Return to Normal

Well, I certainly was optimistic in my last post about when I’d return to normal. The move proved to be a bit more onerous, so I missed last week’s post, as well as this week’s deadline. C’est la vie. We press on.

As we start getting our vaccines rolled out to younger folks in my part of the country, we are beginning to have virtual watercooler chats about what the return to normal will be. The gut-reaction is that our higher education institutions will kowtow to pressure to return to face-to-face delivery as soon as possible – whether it’s students looking for the ol’ college experience, administrators looking to address gaps in the bottom line, or employees desperate to escape working from home.

It’s tempting to think things will return to normal, back to the pre-pandemic status quo. We, as creatures of habit, like to slide back into what’s comfortable and expend the least amount of energy that we need to.

But knowing what I know about people, a “return to normal” is going to smack straight into the loss aversion wall – people don’t like to lose benefits once they have them. It switches to an entitlement mentality. I don’t mean this in a negative sense. Entitlements are good! When we talk about entitlements, it carries a negative connotation of something not earned. But to the contrary, I think “unearned” entitlements are the point of society, culture, and government. Rather than everyone being forced to create everything for themselves, we can leverage divisions in labour, experience, technology, and collective action to ensure that benefits get spread around. The metaphorical tide should raise all ships.

So, what does it mean when we are rushing back to return to normal – what do we think we are missing, and what would a return to normal cost us?

A return to normal means hours of commuting per week, instead of going upstairs to work.

A return to normal means rigid schedules and limited campus space, instead of blending the flexibility of synchronous and asynchronous delivery.

A return to normal means bringing back flu seasons at work.

A return to normal brings back all the issues around inclusion and accessibility for those who don’t fit the “normal” not built for them.

Here at home, a return to normal means less time with our infant son. It would also mean less quality time with my wife.

I haven’t packed a lunch in a year. My office dress clothes have been hanging untouched in my closet. I’ve fueled up as many times as maybe months we’ve been working from home.

Not everyone is as fortunate as I am to still be working from home. Many employees at my institution still have to go on campus to work because they’re essential, so their current normal differs from mine. However, we must question whether we want the consequences of having the rest of us join the essential few. I sincerely doubt it is automatically a return to something better.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

WFH Observation – Novel Environments

I’ve been working from home for a year now, and I’m still surprised when I discover something about how I work that I had overlooked previously. You’d think I’d have stuff sorted out by now, but alas here I find myself.

Over the last week, we’ve been away from our house as we prepare to sell it. With COVID ramping up in the province, we thought it would be easier with a baby and a dog to be out of the house full time while prospective buyers came by to look at the listing. We stayed with family, which has required me to adapt my working conditions.

Typically I work in the home office at my desktop. For the last week, I’ve been working off a laptop and a borrowed computer monitor that functions as my second screen. For comfort, I’m using my peripheral wireless mouse and keyboard, along with my wireless headphones to block out noise. While working out of various bedrooms this past week, I’ve noticed an increase in my focus.

Granted, the increased focus coincided with a series of long meetings I’ve been attending, so perhaps I’ve been tricking myself into thinking I’m more productive. However, as I reflect on the situation, I also feel it’s worth mentioning that working in a new location helps to provide a sense of novelty for me.

This isn’t a new insight in the world of remote work – early in the pandemic, I used my company’s access to LinkedIn Learning to complete a few micro-courses on the topic of remote work to help me adjust. Many of the instructors noted that traditional remote work is done in many locations, both inside the home (dedicated workspace) as well as at favourite places out of the house (e.g. the local cafe). Because of COVID, I haven’t placed much stock in this piece of advice because we are dissuaded from working out of the house for long stretches of time (that is, sitting indoors at a coffee shop) if we are not required to do so.

This mini-experiment in remote work has given me some insight into my working style – I am not immune to the novelty that comes from environmental changes. When things relax a bit more, and if I continue to work remotely in my position, this will be something I’ll give consideration to.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Editing with Rapt Attention

Last week I discussed how I created a video training series for one of the ethics boards I serve on. All told, I’d estimate it took me around twenty hours to sketch, film, edit, and publish the series (this is an ad hoc estimate; sadly I didn’t do any time tracking to appreciate the effort). While I’m comfortable with the filming, I noticed a particular period of the work that created a bit of a flow state for me.

On the last day of editing, I was up against a bit of a deadline to finish the videos and push them out to the trainees. I admit that the deadline helped me to focus more (or at least resist the temptation to get distracted), but I noticed that when I was editing the videos, I hit a bit of a flow state. It’s not that I found the tasks particularly challenging, but there was something about the rote, somewhat monotonous task of watching and cutting footage that helped me move through the videos fairly quickly. It was almost 4-hours of editing before I felt like I should take a break to stretch and shift my mind to something else – the time seemed to go quickly. Then, after my break, I returned for another multi-hour stretch to finish off the last of the videos for the rendering queue.

