Knowing When To Quit

A recent article talking about knowing when to quit/retire from teaching had me reflecting on my own experiences with quitting.  Truthfully, I can’t recall many instances where I quit something.  Often, I will drag out experiences long after they have been useful, and instead of quitting as an active decision, I’m more likely to let things fall away through neglect.  Perhaps there isn’t a strong difference between the two since my history is littered with things that I eventually stopped doing.  I suppose in my mind, the difference comes down to whether I made a decision to stop – whether I took ownership over the act.

The strongest instance where I actively made a decision was when I stopped hosting at the local karaoke bar.  I was three or four years into my tenure as a host, and for the most part I enjoyed the experience.  I had a regular crew of friends who would come in and make the night interesting.  However, towards the end, I grew to resent patrons coming in who weren’t my friends.  I worked the slowest night, so if things were quiet, we’d shut down early.  But if patrons filtered in and kept purchasing stuff, we’d stay open.  Catering to the average customer felt like a chore, rather than chumming with friends with our own song preferences and inside jokes.

I started to dislike going into work, and even to this day I don’t sing much like I did while I was a host.  I’ll grab the mic from time to time, but I don’t go out to enjoy karaoke anymore.  I still work security at the bar, but I stopped hosting all together.

I made the decision to stop hosting because a small part of me knew it was time to move on.  I learned what I could from the experience, cherished the memories it gave me, but I recognized that I no longer wanted to spend time doing it.  I think that’s the critical part in the art of quitting.  It’s not about actually quitting or the how.  Instead, it’s about recognizing when the time has come and why.

Sometimes we have to slog it out in things we hate.  We don’t quit those things because we assign value to the activity (or someone else has assigned value and we are dragged along for the ride).  But quitting is more than stopping a thing you don’t like.  It’s about recognizing when the thing is no longer of value to you; that it won’t take you where you need it to go.  It is the recognition that your time is better suited elsewhere.  The art of quitting ultimately comes down to taking an active role in how you choose to spend your time.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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Lessons from JMS

At writing, I’m about 5-hours away from finishing J. Michael Straczynski’s memoir Becoming Superman: My Journey From Poverty to Hollywood.  His many professional credits include writing episodes for The Real Ghostbusters and He-Man, writing the screenplay for Marvel’s Thor, a hugely successful run in comics, and creating Babylon 5.  It’s an incredible story of crime, poverty, all forms of abuse, as well as triumph and perseverance.  The narrative is gripping and it’s difficult to put down.  I’ve only been listening for a few days now and I’ve ripped through 11-hours.  Even if he did embellish on the details to make his story more sympathetic (which I sincerely doubt he did), it’s a masterclass in storytelling.

I enjoy reading memoirs and biographies because it gives me a chance to glean insights from their stories.  It may be a bit premature to write this since I haven’t finished the book, but there is so much to get from his story that I felt compelled to dash this off.

In no particular order:

On antecedents

JMS came from a broken home, where abuse, neglect, and punishment was the norm.  He recognized early that he had two options – become like his abusers, or break the cycle by becoming the opposite of what his abusers embodied.  In that way, he gravitated towards positive role models both fantastical, like Superman, and real life, like his surrogate father-figure Vincent.  JMS refused to allow his past to dictate his future, and he believed he should own his circumstances, rather than use it as an excuse.

On writing

Once he realized he was meant to be a writer, JMS devoted himself to his craft.  He found every excuse and opportunity to write.  He learned to fill voids at the newspaper, where other journalists let deadlines slip them by.  No area was beneath him to write, and no domain was too foreign for him to jump in and attempt.  He cobbled together an eclectic background that spanned multiple genres and styles, all in an attempt to hone his craft.  The best advice he attributes is when a famous author told him on a cold call to “stop writing shit.  If it wasn’t shit, people would buy it.”  JMS saw writing through college as his way of purging the shit writing from his system so that he could let his stories flow from him, and he wouldn’t let anyone stop him from telling his stories.

On principles

JMS quit a lot of shows based on principles.  When network executives and censors wanted to change the essence of his stories, he walked away.  When friends and mentors, whom took chances on him early in his career, were fired from projects, he quit in solidarity.  When he stumbled into work that he initially dismissed as beneath him, he swallowed his pride and took jobs he knew he could learn from.  He often sacrificed his career and work to stand up for what he believed in, and didn’t complain about the consequences.

