogames, etc).  When I give myself permission to focus on fun things, it’s always clouded with the knowledge that by taking time to do a fun thing, it’s time not spent on something productive, and no matter how much fun I have, I know that those tasks and projects I need to work on will still have to be done.  I’m not trading off tasks; I’m delaying progress because time runs linearly.

My wife (rhetorically) asked if this line of thinking is sustainable, and it is obviously not.  Indeed, she rightfully labelled it as a stupid worldview to hold.

The real problem is that while I would never advocate for anyone else to frame their worldview in these terms, I want to (and choose to) do it for myself.  I think this is largely because I’m so disordered in my productivity and I’m always battling against my akrasia (a fancy Greek term for making bad decisions due to weakness of the will).  It’s my way of punishing myself for not focusing when I want to focus.

The reason why I mentioned that this is an existential problem for me is because when I think about my mortality, I know that every moment that passes is bringing me closer to death.  Every moment that I spend watching YouTube videos instead of getting stuff done is non-renewable time that I can’t get back and exchange for time on more important things like my wife, my dog, family, friends, or leisurely pursuits.  Realistically, I have finite time, a finite number of heartbeats, and no way of buying more.  Instead, decisions like not going to the gym, not sleeping, or eating unhealthily have the opposite effect and are likely shortening my life.

I know this is stupid.  I know this is unhealthy.  And I don’t have a good solution to address it.  This isn’t a case of believing that hustling for the sake of hustling is inherently virtuous.  Quite the opposite, I think grinding away should be in service of something higher than itself.  This is, plainly, a different flavour of a fear of missing out.  I’m worried about missing out on things by not being productive.

I don’t have an adequate response to the charge that my worldview is not good.  At least I have some semblance of self-awareness and a great partner in my wife that calls me out on my shenanigans.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

How I Set Up My Notebook

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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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Tracked items, left to right – (Gr – German lessons on Duolingo), (L – when I’m late for something), (D – when I’m having a down or depressed day), (H – when I have a headache; at the bottom of the page I have a scoring system for how bad they are), (Ex – days I intentionally exercise), (Fr – time intentionally spent with friends or family), (7 – nights I track seven or more hours of sleep on my Fitbit).

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

New Year’s Fitness Post Spike

With the turning of the new year, I spotted an interesting trend for my blog traffic.

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Starting on the 27th of December, I had a relatively huge spike in traffic for my blog.  I’ve written about it before, but this was the first time I’ve seen such a consistent spike for a single article around a specific, meaningful date.  In this case, as the new year approached, it would appear that people began searching for health and fitness options and through their searches, they stumbled across my brief review from January last year of the Zombies, Run! 5K Training app.  I joked with a friend that since fitness posts generally account for my top posts here, if I wanted to monetize this site I should switch to posting just fitness content – seven of my top twenty posts of all time are fitness related.

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I continued to see higher than usual traffic to that post over the week, but now my web traffic has starting to level off a bit, so I suppose whatever actions people intended to take for the new year are (hopefully) well under way.  And for those who stumbled across my review, I hope that my words were useful for you.  If you have used my post to help you make a decision about using the app, drop me a line in the comments.  I’m curious what, if anything, you found valuable, and if I missed anything you were hoping to learn.

In the meantime, I hope your year has kicked off well and you are working hard towards your goals.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Hot Yoga Kicked My Ass – Some Thoughts

Last week, a group of friends and I attended a hot yoga session.  We, as a group, meet once per month to do an activity, and the October leader chose to have us join him for hot yoga.  I had some prior experience attending yoga classes, but this was my first time in a “hot yoga” session.  By the end of the hour, I looked like I had jumped in a lake.  My Fitbit tracked my heart rate and it had looked like I was running sprints.

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My max heart rate was 153bpm, during the hour-long session.

It was challenging, uncomfortable, and brutal.  In other words, it was awesome!

I’m not saying that I’m going to sign-up with my local studio or start buying into the lifestyle; I’m still paying for a gym membership that I don’t use, so I don’t need another cost to my monthly budget.  However, I found the experience interesting and invigorating, and I’d gladly go again in the future.

