I hit a new milestone on Sunday with learning German on Duolingo. I hit 1,111 consecutive days of practice.
I’ve discussedbefore how I’m a little skeptical of the learning process, especially with how easy it is for me to mindlessly snap off a quick lesson by repeating modules so that I preserve my momentum. Still, I am pleased to hit this milestone after 3 years of consistency. While we can question whether I’m gaining true fluency in the language, we should at least acknowledge when we stick with learning habits.
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.
Last week, I created a video training series for the ethics board I’m on to help with onboarding new board members. Prior to COVID (the “before-times”), I would book out a meeting space on a Saturday morning to train new board members for 4-5 hours at a stretch. However, since we have been unable to meet face-to-face for the last year (we moved to remote in March 2020), it’s been difficult to help new members get up to speed. On the one hand, we could have accomplished the same training agenda using a video conferencing platform, however on the other hand, sitting on a training call for 4-5 hours is not a great experience for anyone involved.
We decided to go about the problem differently and embraced a flipped classroom format. By having training videos available, members can go through the lecture material at their own pace, then we can have a shortened video call to answer questions and do practice scenarios. Once I make the videos, they are always available, so there is no further cost to my time, except when we want to update content.
I was able to marry my experiences on the board reviewing ethics applications with my experiences vlogging over the last 7 years. Side note – our first podcast episode was released 7(!) years ago, on March 10th, 2014. Time flies!
Thanks to the time spent filming, editing, and publishing video content, I was able to put together an hour and a half series of short videos to go through the main points of being on the board and reviewing ethics applications. I had done something similar when I created a short onboarding video for my work at the college a few years back, but this was the first time I plotted out a multi-video series to create something resembling a course.
Admittedly, the fact that I did it myself shows in the quality. I don’t have the hardware to easily read scripts naturally, so I spoke extemporaneously with a set of notes, which shows in the final versions. Also, I don’t have a lot of experience with graphic design and after effects, so the shots can be a bit static. Nevertheless, it’s hardest to go from zero-to-one, from nothing to something. Everything after this point can be incremental improvements.
It was an interesting experience to marry these two different parts of my life. Vlogs, even the podcasts that I did with Jim, are more personal, with little actual expectation that people will see it. The videos Jim and I made were more for myself as a creative exercise. But these videos I’ve created are intended to help pass on some of what I learned while on the board and prepare them for the work we do.
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.
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.
I took a new step today in the evolution of my personal giving. For Giving Tuesday 2020, I finally set up my first set of recurring monthly donations. Now, every month the The Food Bank of Waterloo Region and the Brantford Food Bank will each receive a deposit of $10 from me. It’s a small, almost embarrassing amount to type (when I think of charitable giving, I’m thinking of impressive amounts with more than two zero’s to the left of the decimal point), but the important thing to keep in mind is a.) it’s my initial amount that I expect to grow over time as my circumstances allow, and b.) the total for the year will actually be higher than what I would normally have given.
I’ve been growing more intentional over time with my charitable giving. Many moons ago, I was involved with a program created by the Kitchener Waterloo Community Foundation called Engage. The program has since ended, but the experiences have stuck with me. If I want to live in a vibrant and thriving community, it’s important that I take the benefits and privileges I’ve accumulated to help others in different living circumstances than my own.
In philosophy, there is a thought experiment called the veil of ignorance, where if I were to be placed randomly in a society, I would obviously want to choose a position that afforded me a degree of wealth, freedom, security, and privilege. To me, this translates into a moral imperative that we should actively work to raise the living situations for all persons in our community to promote flourishing and happiness. I don’t want to live in a world where people have to rely on charity, but it’s an inescapable reality and therefore it must be confronted.
If we are being technical, charitable giving breaks down into three kinds of support, known as the three “t’s” – time, talent, and treasure. Time and talent were my first introduction to giving back to my community. It started in my various youth groups, where I would exchange my time to support a cause: raising money for Beavers/Cubs/Scouts/Army Cadets/swim club, marching in Remembrance Day parades, highway cleanups, and building a library abroad. Later, when I was but a poor student, I volunteered my talents to support causes for school and to help fundraising efforts for the HopeSpring Cancer Support Centre (and eventually I became the minute-taker for their Board of Directors). I also supported my friends with their charitable causes, such as helping with my buddy’s Headshots from the Heart videogame marathon event. As I started to transition out of my student phase of life, I began exploring the third “t” – treasure.
My history of charitable monetary giving started in my mid-20’s. I created an elaborate birthday ritual for myself in an attempt to imbue the day with significance (after 21, there weren’t any milestones I cared to look forward to). One ritual I set for myself was to make a donation to a cause I was interested in. When I was a student of the Engage program, I reflected that I wanted my charitable giving to go to “feeding bellies and minds,” and so I would make a yearly donation to the local food bank. Despite having never used it myself, I recognize the value they bring.
My first donations were in physical goods. I would save up rewards points from the grocery store, then buy as much food as I could for a few hundred dollars, and bring all the canned goods in for donation. Then I found out that their purchasing power was much higher than mine, so I switched to monetary donations once a year on my birthday.
The next evolution in my charitable giving happened a few years back when I wanted to help support the preservation of our environment. The Bruce Trail is a massive network of linked trails that allows one to hike 900km from Niagara to Tobermory in Ontario. Despite having never hiked on the trail myself (though I have ambitions to take up the activity), this seemed like a good cause to support, so I started purchasing yearly memberships. This year, I switched from a buying a membership each year to an automatic renewal system.
Switching back to the Food Bank, my next evolution in giving started in January of this year. I emailed to follow up on the Christmas drive and to ask what kind of shortfall the KW Food Bank saw. They kindly shared their yearly report, but what stuck out was a throwaway comment that they were successful with the campaign, but that the regular commitments were more important to ensure meals throughout the year. So, I decided I would eventually switch to small monthly donations that would increase over time as my circumstances allowed.
It was accelerated this summer with the BLM protests. I wanted to do more than empty social media posts, so I started to think about how I could contribute financially to important causes. A close friend of mine has created a line in his budget for philanthropy, which I took some inspiration from.
But in the Canadian context, I thought I should find a way to support Indigenous causes. Truthfully, I haven’t yet made that commitment – I’m still on the lookout for an ongoing support cause that resonates with me. I value the input of my peers, so if you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear your input.
That brings us to today. I decided to finally set up my regular payments to support these organizations that do so much good in our community. While I don’t live in KW anymore, I still feel called to help them in their mission. And since I support KW, I thought it appropriate to also give money to support the same cause but for my neighbors. The $10 per month I’ve committed is indeed small, but over the year will amount to a higher giving than my one-off donations. Also, it’s important to note that these campaigns help to raise awareness (and it feels good to help feed people at Christmas), but the need is felt year-round. The reality is that these campaigns serve as a funnel to bring donors into the organization.
This isn’t to say that I will stop giving one-off donations. A lesson I took from Engage is that it’s ok to say no to charitable asks that come your way. You do it each time you decline to contribute a few dollars at the cash register when you check-out at the store. Rather than having to give to every cause, it’s important to determine how much you feel you can give, then to be selective with where you allocate your funds. During Charitable Tuesday today, I also made one off contributions to my alma mater’s Arts student fund because I value the time and experiences I collected when I was a student. I also made an additional donation to the Bruce Trail’s latest campaign to purchase and preserve additional land in the Niagara region for the trail. I doubt I’ll ever get out to see that portion of the trail, but it’s important to enable the organization to leverage its resources to improve access for everyone (include some of my friends who I saw posting to social media from the trail this summer!).
My birthday is coming up, and I plan to give another one-off donation to the Food Bank to keep with tradition. And in time, I’ll find new ways to offer support. There is no one right way to give, but regardless of the type and degree of your impact, there will always be needs that go unmet in our communities. In addition to my monetary donations, I still volunteer where time allows, such as on the two ethics boards I serve.
Both Stats Can and Imagine Canada are seeing that while average donation amounts are trending upwards, the average donation rate is holding-to-declining over time. I hope to do my part in reversing this trend.
Thank-you for reading my story, and perhaps it might inspire you to reflect on your giving history.
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.
One thing I love about reading Seth Godin is how he tends to reframe how I think about things. Like many other people, I’ve been feeling in a bit of a rut with work. Without the context shift of going to work in an office, the days start to blur, and working from a distance keeps me detached from my colleagues. Instead, my work is largely done on documents and spreadsheets, and the tedium easily sets in. It feels monotonous and largely procedural.
However, the first page of Seth’s new book forced me to reconsider how I view my work. When reflecting on my work, I realized that I was defining “creative” narrowly.
Were you to ask me whether my job is creative, I would probably take a view that conforms to my notes on the left. My job has some elements that I have “artistic” control over, but largely “no” because it’s process driven. However, if I define “creative” more broadly, it’s easy to see how my job is creative. I create tools and process flows. I define problems and find creative solutions, then teach them to others.
We often bind our thinking about “creative” to notions like innovation and novelty (divinely given?), when instead we should think of “creative” as deriving from “create,” which is more process driven than outcomes driven.
This doesn’t solve my tedium with spreadsheets, but it helps me frame my work within a different context. I am not just a cog, but instead I have the ability to adapt the cogs I use to suit my needs.
According to Seth Godin, there is no such thing as writer’s block. He’s been on my mind recently, not just because I listen to his regular podcast, but also because he’s doing the book marketing circuit on the podcast shows I typically listen to. As of writing (November 3rd), his latest book was just delivered to my door.
From what I understand, Seth’s belief is that writer’s block is a function of our desire to not ship bad work. Instead, we hold out until a good idea arrives and we work on it. His advice to overcome “writer’s block” is to constantly write regardless of how bad you think it is. It’s a bit of a spaghetti approach – you throw as much at the wall and see what sticks. He maintains that buried under all the bad writing, there is bound to be some good stuff. The job of writing bad stuff is to eventually unearth the good stuff for you to work on and polish to completion.
Seth is known for having posted on his blog every day for over a decade, tallying over 7000 posts. He says that for every post we read, there are up to 8 that didn’t get published.