On children’s taste

While JMS fought against problematic characterizations on The Real Ghostbusters (he said”motherizing” Janine was regressive and sexist, and making Winston the driver was racist) one interesting insight he provided was how children viewed the show.  A change recommended by consultants and the network was to create a group of junior Ghostbusters for child viewers to identify with.  JMS pushed back, saying that no child wants to be Robin, but instead wanted to grow up to be Batman.  The Ghostbusters provided children with something to aspire towards; a sense of direction.  To see children on the screen acting like Ghostbusters, child viewers wouldn’t identify with them because they represented something they wanted but were not and couldn’t be.  In this, he’s making a connection that representation and aspiration are important to viewers.  He similarly walked away from She-Ra for the network refusing to allow She-Ra to be a warrior.  To him, it was important to give children something they could see themselves becoming one day.

On backdoors

There are many things JMS wrote on that he did that was unethical and illegal.  When he couldn’t afford to buy books as a child, he stole them, carefully read them without damaging the spine, then would sneak the books back to return them.  When he wanted to take classes that weren’t open to him but he desperately wanted to further his abilities as a writer, he broke into the faculty office, stole permission slips and altered the roster to put him into the courses.  When he needed to move on from grad school, he knew another year would sacrifice a lot of ground in his career, but he needed to appease his abusive father, so he broke into the Registrar’s office to make it appear he was graduating.  (As of reading in the book, he has yet to try and leverage the fake degree in his career, but merely needed to exit from the program without provoking his father or endangering his siblings).  Because of his upbringing, he learned how to see opportunities to open doors.  This, combined with his work ethic, means that he worked hard to leverage past experiences to create future value.  While this is hardly good career advice, it’s worth staying mindful of – that not all career advances come by entering through the front door.

Throughout the book, JMS is careful to note that he’s been more lucky than good.  He recognizes that while hard work is vital to his story, there are many times where he was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.  His ability to leverage his experience allowed him to go from writing one-act plays, to short stories, to journalism, to television screen-writing, to eventually movies and comics.  He notes many times in his story that he was mere steps away from making bad decisions, or letting his faults get the best of him.  In many precarious places, he could have gone down the wrong path, any he nearly died several times.  Rather than letting luck go to his head, he refused to become complacent and always did the work.  Above all else, his work ethic is probably the most important lesson I drew from his story.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Short Term Content Bias

I admit that the kinds of videos I watch on YouTube and the kinds of books I read tend to gravitate towards a certain kind of self-help genre, where some productivity or business person is giving me a set of systems and protocols to follow to help me “hack” my way to a more fulfilling work and life.  These kinds of content are usually well-made but suffer from a shallowness of insight.  It’s not that the authors are deliberately trying to dupe me (at least I hope not!) but the unfortunate reality is that the incentive structures that lead to engagement online and sale of products means that in order to publish, you need to publish fast and loose.

Books that get published are usually a small essay that gets padded out with animated bibliography research or a year-long experiment where the author tests out the ideas in the short-term and reports back on what they experienced and learned about themselves.  There might be small kernels of originality and insight in there, but the rest of the book is a repackaging and restatement of the research and writing of others.  It is without irony that I wager that the same 20% of landmark examples appear at least once in 80% of the books out there.

YouTube videos run into some similar issues.  Often, I find that the videos are short think pieces and experiments that people run as a blog series or retrospective.  The editing is fast and smooth, and the experiments are reported on based on impressions from the first week, month, and sometimes quarter.

In both of these mediums, we see a presentation of the short-term result with little follow-up on the long term impacts.  On small occasions, a writer might follow-up on some of the ideas in a second book that is a direct result of the first, but by and large we don’t have insight into the impact the changes had over the long-term.

This bias towards short term content make sense.  Authors and content developers need to create products quickly in order to ensure a viable revenue stream, and once you write about your niche and experience, life moves too slowly for you to be able to keep up with that pace.  As a result, they would start to publish on things that are more nebulous and propped up by the work of others (hence, animated bibliography).

The best books with the deepest wisdom are often, as Taleb notes, ones that have been around for more than 50 years.  I’d add to that that books published as the culmination of one’s life work also fall into that category.

This is not to say that content coming out of the short-term process is worthless.  In my opinion, my life and satisfaction has improved in quality over the last 3 years of intentionally reading these books.  The problem is that after a while, very little surprises you and you start to see the same examples getting recycled.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Thinking and Research Habits

You can tell who has recently released a book based on who is making their way through the podcast circuit.  It’s never a coincidence if you see an author’s name pop up on the latest episodes of several shows your have saved in your playlist.  I enjoy listening to these episodes to get book recommendations, and for the most part find that the shows don’t go into too much depth with the author.

This was pointed out by a friend of mine (thanks, Wil, for smashing my illusions!) when he commented that a show I happen to listen to lacks the depth he looks for in a good podcast.  After he pointed that out, I saw it everywhere: the host of the show brings the author on, and by whatever means the talking-points get established, the show typically has the host ask 5-10 key questions that are ripped directly from the book.  It reminds me of students who skip the reading because the whole thing is covered in class.  You get a good sense of what the main points of the book are, but that’s about it.  If you’ve read the book already, you might as well skip the podcast episode.

However, there are gems in some shows, and I spotted two a few weeks back.  On two different shows, authors who had recently released books were chatting about the ideas in the book and the topic drifted to the idea-generation process.  They were short asides, but I found them fascinating to hear how these authors come up with their ideas and structure the construction of their books.

You can give the shows a listen yourself, but I’ve summarized the main points below.

David Epstein
(promoting his book Range)
The Longform Podcast, episode 348 (starts at 21:08)
https://www.stitcher.com/s?eid=62028020

How do you set up the bounds of research?  How do you delineate what you put in the book?  What should I include in the book?

  • There will be a few topics you generally know should be in, but after that you don’t know.
  • Epstein starts with a broad search down rabbit holes.  He used to think this was a bad thing and a waste of time, but now it’s thought of as a competitive advantage.  Sometimes, though, you end up with a bunch of nonsense.
  • He creates a master thought list – citation and key ideas or sentences.
  • As these coalesce into a topic, he moves like-ideas together.  When a topic emerges, he tags it with a title and creates keywords that he would use if he’s searching for it.  Then he moves similar tags together and a movie storyboard emerges where one topic flows into the next.
  • The goal is to avoid it being a bunch of journal articles stitched together.
  • It’s a road map of his brain’s exploration of the topic.
  • Unlike academics who just read journals and don’t go in-depth, he uses his journalism training to talk to the people – more will always come out in conversation than what’s included in the text.  Scientists will include interesting tidbits offhand that are related, but don’t expand on it, so it creates a thread to pull on.  It’s also a good fact-checking exercise and makes the story richer.

 

Cal Newport
(promoting his book Digital Minimalism)
Love Your Work, episode 183 (starts at 49:30)
https://www.stitcher.com/s?eid=62048017

How do you find ideas that are well-timed/timely with discourse on careers, technology, etc.?

  • He thinks, writes, and publishes all the time (especially blog posts and articles).  He’s constantly reading and testing out ideas.  He’s talking to people, having conversations, and seeing what topics emerges.  It’s a work ethic to him to constantly be reading and writing.
  • He tests out what he’s interested in and see if others are interested.  It might be foundational to something he works on over time, or it might wither because it doesn’t gain traction or doesn’t bear fruit.
  • To validate ideas:  1. He asks, “Are people talking about it, or leaving interesting comments on my blog posts?” 2. With ideas comes a sense of “mental confidence.”  He asks “Is this working for me?  Does it click as a structure to provide a workable framework for seeing the world?”
  • Over time, something will emerge and persist.  It generates advice that’s useful, more evidence comes up, and it is applicable across situations.
  • The search is opportunistic, but once something emerges, he does a deep dive. (Kadavy evokes the fox-porcupine reference from Isaiah Berlin, popularized by Jim Collins).

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Masterclass in Political Oration – Jon Stewart

There are some people that when they speak, I will stop to listen.  We have many examples of people who are gifted public speakers, but to me few are more powerful than Jon Stewart, former host of the Daily Show.  He spoke at a House sub-committee hearing last week and so thoroughly presented his case, the bill passed unanimously.  I hope the initiative continues as smoothly through the House proper and the Senate, and is eventually passed into law, because the hypocrisy and virtue-signalling is appalling.  At the centre of Stewart’s argument is the notion that the sacrifice and bravery of the responders during 9/11 should be honoured by taking care of those who are suffering because of their service that day.

Public speaking as a skill is hard, but there is more than just vocalizing the words.  Stewart’s presentation, his ethos (he has earned the right to speak through his work), his pathos (the passion he speaks from on behalf of those he’s fighting for) and the pure logos (no one can form a devastating argument from observations the way a comedian can) all come together to give us a masterclass in political oration.

Give it a watch.  It made me feel choked up.

 

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Grading Drift

I’ve been reflecting on the concept of grade drift recently. My brain usually turns to grade drifting at the end of each semester as I evaluate how objectively I have scored the students. If you’ve never taught before, what I call “grade drift” is the tendency for an instructor to allow their grading standards to drift as they grade an assignment. I’m not sure how prevalent this is for assessments that are concerned with exact answers, such as math, science, engineering, programming, etc. But in assessments that deal with qualitative or creative responses, it’s common for you as an instructor to change your evaluation thresholds as you make your way through the pile of papers.

There are a few reasons why this happens. In my first courses, my grades would drift if I didn’t have a sufficiently robust marking guide to help me narrow down the kinds of answers I was looking for in a student’s response. Now that I’ve taught the course a few times, I know generally what I’m looking for and can go through the assignments with a checklist of items. This form of grade drift is usually related to lacking experience in teaching and grading, especially if your course delivery isn’t tied to your course learning outcomes.

However, there is another reason why your grades might drift. On the one hand, you want to approach your evaluations as if they are objective – that there are clear right and wrong answers. After all, your grading should be defensible, and one way to defend the grade you grant is by pointing to an objective standard. However, on the other hand, you want your evaluations of your student’s work to allow for imagination, creativity, and novel connections between ideas. You also want your evaluations to acknowledge that your classes have unique compositions of people, with their own experiences and their own progressions through your course. Just because you teach the same material each semester doesn’t mean your students progress through it at the same rate. Different students will take the material differently, which means the average response you read through will be different for each cohort of students.

This means that some groups will be “better” than others in how they perform. You can choose to penalize the students for not meeting an abstract standard that you’ve set, or you can meet the students where they are and make it your goal in the course to improve their performance as you go.

I know that some instructors will take the first approach. They will believe their teaching, evaluations, and courses are reflective of an external, eternal, objective standard; they don’t think they are being arbitrary. I’m willing to bet that these are also instructors who believe that a 70% in their course is “like a 50% in other courses” (a literal thing I’ve heard said by a peer). I think this approach is wrong and it reflects a misunderstanding of what it means to pass a course. When a student passes a course, it means they have met the minimum requirements of the course learning objectives. Anything above that should reflect varying degrees of competence and mastery. If your course is designed so that a student is only “just” meeting the standards with anything above a 70%, you haven’t calibrated the course or your expectations very well. At an undergraduate level, your job is to elevate your students, and improve their abilities while meeting the program learning outcome objectives.

I find myself on the other side of this issue. I understand what the goals are of the course I teach, and my aim is less concerned with ensuring my students can adequately explain all the theory they are exposed to in the course. Instead, my goals is to make my students better thinkers and writers from where they enter my course to their exit. If they can explain Aristotle’s ideas of tragedy by the end, great! But I won’t lose sleep if they can’t. My course is a general elective, and that means I’m supposed to round them out as students and people. I care less about them absorbing my esoteric knowledge and instead I care more about them learning how to think, reason, and communicate their ideas clearly.

And that’s why sometimes my grades drift as I score the student’s rubrics. I start off with some ideas of where they could be, then I calibrate my grading to meet them at their level. It’s a little more work for me, but I think it better captures the student’s performance.

As indicated above, there are a few strategies for overcoming this, such as having a clear rubric and clear notes on what you are looking for.  Also, marking all the students on one question, one at a time, rather than marking an entire submission will make it easy to compare student fairly.

While this is an unfortunate thing (the students like to think they are being objectively evaluated) this will happen as you come to understand the natural curve of your class.  You can either grade your students to one standard, or you can reflexively respond to your class’s own knowledge and aptitudes.  If your course objectives are clear, then you can feel free to adapt your grading to match the student’s progress.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

“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