It’s not often that I feel myself working in this state, where time gets away from me for hours at a time. In fact, most of the time I feel somewhat disengaged with my work, and I have to apply discipline in order to work on tasks. This was a rare example of working on something that felt right.

I joked with my wife that I wish I found a job as an editor, but I was only half joking. The lesson I take from this is to be mindful with how I engage with activities that trigger flow, and find a way to go back to that state in other areas of my work.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

1000 Days of Language Learning

On the weekend, I hit my 1,000th consecutive day of language lessons in Duolingo for German.

One hundred days ago, I gave an update and reflection on my experiences at the 900th consecutive day of learning German. I noted that a large part of the competency I felt was attributable to pattern-matching, and I feel that is largely still the case. I am reasonably adept at visual pattern-matching based on context when reading the language prompts. I am less adept at auditory matching due to me often using the app with the sound off. I can’t comment on my skill at writing, though I pair that with my skills in speaking, which is hard to judge because I’ve had so little practice at speed. There are a few prompts from the app to attempt speech, but outside of my trip to Germany in 2019, I’ve had no practical exposure to speaking German in a way that provides immediate feedback.

There is one other note in my use of the app over the last few hundred days that I would like to share. Once I reached the end of the new lessons in the app (that is, I completed all language levels and earned a level ranking at least once) I stopped most of the novel practice and switched goals to improve my ranking on the weekly language league board. This changed my interaction with the app dramatically – I optimized for experience point accumulation rather than language mastery in order to earn a high enough ranking on the language board to progress through the various levels until I sat in the diamond league for a few weeks. I will fully admit that this was not language learning but instead gaming the system. I would only practice low-level lessons where I maxed out my level to earn experience point (XP) bonuses for the lesson. When the app was updated and new (more difficult) lessons were rolled out, I switched to completing the same language story each day to reliably hit my XP requirements. Eventually, after sitting in the diamond league for many weeks, I felt no motivation to maximize my weekly XP grind, and so I allowed my league ranking to fall, and instead focused on the bare minimum maintenance of maintaining my streak.

Obviously, this is not language learning as was intended by the development of the app. Thus remains a question: if I’m not intending on using the platform as it was intended, is there any reason to keep the streak? The short answer is yes – I’ve built up enough of a pride in the raw number that to break the streak I’ve built over the last 1000 days (almost three years of consistent work) would make me feel terrible. So I plan to keep plugging away at the streak for the time being.

But I do feel it’s important to return to the intent of the app – to practice the skills and develop better fluency in the German language. I’ll keep with German for now so I can continue to impress my wife’s family overseas, though I should probably also devote time to learning French as it’s an official language of my country.

If my streak were to end today, I would feel happy with what I’ve accomplished. Even if I haven’t reached a point of truly feeling conversational, I had learned enough through the app to be able to contribute somewhat meaningfully when I was speaking with family overseas. That alone justified the investment of time I made.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Falling Through My Systems

This late post is a nice springboard into something I’ve been thinking about throughout the pandemic. Pre-pandemic, when I was still commuting to work, I had a fair number of systems to help me get stuff done. My commute to work helped me film daily vlogs, listen to books, and think about big ideas for blog posts and Stay Awesome vlogs. When we started working from home, those outputs began fading. Now, I feel behind on my blog posts, I *maybe* film a personal vlog once every two weeks, and Stay Awesome has been put on an indefinite hiatus until Jim and I get some extra headspace bandwidth to devote attention to it.

I was also known for my notebook. I carried a Field Notes notebook everywhere with me, and was constantly scribbling notes into it. Then, around 4 months into working from home, I found myself abandoning the monthly notebook and appropriating a disused larger notebook to jot down tasks, lists, and random thoughts. The Field Notes book was small, portable, convenient, and had many systems to track things I found important, such as exercise, health, habits, etc. Now, my notebook is largely devoted to task management, because when every day feels the same, you can quickly find yourself several weeks down the line having nothing to show for your time.

In a sense, I’ve fallen through my systems. The various “systems” I implemented succumbed to inertia when I both lost the cues that triggered them and lost the will to keep putting effort in the system to power the flywheel, and friction has ground them to a halt.

James Clear has a pithy phrase, that “you do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” This is a riff on an older Greek observation from Archilochus: “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”

Regardless, the question I have is whether I truly had a system if it was a fair-weather operation that wasn’t robust enough to adapt to these kinds of radical changes. When I lost the external liminal cues that came from commuting to work, or from even leaving the house on a regular basis, the things I called systems disappeared as well. Is it charitable to call these things “systems”? In virtue ethics, you aren’t said to possess a virtue if you only exercise it some of the time – you aren’t considered courageous if you don’t act courageously in a moment that requires it. Does this apply to systems as well?

Part of me says yes, but that’s not very helpful. Perhaps I should reframe my thinking and consider the quality and attributes of the system. Borrowing from Taleb, some systems are fragile, some are robust, and I suppose some are antifragile. I understand antifragile systems in the context of biology (e.g. stressing muscles can allow them to get stronger over time), though as of writing I can’t think of any productivity system that get stronger under pressure.

Regardless, it’s clear that much of my productivity was built upon what can now be labelled as fragile systems. They worked under certain conditions, but outside of that narrower band they are less able to withstand fluctuations or variance. In my reflections over the last few months, I’ve been seeing the value in understanding the causes of system failures so that I can create new processes to help me in work and life. For now, the first step is to acknowledge that I’ve fallen through my systems, and having acknowledged this, I can stop spinning my wheels and start seeking traction.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

What I Read in 2020

Here we are at the dawning of a new year, which for me means it’s time to post an update on my reading over the last year. For my previous lists, you can see them here: 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016. It’s hard to believe this is my fifth reading list!

TitleAuthorDate CompletedPages
1Creative CallingChase Jarvis22-Jan304
2The Age of Surveillance CapitalismShoshana Zuboff25-Jan704
3Animal FarmGeorge Orwell27-Jan112
4Alexander HamiltonRon Chernow02-Feb818
5RangeDavid Epstein12-Feb352
6The Bookshop on the CornerJenny Colgan29-Feb384
7Call Sign ChaosJim Mattis12-Mar320
8The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the GalaxyDouglas Adams19-Mar208
9The AlchemistPaulo Coelho22-Mar208
10Guns, Germs, and SteelJared Diamond06-Apr496
11UpstreamDan Heath16-May320
12SymposiumPlato18-May144
13Gulliver’s TravelsJonathan Swift25-May432
14Anything You WantDerek Sivers11-Jun96
15Extreme OwnershipJocko Willink & Leif Babin18-Jun384
16The Code. The Evaluation. The ProtocolsJocko Willink 23-Jun93
17How Will You Measure Your LifeClayton M. Christensen28-Jun236
18The Last WishAndrzej Sapkowski05-Jul384
19The Expectant FatherArmin A. Brott & Jennifer Ash06-Jul336
20The Coaching HabitMichael Bungay Stanier14-Jul234
21The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksRebecca Skloot23-Jul400
22WorkingRobert A. Caro08-Sep240
23Crime and PunishmentFyodor Dostoyevsky15-Sep544
24Every Tool’s A HammerAdam Savage18-Sep320
25Love SenseDr. Sue Johnson20-Sep352
26NaturalAlan Levinovitz22-Sep264
27The Kite RunnerKhaled Hosseini06-Oct363
28My Own WordsRuth Bader Ginsburg10-Oct400
29Kitchen ConfidentialAnthony Bourdain20-Oct384
30Stillness is the KeyRyan Holiday06-Nov288
31The Oxford InklingsColin Duriez07-Nov276
32The Infinite GameSimon Sinek14-Nov272
33The Ride of a LifetimeRobert Iger21-Nov272
34As a Man Thinketh & From Poverty to PowerJames Allen26-Nov182
35Medium RawAnthony Bourdain06-Dec320
36A Christmas CarolCharles Dickens06-Dec112
37The Little Book of HyggeMeik Wiking12-Dec288
38Nicomachean EthicsAristotle30-Dec400
Total12242

Overall, I’m happy with how the year went for reading. In reviewing the list, a few things stood out to me. First is that I surpassed my total books read for the year over 2019 by 13 entries. While we can certainly have a discussion about the merits issues of using the number of books read as an accurate key performance indicator of comprehension or progress, it was nice to see that I stepped things up a bit. I was fairly consistent in making my way through the books, with only a dip in April (likely because of the life-adjustment that came from working from home) and the silence seen from mid-July to the start of September thanks to the birth of our son in early-August.

I’m also happy to see that I read fewer self-help and business books last year and instead dove into more fiction, memoirs, and books about history. In my previous roundup, I had commented about wanting to be more intentional with my reading after feeling burnt out on certain genres of books.

One significant change in my reading habits this past year was that I joined a reading group/book club. A friend organized it just as things went into lockdown in March. We meet online every few weeks to discuss books selected in a rotation by the group. I commented earlier that I read 13 more books this year than last, and I’d attribute the book club to being the single biggest reason for the boost in completions (we cleared 12 by year’s end). Here are the books that we read:

  1. Call Sign Chaos by Jim Mattis
  2. Symposium by Plato
  3. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  4. How Will You Measure Your Life by Clayton M. Christensen
  5. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  6. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  7. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
  8. Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
  9. The Oxford Inklings by Colin Duriez
  10. As a Man Thinketh & From Poverty to Power by James Allen
  11. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
  12. Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle (finished in the final days, though we haven’t met to discuss it yet.

I’d normally create a separate post about my top reads for the year, but I’ll include it here for simplicity. In chronological order of when I finished, my top 5 reads of the year are:

  1. Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (among my top reads ever; I was fortunate to see the stage play before the shutdown in March)
  2. Call Sign Chaos by Jim Mattis (the first book I chose for the book club; I was struck by how Mattis talks about self-education and reflection)
  3. The Expectant Father by Armin A. Brott & Jennifer Ash (since we were expecting this year, this book was a nice roadmap to know what to expect, and it provided some comfort along the way)
  4. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (I recommend everyone read this book; it reminds me of the important work we do on the research ethics boards I sit on, and why we must be critical of research)
  5. My Own Words by Ruth Bader Ginsberg (I started this collection of writings and speeches before RBG died, and was sadly reminded after finishing of what we lost in her death).

This was a pretty good year for reading. It felt good to get lost in more fiction, and I’ll have things to say in the future about the value I’m finding in reading as part of a group. In the meantime, Happy New Year, and it’s time to keep tackling my reading backlog.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

The Discomfort of Learning

Here’s a reminder to myself: learning is always uncomfortable.

As I was reading through Seth Godin’s latest book, The Practice, I came across this gem of insight.

“The Practice” by Seth Godin (2020), pg. 53

It is often the discomfort and tension that causes me to avoid learning new things and settling into my work. When I feel the anxiety rise, I’ll switch gears to something more comfortable or distracting. Instead, I need to embrace the suck.

Learning is voluntary – I must want to engage with it.

Learning creates tension – personal discovery in unfamiliar territory creates questions of tension, and each answer I find resolves the tension. Tension and release.

Learning is uncomfortable – it’s hard to willingly feel incompetent when our careers are geared towards increasing competence and confidence.

I need to learn that when I feel uncomfortable in the learning process, this means I’m on the right track and should embrace the feeling.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

200+ and Counting

Last week, I finished reading As A Man Thinketh & From Poverty to Power by James Allen for the book club I am in. I noticed I hadn’t updated my reading tracker for the year, so I quickly updated my progress in 2020 to date.

195The Kite RunnerKhaled Hosseini3632020
196My Own WordsRuth Bader Ginsburg4002020
197Kitchen ConfidentialAnthony Bourdain3842020
198Stillness is the KeyRyan Holiday2882020
199The Oxford InklingsColin Duriez2762020
200The Infinite GameSimon Sinek2722020
201The Ride of a LifetimeRobert Iger2722020
202As a Man Thinketh & From Poverty to PowerJames Allen1822020
65981pages

I have been maintaining my reading tracker since 2016 when I chose to make reading a priority in my life. I was pleasantly surprised to see that I had surpassed 200 books in the last 5 years, which amounts to around 65,000 pages (caveat – a lot of these books are in audiobook format, and the page counts are taken from Amazon’s book listings, so the amount is inflated to include front and back matter).

I’ll be posting my 2020 reading list in January, but I thought it would be fun to boast about this a little bit in the interim. I may not remember everything that I’ve read, but on the whole I find this time very much well spent. Through slow, incremental steps, I’ve made a lot of progress.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

900 Days of Deutsch

This weekend, I hit a new milestone – 900 consecutive days of practicing German using Duolingo.

Upon sharing the news with a friend, he asked how fluent I feel. Truthfully, I still feel like I’m pattern-matching. I’m fairly decent at decoding messages and generating approximately correct statements, but I don’t feel that I could carry on a conversation.

That’s not to say there is no value in what I’ve invested so much time in. Last year, my wife and I spent a few days visiting her family in Germany, and I knew enough from practicing on Duolingo to utter a few sentences and follow along on some simple conversations. However, it was a valuable lesson that just because I unlock levels, it doesn’t mean I’m gaining competence. Sometimes, what you think you are learning doesn’t match what you are actually practicing. It’s good to keep this distinction in mind.

Stay Awesome

Ryan