Cultural appropriation concerns aside, I’m fully on-board with the physical practice of yoga for health and fitness.  Western yoga tends to have a lot of stereotypes and negative perceptions attached to it, but the act itself can be a legitimately hard, physical activity that raises your heart rate, requires a lot of strength for the body-weight movements, and provides the same calming effect you get when you focus on process movements.

I’ve attended a handful of classes and tried routines at home a few times, so I’m not qualified to offer any opinions on yoga.  However, I’ll offer a few observations and thoughts on my experiences as a beginner:

  1. While I’ve never had a bad instructor, I was incredibly thankful that the two people I’ve had leading classes were super friendly, approachable, and accessible.  You feel incredibly awkward walking into your first class, and you assume that everyone is silently judging how bad you are at it.  Having a good instructor in front of you really helps you get into things, and their ability to break down the poses and movements with verbal cues really aids in immersing yourself in the experience.
  2. At the recommendation of a friend, I’ve attempted doing yoga at home by following along with an instructor’s video on YouTube (my go-to channel is Sarah Beth Yoga).  While doing yoga at home is more convenient, cheaper, and less awkward, I still find value in doing yoga in a group setting.  It feels more rewarding in the end to share the experience with others, and having a dedicated time to show up makes you more accountable.
  3. If you are going to buy anything, I recommend buying your own mat.  I’ve used it for yoga as well as doing tabatas at home.  I also recommend buying a thicker mat (the standard mat is really thin) because being a heavy guy, it helps cushion my wrists and knees in the various poses.  Bring a towel because the thicker mat doesn’t appear to have the same grip when you’re sweaty.
  4. BRING WATER!  STAY HYDRATED!  This applies to non-hot yoga as well.
  5. I found the act of yoga to help clear my mind.  Again, cultural appropriation questions aside, going through the motions intentionally and being mindful of what your body is doing or “saying” to you helps with the mind-body connection.  There is something about focusing on your breathing and your movements that creates a singular focus that pushes extraneous thoughts out of your mind.  The added layer of music and sanskrit words pulls your attention away from the past or future considerations and instead into the present.
  6. Speaking of sanskrit, I don’t get too bogged down in the culture.  When in the yoga studio space, I try to be mindful of others and the practice, but because I don’t know too much about the history or origins of yoga, I remain agnostic but open towards the cultural or spiritual side.  It’s not my place to judge, and smarter people than I can weigh-in on the validity of different kinds of yoga practices.  I find value in the physical movement and the slower pace of the activity.
  7. Having said that, I know that as a white dude participating in an appropriated practice from Hinduism, India, and the Desi people, it is loaded with problems (see the link above).  My participation adds to the watering down of a rich culture from which the original practitioners were forced to suppress their ways at the hands of their colonial occupiers.  I can’t square that circle and have to acknowledge it for what it is.

 

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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

Failure by Psych-Out

Yesterday I went to a climbing gym with my co-workers for our summer staff party.  It’s been at least five years since the last time I tried rock climbing, and over a decade since the last time I actually climbed a rockface.

The experience was interesting.  On the one hand, the venue is great, and the staff were awesome.  My co-workers were all super supportive, and in no way did I feel like I didn’t belong because of other people.  I did, however, felt like I didn’t belong because I’m a 325lbs mass of meat that doesn’t have the greatest cardiovascular system and a nervous suspicion of gravity.

I made two attempts to climb a fairly easy 5.5 wall.  The first attempt, I chickened out about a quarter of the way up.  A little while later, I made a second attempt and got around 80% of the way up before I stopped, thought about things, and promptly started climbing back down.  In other words, I psyched myself out before I reached the top.

I was really bummed out about it afterward, because I knew that if I pushed through the mental barrier and went up the last 5-10 feet, I could have made it.  Instead, I saw that I still had a bit to go and felt that I didn’t trust the auto-belay device to support my weight, and the hand-holds near the top would have been tricky to climb back down on.  So, instead I decided to turn back and climb down until I was a safe height up from the ground where I could let go and still not injure myself if the auto-belay device didn’t arrest me.

It’s really stupid to let myself succumb to this kind of thinking.  I know that the equipment is safe, and I know that I won’t injure myself if I slip.  Nevertheless, I let my fear get the best of me, and I turned back before the end.

We can’t win them all.  I’ll try to do better next time.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan