Meaningful Actions

Over the weekend, I attended a virtual board meeting for engineering education. One of the reports pertained to a working-group’s findings and recommended actions to support the aims the 30 by 30 Campaign to address low representation of women in the engineering profession. This is a great initiative and I’m looking at ways we can improve our own processes to support women in STEM in our programs at the college. There was a comment that made me think, and it’s worth considering.

One of the board members expressed support for the report, but also commented that she had provided input as early as the 1990’s on this very initiative. Her comment was not meant to cast doubt over the process, but instead highlighted two important things – that this is not a new issue, and that many people have tried to make sweeping changes for the profession, which clearly hasn’t been entirely successful. Her advice was to be cautious about taking on too much scope with the recommendations, and instead to support a “divide and conquer” strategy for making targeted, meaningful actions to promote change.

I don’t hold any illusions that we will solve systemic issues overnight. If I’ve learned anything this past year, it’s that my hopes for reform are likely to fail and that instead of refinement, we should be aiming at transformative changes.

There is also another tension – on some level, this line of thinking suggests a teleological progression of progress for society and culture. I want to think that our culture is aiming at progress (“the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” is a powerful vision to work towards), but a skeptical voice reminds me that, like our misunderstanding of Darwinian evolution, there is nothing inherent in the progress of change that aims towards a higher, final form. A kind of defeatism can creep in when one thinks that meaningful actions do not contribute towards progress, but instead are just the spinning of our collective wheels.

I reject this defeatist view and want to aim towards a higher vision. I grant that the universe is largely amoral and unconcerned with our progress. So, instead, we must clearly define our values and principles, and take actions towards achieving these ends. The actions are neither good nor bad in an absolute sense. Rather, we mark progress with how close we come to realizing the values we want to see manifested in our lives. Meaningful actions are measured not against morality, but instead on efficacy for the outcomes. There are trade-offs and consequences along the way, and so we must be prudent. Both history and mythology have given us plenty of examples of why hubris should be avoided.

I don’t have a good answer on what meaningful actions we ought to settle on as part of our agenda. As noted, this issue has been discussed far longer than my tenure in the employment game. I’ll defer to folks much smarter than I, and try to learn from their efforts to do my part.

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

WFH: Struggles in Focus

In March, I will have been working from home (WFH) for a full year. You’d think that with my experience being employed pre-pandemic, I’d know how to manage my time and motivate myself. But, I have to be honest that working from home has had its challenges. Every time I think I’ve got it figured out, I somehow end up reverting back to a less productive mode of work.

You’d also think that after working from home for a year that I’d have a handle on the situation, yet there, too, I’m finding it difficult. I could attribute it to having a child and the challenges that come with that level of life adjustment, but I feel that would be a disingenuous excuse for my poor integrity.

I know I’m not alone; many people are feeling this. In the beginning, the articles were about learning to draw boundaries in work/life balance. Then came the articles urging us to dress for the office, trying to capture the liminality inherent in a structured schedule. Then came the posts lamenting the late nights with alcohol and doom-scrolling. We all are feeling the anxiety of trying to remain in the present while our focus is pulled towards thoughts about a dimly lit uncertain future.

The best I can do is continue to experiment and see what sticks for me. At the moment I’m trying to be more intentional with my work calendar. I set up to three priorities for the week, block off time in my calendar to work, and spend the first moments at the beginning and the last moments at the end of the day to plan, reflect, plan, and review.

One thing I’m enjoying with this approach is that I’m having an ongoing dialogue with myself in my work calendar. At a high level, I’m leaving a paper-trail of my thoughts, and with that trail I can autopsy where I’m successful and why I fail. But in the day-to-day moments, voices from the past come to help my present understand itself, then I leave little notes for the future to pick things up after rest.

I’ll keep practicing this approach and write some comments in the future, if it sticks.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

What Is “Creative” Work?

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.

“The Practice” by Seth Godin (2020), page 3

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.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

The Right Season To Learn

Something that I’ve started taking more seriously as of late is the idea that there is a seasonality to learning some things in life. In this case, I mean “seasonality” not in the calendar sense that we experience during the year (Spring, Summer, etc.), but more in a broad metaphorical sense, such as seasons of life. I think there are seasons of our lives where certain lessons are easier to learn than others. This is not to say that you can’t learn them outside of the “right” season, but that some lessons are easier to learn at certain points in your life.

For instance, I’ve heard complaints about the secondary school system’s curriculum not teaching useful skills. Where the modern high school student is wasting their time learning about Shakespeare, the argument goes, they should instead be focusing their attention on more practical matters such as learning how to budget.

I’ve long been skeptical of this criticism for two reasons. First, I don’t think it should be the job of the school to teach every skill that’s deemed important. When people complain that they didn’t learn useful things in school like how to do laundry, how to eat properly, how to do taxes, etc., I place the blame of the lack of skills on them and their parents. Those bits of know-how are readily searchable online now, and short of an accessibility issue with being able to use technology, I see no reason for being ignorant. No, instead, I see school as the domain of more specialized knowledge that would be challenging to teach in the home environment by your parents who otherwise might not be skilled in teaching subjects like the maths, sciences, and humanities.

However, the second reason why I don’t find those arguments persuasive is that there are some concepts that are not easily absorbed at that time of your life. I can only speak from my experience, but when I was a teen, I wasn’t earning an income to support myself, nor was I carrying the bills and debts that would require me to keep a budget. I didn’t have the frame of reference, experience, or need to learn those kinds of skills. Instead, I understood what it meant to set up a budget, but not how to actually keep it.

I’m finding the same for home repair during this season of my life. Prior to owning my own home (where I am directly responsible for its upkeep and my family’s comfort and security), I didn’t feel an incentive to invest time and energy into learning how to maintain the home. Growing up, I would help with the chores and some light maintenance, but otherwise my parents largely were the ones who did the important stuff with troubleshooting problems. Now, those responsibilities fall squarely on my shoulders, and I’ve had a number of instances where I’ve had to pay costly invoices to tradespeople for repairs and work that largely could have been handled by me had I possessed a better understanding of how my home worked.

This is not to say that people don’t learn these skills when they are young. Whether it is through personal interested, a keen disposition, or a patient and knowledgeable parent/mentor, plenty of people know how to do amazing things by hand that puts my simple repairs to shame. Nevertheless, I have now reached a season where I’m more receptive to these lessons, and I’m embracing them with an open mind and a willingness to try.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Paying to Be Upsold

After a bit of a hiatus, it’s time I dust off my keyboard and get to work.

I attended a digital summit last week organized by a reputable platform. I’m going to deliberately keep this post’s detail vague because I’m not upset by being upsold to the point of it changing my opinion about the platform or the purpose of the summit. On the other hand, it clarified a few things about the nature of online business that I thankfully only paid a few bucks to learn.

The summit was meant to bring together content creators to discuss the business of making money online. I’ve flirted with this idea, and I have some project ideas for online content that I intend to provide for free for the ethics boards I serve, so I thought learning about some of the business and strategic best-practices would help me think through the project steps.

The three-day event brought together a few creators I’m familiar with, and I bought in at the early bird pricing, so I thought even if I attended the equivalent of one-day’s worth of sessions, I wouldn’t feel bad having put down some money for the access.

The first session was about creating an online course using the best practices used on the platform. Since I work in academia, I’m aware of some of the work that goes into creating a course. I would charitably say that I’m not the best fit for the target audience of the course, but I took notes and found some of their insights useful.

But just after halfway through the scheduled event, they switched from presenting about the tools and tactics of content creation to discussing some of the exclusive perks that could be available for a limited time to the summit attendees. As I sat watching, I was amazed that a lot of the various tactics they discussed in the previous 40-minutes were being applied to the session attendees in an effort to upsell a package. For a limited time, if you bought into a $100+ monthly subscription, you’d have access to a half-dozen pre-recorded courses, a half-dozen 2-month trial access to software, a more in-depth set of lessons about all the topics we just learned about, and a few other odds and ends (like unlimited replay of the summit sessions).

I don’t blame the platform for choosing to go this route, but I was shaking my head when I thought that I paid to be given a reduced-value presentation of a larger set of courses, and was being upsold on it. I paid to be sold to. I was even interested in one of the keynote Q&A’s and was disappointed that it was a twenty minute video call. The guest speaker has put out more value for free on his various social media channels than what I received at the summit.

Again, I’m not above this – I think there is some value in what I learned, and I’m not necessarily the target audience, so it’s wrong of me to complain about not liking the content. I just hate that I had to pay a small price to learn this lesson about the nature of online content creation. It’s a series of remixes of content (a cousin of the animated bibliography, it seems), trickled out slowly to optimize the conversion rate of your mailing list.

I understand that in order to make money online, you have to play the game. The problem is I hate that the game is mostly concerned with optimizing for views, rather than genuinely trying to help solve problems. Perhaps it’s a signal that I should heed. If I don’t want to play the game by the rules, I either have to get out of the game, or be so good that I invent a new category. Either way, my main takeaway: creating content online is going to remain a side initiative for me, rather than my main source of income for the foreseeable future.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

The Post Not Captured

Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash

I have this bad habit of coming up with thoughts for blogs as I’m trying to sleep. I promise myself I’ll remember to jot it down in the morning – that it’s not worth staring at my screen in the darkness when sleep is so close by.

And yet, here I am – kicking myself over the n-th missed idea that never came to fruition.

Perhaps there’s not a lot I can do when inspiration strikes me other than keeping a notebook on hand to capture transient thoughts. However, if the pandemic and working from home has taught me anything about creative activities, it’s that I shouldn’t wait for inspiration to take hold, but rather inspiration should find me already hard at work at the process of making. That is to say, it’s more important that I build regular practice and development into my routines so that I increase the chances of inspiration catching me as I work.

I’m not the first person to suggest this strategy. It’s common advice from many creative folks. What’s new is that I’m seeing the advice in action in my own work: the more I write and practice, the more ideas flow out of me.

If I do this, if I do the work in between the deliverables, I suspect I’ll capture a lot more of those posts from the ether.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Friday Round-up – July 3, 2020

As I noted in my post earlier this week, I missed my last Friday roundup post. This is my first effort in doing better.

Here is my round-up list for the week ending on June 26th July 3rd, 2020.

📽 Video: The Toxic World of Self Help: Hustle Culture, Toxic Positivity, Addiction, and Fake Gurus. | James Jani (YouTube)

I am guilty of buying into the world of self-help. The vast majority of my reading over the last five years has been variations on the self-help genre (to the point that I’ve coined the term animated bibliography to describe its form). I know that the returns on investing in self-help diminishes quickly, and I am aware of how dubious the promise that self-help sells is, but I constantly find myself getting sucked into it. This video doesn’t necessarily say anything new that I haven’t realized myself, but it pulls it together nicely with many examples of how dark this world can be for the copycat authorities that use the same tactics in different domains. This video is a good summary and reminder to myself the next time I’m sold the promise of a better life through tactics and strategies for sale.

Listen: A Recipe for Caesar | Common Sense Podcast by Dan Carlin AND Jon Stewart | Joe Rogan Experience Podcast

I covered a different interview with Jon Stewart in my last published Friday roundup, but I wanted to link these two different podcast episodes along a similar theme, despite the shows being wildly different. I noticed that both Dan Carlin and Jon Stewart remarked on the difficulty that comes with being a voice that people turn to when making sense of the world. Stewart noted that towards the end of his time on the Daily Show, he sometimes struggled to be the person to go on television and say something smart or comforting after a tragedy struck (it might have been part of the reason why he burned-out and needed to retire). Similarly, Dan Carlin has not put out an episode of his podcast Common Sense in a few years, but he released this episode earlier this year. In it, he notes that he’s tried recording an episode multiple times but felt he was adding nothing of substance to the conversation. He struggled to, like Stewart, be a voice for people (like me) who turn to him to help understand the world we find ourselves in. I listened to both of these episodes in the same week, and gained a new appreciation for those like Carlin and Stewart who make livings giving me monologues to pre-digest current events. It must be tough to strike a balance by being both insightful and non-inflammatory, where you avoid stoking the audience against “the other side” (whatever side that happens to be at the time). A YouTuber I follow recently commented on folks like Tim Poole whose sole purpose is to inflame the left/right hostility, rather than adding anything of substance to the discourse. It’s causing me to slowly evaluate what voices I allow in and whether they’ve earned their place in my attention.

Read: Why I’m Leaving Academia | Ozan Varol

I have some deeper reflections that this article prompted, but I wanted to capture this here first. Varol has been a law professor for 10 years now, and with the success of his recent book, he’s decided to move on from his teaching duties to pursue other endeavors. This reminds me of Nassim Taleb’s idea of via negativa. Varol specifically invokes this idea (though not by name) by reflecting that decisions he’s made in his life that had the greatest positive impact were often decisions that “subtracted” from his life. It’s a reflection I applied to my own circumstances and still need a bit more time to process.

Watch: Every Race in Middle-Earth Explained | WIRED (YouTube)

Because we all need to have some fun once in a while, here is an informative half-hour from a Tolkein scholar who covers the history of Middle-Earth through its inhabitants.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Reflection: T1J – On Riots

My Monday post this week is late. Instead of trying to cobble something together, I will share this video from T1J’s YouTube channel published last week. It gave me a lot to think about.

“Now these stories are very complex and nuanced, and American schools generally do a bad job of teaching Black history. But the point I’m making is, it’s not true that Martin Luther King Jr. did some peaceful protests and gave some speeches and then single-handedly changed everyone’s minds. The progress we’ve seen is due to the combined efforts of Black leaders and activists throughout history, some of whom disagreed on the best path forward, but all of whom contributed towards shaping the world and making the world a little better for people of color. Another thing people fail to realize is that Martin Luther King Jr. was very unpopular during his time. So, whether or not something is palatable to the white masses is not a good measure of whether it is the right thing to do.”

“On Riots” 7:24-8:07

Stay Awesome,

Ryan