Office Cards

Until I started working in an office, I had never experienced the “office cards” thing myself.  I actually didn’t realize it was a thing until recently, either.  This is likely to be attributed to the gendered roles of emotional labour – I, as a man, don’t really think about these sorts of things because they aren’t expected of me.  But, in our office, cards are reliably circulated and initiated by the women of our office.  I’m not saying this is right or fair.  The truth is, I should take a more proactive role in these sorts of community-building activities because of my membership to the group.   In my personal life, I’ve taken the habit with a few friends to regularly send letters or thank-you cards for things that happen, but within a work context, I’ve yet to take the initiative.

Before I left the office for my wedding, my colleagues and bosses gathered around my cubicle to give me a card and wish me well for my upcoming nuptials.  The gave me a card with a gift inside.  The gift was thoughtful, but truthfully I appreciate the card more.  Everyone in the office had signed it without me knowing (as is protocol).  A part of me knows that taking a moment to sign a card (especially when everyone is doing it) is a fairly low-effort discharge of obligation; you sign it because someone puts it in front of you and you’d be rude to refuse.

Nevertheless, when I read over the card, and saw everyone’s signatures and well-wishes, it made me happy to be included.  I felt a surge of warmth that my colleagues took the time to do this for me.  I felt the same way when some of the faculty also signed a card to my wife and I.

And this morning, a card was circulated to celebrate one of our faculty members becoming a grandmother.  I felt joy to sign the card, to wish my colleague well and celebrate the birth of her grandchild.  It’s such a small but powerful gesture.

But it’s something I felt like I’ve lost until only recently.  I don’t know if it’s because it wasn’t as common with my family to give cards when I was growing up, or (the more likely case) that as a child I didn’t understand its significance.  That lack of understanding and awareness then was transformed during my transition to adulthood by my lack of care for these sorts of emotional efforts in general.  As I mentioned at the top of the post, men aren’t socialized or expected to perform these sorts of tasks, and I’m no exception to this.  It isn’t asked of me, nor am I expected to think of these things.  Further, no one would blame me for not thinking of this, and I would likely receive a lot of praise if I did.

Truthfully, I’m a lazy person, and I like that this kind of expectation isn’t placed on me.  It gives me a free pass to coast and disengage.  But, I also acknowledge two things: first, it’s not fair that I get a pass for being a guy while these tasks are expected of women; and second, that receiving signed cards brings me joy, which should motivate me to do the same for others in similar circumstances.

Card that express joy for others fortunes, or cards that acknowledge pain and grief in others are worth sending, because it’s a small, uncommon way to stay connected to others in personal ways.  It’s something I should do more often.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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What I’ve Been Reading (As of September 24th)

I haven’t posted a reading update since the summer, so now seems like a good time to check in on what’s playing out of my speakers or sitting on my nightstand.

Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett

This list must have the mandatory update on where I am in Pratchett’s Discworld books.  I’m only a little ways in, so not a huge update here.  Thus far, it’s a Witches story, sans Granny Weatherwax and involves vampires appearing to try and usurp a kingdom.  In other words, awesome.

What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton

I’ve drifted more towards memoirs as of late, choosing to distance myself a bit from the animated bibliography and instead listen to the stories by people reflecting on their life and either providing insight in retrospect or attempting to provide an explanation for why things unfolded (also see Catmull’s book below and my recent completion of Knight’s Shoe Dog).  As with many of us here in North America, I watched the US elections in 2016 with interest, and was disappointed in the results.  I was interested to hear Hillary’s story of what happened and am not disappointment by what I’ve heard so far.

Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull

Another memoir, this book is from one of the founders and heads of Pixar.  What I love most about this book is that he’s discussing the behind-the-scenes decisions and goings-on of creating the films that I grew up on, which adds a new layer of awesome to my childhood memories.  The values and lessons he learned from their failures and successes are incredibly interesting, and I find the book captivating.

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger

Junger starts with an interesting observation from the American Frontier: if “advanced civilization” is so wonderful, why did so many white American settlers abandon their communities to join and live among the indigenous peoples that were so backwards and savage to them?  Junger’s speculation is that it comes down to how people feel accepted within their communities.  To Junger, this is an example of how “civilization” and technology can be so alienating to a person, which diminishes their sense of worth and place.  I’m not very far into the book, but it’s quite a good read so far.

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

I’ve been watching the Outlander series on Netflix with my wife and have been loving the story so far.  It didn’t hurt that the first season took place in Scotland, which reminded me of my trip there in 2016.  Fun fact, the scenes of Inverness in the series were actually filmed in a small town called Falkland, which I visited on my travels, long before we had started watching the show.  The book is huge (over a 800 pages!) so it’ll be a long read.

 

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If you watch the first episode, this is the town square of “Inverness” where Frank encounters the ghostly Scotsman.

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Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Student Coaching

Lately, I’ve noticed that in addition to my roles of administration and teaching, I’ve been spending more time coaching students.  It tends to come up in small ways, such as offering suggestions on how to word emails or how a student should approach talking to their professor about something in their class.  At first I was a little uncomfortable with taking on a coaching role when it wasn’t really part of my job.  That’s not to say I’m uncomfortable with doing tasks that are not explicitly written into my job description.  Instead, I was uncomfortable because I wasn’t sure if it was my place to offer guidance.  Sure, I might be a decade older than most of the students, but I sometimes struggle with the impostor syndrome: what do I know?  I’m just a lowly administrative assistant.

Having said that, I recognized a fundamental truth that I think many people take for granted – students are young.  I don’t just mean young in age, but also young in experience.  Most students haven’t had the same experiences I’ve had, whether that is my post-secondary schooling, grad school, or work.  Things that I take for granted that come second nature to me are wildly new for students just coming into school.  It’s even worse for students who are first-generation college/university students (like I was).  For some, they haven’t had a lot of experience navigating systems on their own.

We bemoan the helicopter parents and make snide remarks that students don’t know anything (i.e. “life skills”), but I think we should have more empathy.  Post-secondary is a big, scary place to navigate.  If it’s your first time living away from home, having to manage your own schedule, finances, and life, would you not also feel overwhelmed?

Instead of starting with the assumption that students are lazy, or wanting everything fed to them on a silver spoon, I try to take the approach that students don’t know how to narrow down their options or choose a path.  They are the modern Buridan’s ass stuck between competing options with no practical way of making decisions or selecting priorities.  Instead they focus on what’s immediate and take the path of least resistance (for them at the time).  Without a longer view and a chain of successes, their choices may seem short-sighted, but in their context it makes sense to them.  If you couple that kind of decision framework with the complex, convoluted machinery that is “real life,” you can hardly be surprised when students make sub-optimal decisions.

In light of this, my response is not to infantilize them, nor chide them for what one would judge to be their bad decisions.  Instead, I offer my perspective and anecdotes to provide teachable moments.  I provide insight into byzantine rule structures and explain my reasoning.  And I ultimately leave decisions or action up to them.  They must take ownership of the process because they have to be accountable for the outcomes.  The point of education is to create a safe space to fail and learn.  Therefore, our goal should be to set students up for success but also provide them with the opportunity to learn through their mistakes, not by punishing them into doing the right thing.  Rote learning works in some contexts, but in order to make deeper connections between ideas and develop ones ability to reason, students need to be coached on how to shift their perspective and see new connections.

And so, I sometimes coach students.  It’s pretty interesting so far.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

Public Speaking Bomb

Happy Labour Day!  Things have been busy here at work while we gear up for the new academic year.  Students are around, schedules are messed up, and people are scrambling to get back into the right mindset to kick off the new term.  Things are bustling and busy.

I don’t intent to keep a post trend going, but I wanted to ride some of the wave from last week’s psych-out post and talk about another recent failure I experienced at work.

Last week, I had to give a short presentation to college faculty about the research ethics board I’m on.  The purpose of the presentation was to remind faculty that the board exists, and to have them consider whether an ethics review is needed for their or their student’s projects.  I had a 15-minute block of time and a slide-deck provided by our board coordinator.

After the presentation, I sat down and wrote out all the ways the presentation sucked.  In fairness, two of my colleagues went out of their way to complement my presentation,  and that they took away the two main deliverables (that student research projects should be run by the board, and that I’m available on campus to answer questions).  I checked in with my boss and she, too, agreed that the presentation was not a failure as I saw it.  I know that my perception of how things went will be dramatically different than how others perceive me.  Nevertheless, I know that I am capable of doing much better and the main culprit of my failure was because I didn’t practice out loud before the talk.

Here is the list I generated:

Everything that went wrong (and why):

  • Didn’t practice the slides
  • Didn’t build the deck (it was pre-made and sent to me; building the deck would have made me more familiar with the content by necessity)
  • Too rushed
  • Unstable speaking patterns (rambling ticks)
  • Poor intro
  • Poor conclusion
  • Didn’t plan my transitions
  • Didn’t know how the transitions were set in the slide (i.e. need to click to reveal text)
  • Missed content from the page.
  • Had to look at screen to figure out where I was
  • Didn’t know I’d have to hold a microphone (I knew this from past All Faculty meetings, but I should have anticipated it)
  • I was holding the mic and the presentation remote – my hands were full
  • Didn’t pause to calm down or collect my thoughts
  • Bad presentation but saved with good will from prior relationships with faculty + my position (junior to the faculty)
  • finished in 8min or 15min.
  • Didn’t have a firm point in mind that I wanted them to take away from talk.
  • Didn’t edit slides to remove non-essential content

You can’t win them all, but it’s important to know where you go wrong so you don’t make the same mistakes again.

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

The Animated Bibliography

*Update: I’ve added bullet points to the bottom since the time of original publication.  New points are identified as “New.”

I’ve made references to the concept of the “animated bibliography” in a few recent instagram posts.  I first started conceiving of the idea when I wrote a short self-reflective critique of my habit of reading self-help books.

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-/16 The Achievement Habit by Bernard Roth. The concept of design thinking and Stanford's "D School" has been on my radar for a few months. The book was listed in an article I read so I checked it out. Given what I've read over the last year, it's pretty par for the course. It was refreshing that it wasn't an animated bibliography of research like other books I've read in the genre. Instead, it is written with a lot of anecdotes from the author's life as a mechanical engineer and professor, which I found quite enjoyable and a nice change. To be honest, the thing I was more excited about was that I listened to this for free on the #Libby app using my @kitchenerlibrary membership. While I like my Audible subscription, I love my library more and am glad they offer this for audiobooks. #books #reading #selfimprovement #books #nonfiction #productivity #habits #learning #audiobook

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I doubt I’m the first person to notice this trend in publishing, and I’m not entirely confident that this is a new trend at all.  The more likely explanation is that this is something that has gone on for a while and I’m just too stuck in reading the same books listed on every “must read” list to see the broader context.  Were I to read books that were published earlier than the last decade, perhaps I would see that book have always used this strategy to convey information.

Nevertheless, it would be fun to take on a bit of a research project to see whether this trend has proliferated from a certain point in time, who the early adopters were, and how quickly it’s accelerating.

For the moment, here are my early observations:

  • The animated bibliography is a style of nonfiction where the author uses a micro expression of some authority to explain or contextualize some broader universal “truth.”
  • The authority is either scientific studies or biographical case studies.  Biographical case studies are not always literal examples, but can also be mythical or metaphorical examples.
  • The material is rarely discussed from the negative; that is, the material is presented as a causal relationship to explain a phenomenon, but less commonly are counter-examples, counterfactuals, or false-positives discussed.
  • The author is usually repackaging the work of someone else, rather than the original author of the micro expression.  For example, there is a difference between Daniel Kahneman writing a book reflecting on behavioural economics and his original studies, and someone invoking a study published by Daniel Kahneman to explain an phenomenon.  The animated bibliography would be the latter, but not the former.  The animated bibliography is a presentation of the things the author has learned.
  • The animated bibliography has parallels to how research papers are written at the undergraduate level.
  • The animated bibliography can be thought of as a narrative stitched together.  A series of vignettes (chapters) that bring stories together under a broader meta-narrative that provides a unified theory.
  • The animated bibliography is a method of delivering nonfiction, but it is not necessarily meant to be a moral lesson.  It is protreptic in aim – it attempts to be explanatory, if not educative.
  • The animated bibliography typically falls under a few key genres of nonfiction: business, productivity, leadership, personal development or self-improvement.
  • In isolation, the animated bibliography is merely a geneology of ideas, but taken as a genre it becomes self-referential.  The same studies and case studies start popping up over and over.  These, in turn, get meta-referenced by popular authors who write about them.  For instance, a reference could take the form of a book referencing another author’s book about a series of published studies.
  • Hypothesis: this phenomenon (if it is a new phenomenon) is an emergence from the overlapping worlds of start-ups and founder idolization, social media-fed ennui, high technology, scientism, and people’s inability to move from idea to action.  The books are proliferated as instructionals and how-to’s to solve a behavioural problems.  They paint an ideal way forward, but the fact that they keep getting published, and that a market still exists, means that no one book can actually be held up as the definitive voice.  The plurality exists because they singly do not provide broad answers.
  • The market creates a series of urtexts that spawn and inspire secondary and tertiary levels of reference.
  • *New* The author takes on an authoritative tone in the books, but uses the references to others as the source of their authority.
  • *New* Rarely is the book the result of a lengthy period of research or work in the field as a practitioner.  Instead, the book is the product of some period of immersion or research in the topic at hand (e.g. the author spent a year working on the topic and is writing a book about it).

I’ve deliberately kept things vague in terms of which authors and books I have in mind when I make the observations above.  Perhaps in time, I’ll have more courage and name names of those I find to be the biggest offenders of the genre.  For now, though, I choose to remain silent.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

Honesty and Trust

The weekend after the last wedding experience I wrote about, I was fortunate to attend a second wedding.  Much like my last post on the topic, I want to reflect a bit on something the officiant said during the ceremony.

Warning: philosophical thoughts ahead!

Midway through the service, the officiant was offering some words of advice and wisdom for the couple.  He was discussing values that make for a strong, lasting relationship, and he commented that honesty is an important value to hold.  However, he speculated that beyond honesty, trust is something worth considering as a higher value.

His message was a little tongue in cheek, alluding to the impossible questions a partner is faced with, such as “does this make me look x,” but he also meant it in a more sincere way.  He was driving home the idea that the partnership can’t rely on honesty and transparency alone, but it also requires both partners to recognize the union of their lives, and that they must trust their partner in the journey.

While I won’t say I fully endorse the idea that trust must always be placed above honesty, it nevertheless gave me food for thought.  I mulled over what trust means to me in a relationship, and whether you can have deserved trust paired with deliberate dishonesty.  I donned my philosopher’s cap and thought about it.

For instance, (hearkening back to Kantian ethics), should we always tell the truth?  Certainly, I’d prefer to live in a world where I’m never (maliciously) deceived, but I can imagine cases where deception can be useful.  If my partner deceives me in order to seek to surprise me in a way that would bring me pleasure, then I think that kind of dishonesty can be permissible (Christmas and surprise birthday parties hinge on this being permissible).  Setting aside considerations about the differences between deception and omission, so long as the deception is for the benefit of the deceived, and that revealing  the nature of the deception results in increased happiness, then I think in most instances this can be thought of as a good thing.  On the other hand, deception that is used to maximize the pleasure of one person while building harm at the expense of the other person (especially if the deception is revealed) is likely to be uniformly wrong in all cases.  Feel free to check my thinking in the comments down below.

The implication I realized during the ceremony is that it is possible to knowingly be deceived by your partner and be fine with it if you trust your partner explicitly.  That is to say, if my partner chooses to be dishonest with me (or, to a lesser degree, if my partner is not fully transparent with me), and I suspect them to be as much, then the only instance where I would be fine with this is if fully trust my partner.

This is not to say that I think this gives license to one’s partner to be deliberately deceitful if a full trusting relationship is present.  I still believe that honesty and transparency ought to be the norm in a relationship; that the relationship is built upon its foundation.

But, if my partner judges that deceiving me is in my best interest (however temporary that might be) and it is indeed in my best interest, then full trust is the only way that it could be managed.  Of course, there would need to be some sort of resolution to the deception.  I don’t think a state of perpetual deception or ignorance is possible while being in a person’s best overall interest – the two run contrary in my mind.

Then, if it is the case that the thought of my partner deceiving me causes me discomfort or some other negative associative feeling, then it cannot be said that I fully trust them (or, that honesty and transparency are not things I care about – but how would a relationship work in that case…?).  A breach of trust and a breach of honesty would both transgress the relationship.

It’s an odd sort of thought experiment to run, especially during a wedding.  I had a lot of fun at that wedding, and I’m glad to have gotten some interesting philosophical thoughts to mull over while I celebrated more friends starting a new chapter in their lives.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan