Lessons from JMS

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

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

In no particular order:

On antecedents

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

On writing

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

On principles

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

On children’s taste

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

On backdoors

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

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

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Books on Vocational Reflection

I finished reading Complications by Atul Gawande last week and really enjoyed it.  It was his first book and covered stories from his apprenticeship phase of becoming a surgeon.  I thought back to the first book I read from him, The Checklist Manifesto, and realized that while I enjoyed the topic Manifesto covered, I found it lacking a certain charm that Complications had.

Manifesto felt like a good idea that was stretched a bit too thin to fit the book format, and was heavily supplemented with references to studies done by other researchers.  This isn’t meant as a criticism – it was a good book!  But what I felt Complications (and his other book Better) had is the first hand reflection on one’s professional development.  It’s not just a memoir of one’s life, nor is it a tell-all, but instead it’s a focused meditation on the training, learning, failures, achievement, and lessons one gains from devoting themselves to their vocation.

Over the last three and a half years of reading, I’ve found I really enjoyed these kinds of  books.  I looked over my reading list and pulled a bunch of examples randomly below.  Some of them are about medicine, others are of actors, and a few books from the business world.  The common thread is that it’s less about the personal biography of the person and more about the development of the professional (for this reason, I didn’t include Elon Musk’s and Enrico Fermi’s biographies, or career retrospectives like the books from James Comey and Hillary Rodham Clinton).

It describes a world bigger than the person telling the story, and their attempt to grapple with the epistemological, ethical, and professional obligations that comes from entering a profession, and where their limits lie.  These are not stories about heroes – the stories are about human error and fallibility, and learning to deal with that revelation.  It also keeps its eye towards what it means to serve others, and where the profession should go in the future.

Ultimately, these books differ from the animated bibliography in one crucial area.  The animated bibliography is often a book that results from a person researching and stitching together the ideas of others.  In some cases, these books will require the author to attempt to put the ideas into practice, but in my opinion this is in service of selling the credibility of the book.  However, the books I’m discussing here and listing below are different because they are an account of people who are learning by doing.  They are applying what they previously learned during formal education, and reflecting on the outcomes to see what lessons can be derived.  In some sense, the books are an autopsy that try to tease out causes, or at least serve as a cautionary tales for those who come later.

 

A Thousand Naked Strangers – Kevin Hazzard

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23/ This book came from the @artofmanliness #podcast a few months back. Talk about an exhilarating read! I identify strongly with the author, Kevin Hazzard, as he spins his memoirs of life as an Atlanta paramedic in "A Thousand Naked Strangers." His listlessness and feelings of being unchallenged, not knowing just how much potential he had in him, or how far his limits went, are things I've grappled with recently. A lot of what he wrote resonates with me, but his tale also serves as a caution: Am I on the right path? Am I willing to make the necessary sacrifices? Am I strong enough? Can I hack it? Will I choke? It's a trial by fire in the purest sense and a book I intend to revisit. #reading #books #selfimprovement

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Doctored – Sandeep Juhar

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/29 – my trip to Scotland threw my reading schedule off, so I haven't finished a book since before I left. I picked this book up in the spirit of Larry Smith's advice to read broadly in your passions when looking at career options. Since I'm considering paramedicine, I thought this would be good to check out. Juhar writes a fantastic reflection on the 5 or so years after he finished his formal medical training, and the stress and burnout he experienced as the realities of a medical system with misaligned values is forced upon him. Money, family, and values all weigh him down as he is forced to work within the private medical industry in Manhattan. I very much enjoyed his prose and story. I'm very happy I picked this up from the library. #reading #books #selfimprovement #medicine

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I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had – Tony Danza

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-/32 I'd Like To Apologize To Every Teacher I Ever Had by Tony Danza. This was a spur purchase I made while browsing books on sale from Audible. I figured I could relate to his experiences, having just finished my first teaching experience this past year (albeit at the college level). The book was a lot more engaging than I expected! I felt absorbed as Tony told his story of his year teaching high school 11th grade English. While initially the set-up for a reality show, the experience quickly morphs into a huge learning experience for Tony as he learns what it means to be a teacher and what it takes to be effective in reaching students. It's a humbling story, and I am glad to have learned from it. @tonydanza #reading #selfimprovement #books #nonfiction #teaching #education #memoir

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Total Recall – Arnold Schwarzenegger

*Note – I include this mostly because of his telling of his time as a body-builder and actor.

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-/30 – Total Recall by Arnold Schwarzenegger. As a kid, I was into his movies. After I started getting into exercise, I got more into his bodybuilding achievements. While I didn't follow his political career, his recounting of his Governor years was quite interesting (though personally I enjoyed the first two acts of his career more). The book was quite long, but I enjoyed the story and got some good advice out of it. My only critique is that parts of the end felt more like he was writing the book for damage control of his personal life and career (i.e. his infidelity and son). Still, I'm glad I listened to the story. #books #reading #selfimprovement #audiobook #nonfiction #autobiography #memoir

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A Life in Parts – Bryan Cranston

 

The Art of Learning – Josh Waitzkin

 

Shoe Dog – Phil Knight

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-/31 – Shoe Dog by Phil Knight. This is a good book, not because I have any affinity for Nike shoes (I don't think I've ever owned a pair) but because it's a great story. The skeptical part of me knows that Knight controls the narrative, so as a narrator we can't fully trust his objectivity as he tells his side of some of the bad events in Nike's early years. Nevertheless, even if he's stretching events to make himself look good, the lessons of his missteps are worth learning from. That, and the charisma his prose evokes, made this a gripping story to listen to and one of my top reads this year. #reading #selfimprovement #books #nonfiction #learning #education #audiobook #Libby #management #business

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Creativity, Inc. – Ed Catmull

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-/35 – Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull. I love love love this book! I've already recommended it to a few friends because it's that good. Catmull, one of the founders of Pixar, gives us an account of his early life and the history of Pixar up through 2014. I grew up watching their movies, so getting the behind the scenes stories was fascinating. The best part, though, is his reflection on what did and didn't work. From his experiences, he draws out lessons for running a company and promoting growth, sustaining output, ensuring transparency, and fostering creativity. The book is captivating and one that I plan to add a physical copy of to my shelf. #reading #selfimprovement #books #nonfiction #learning #education #audiobook #Libby #kpl #library #memoir #pixar

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The Checklist Manifesto – Atul Gawande

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-/29 – The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. I'm torn on this book. On the one hand, the ideas are good and he has some good insights into the process of making good checklists for complex situations, like medicine. On the other hand, I was really hoping for a more technical dive into the fields he discusses that involve the uses of checklists (aviation, medicine, and construction). It felt like his attempt to make the material accessible also made it superficial and too easily digestible; that he deliberately didn't go deep in order to push out an easier book (not accusing him of it, just the feeling I got from it). Still, I am glad I read it, and like Koch's 80/20 Principle, I have already tried applying concepts and learnings from the book to my job. #reading #selfimprovement #books #nonfiction

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Better – Atul Gawande

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-/8 – "Better" by Atul Gawande. This was a great listen. I first checked out his book, The Checklist Manifesto, a few years back. While I enjoyed it, I felt it lacked a certain depth I had hoped to have had in diving into the origins of some of the checklist systems he discussed. "Better" is the kind of book I had hoped for "Checklist." This is the book of a craftsman reflecting on his work. He muses on many critical areas of medicine and asks how doctors have tackled the idea of being better. Here, he runs the gamut of behaviour changes, adapting to impossible situations, monetary incentives ruining practice, the need for diligence, and a few other valuable essays. While he's a surgeon, he explores fields outside of his own to see what kind of lessons we can learn from their stories. The book is packed with valuable insights, which is unfortunate because I blasted through the book fairly quickly, so not all of it had a chance to stick while I mulled it over. A reread for sure! #reading #selfimprovement #books #nonfiction #learning #education #audiobook #medicine #reflection #craftmanship

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Complications – Atul Gawande

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-/17 – Complications by Atul Gawande. This is the third or fourth book I've read from Gawande. I first encountered him in the Checklist Manifesto, but like his last book I read I really enjoy his reflections on what it means to be a doctor. Something about the gravity of the work speaks to me, and his reflections on the gaps in what can be known by people expected to have all the answers is fascinating to me. I should seek out books by other authors in professions that spark deep reflections on the training and expertise intersecting with the quest for mastery. #reading #selfimprovement #books #nonfiction #learning #education #audiobook #medicine #reflection #craftmanship #memoir #surgery #Libby #kpl

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Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Masterclass in Political Oration – Jon Stewart

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

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

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

 

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

KSE And A Visual Metaphor

And now for something lighter.  The last few weeks, I’ve been discussing some pretty heavy topics, so I thought for Family Day, I’d share something a little on the lighter side that makes me happy.

Killswitch Engage (KSE) is a band that I really like.  I think since 2012 I’ve seen them play every time they’ve swung through Ontario on tour with the exception of once, tallying around 7 or 8 shows.  A friend who accompanies me to the shows joked that it’s getting to the point where we buy tickets to KSE shows for an excuse to see the other bands they are touring with.

Six years ago this month, they released their lead track and video from 2013’s Disarm the Descent, In Due Time.

The video kicks off with some behind the scenes footage of the band and crew, interspersed with footage of the band playing their instruments.  While this is going on, the camera follows behind the band’s vocalist, Jesse, as he enters the space, walks up to grab the microphone, and launches into the song’s vocals.

If you know nothing about the band, you might not connect the visuals with the band’s history, but let me show you why this is such a cool visual metaphor.  I’m not entirely sure that it was intentional (I haven’t read anything to support my idea), but even if it was deliberate it’s a really cool way of visualizing the band’s history up until that moment.

The band, while going through a few member changes in its early days since forming in 1999, was made up of guitarists Adam and Joel, bassist Mike, drummer Justin (who joined in 2003), and vocalist Jesse.  In 2002, just as they released their sophmore album Alive or Just Breathing, Jesse announced abruptly that he had to quit the band for personal reasons.  It was a sudden departure that left the band hanging.  The band added Howard Jones to the lineup, and they broke it big with 2004’s The End of Heartache, which launched them into the charts and cemented them as one of the biggest bands in the genre.

Fastforward to 2012, and Howard announces his departure for the band.  There was some uncertainty at the time as to whether the band would continue and under what conditions, but it was quickly announced that Jesse would return to the mic.  Jesse was not a stranger to making music at the time, having worked on a side project with some of the members of KSE called Times of Grace in 2011.  KSE toured and completed their album through the end of the year and released Disarm the Descent in early 2013.

Now, if you take the history of the band into account, go back and watch the video from the start through around the 34 second mark, and what you see is a visual representation of the band up until that point.  You see the band playing, making music but without a vocalist to sing their lyrics.  Then, from outside, you watch Jesse walk up to the group, rejoining them in time to begin the first verse.  The band was an entity that was already out there, working hard, and Jesse gets welcomed back, fitting in naturally with the group.  The group had continued on without him, and Jesse returned to help give voice to their music.

It’s a beautiful representation, and something of an easter egg for the fans.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

(Update) I Didn’t Get The Job (Part 2)

As an update to last week’s post, my boss confirmed with me that I wasn’t being offered the position.  While technically I’m in the running since HR hasn’t sent me the official email to say they have selected another candidate, my boss gave me the courtesy of not making me wait for HR to seal the deal.  And so, here I am, posting again about how I didn’t get the job.

Reflections and Learnings

One benefit of this round of interviews is that I was interviewed by my direct boss and one of the managers I support.  This means that I have access to much better feedback than what HR can give me.  Both bosses have offered to sit down with me and go over their notes from the interview, with specific feedback on how I could do better.  They are both invested in my improvement.

My boss mentioned when she told me I wasn’t getting the job that there is still room to redefine my current job.  Since then, I’ve been doing a comprehensive deepdive into my job and mapping it out.  I pulled my last performance appraisal and am looking over what I do well (my strengths) and identify where I need to improve.  This will give me a good lens to look for courses or opportunities to grow and better demonstrate my experinece.

Both bosses commented that I delivered a good presentation.  This is good to note, because I can take stock of how I chose to research and present the information.  HR sent me links to resources, and one of my bosses said I was the only one to name drop them during my presentatiton and interview, showing I did the work.

The more indepth feedback will help me address one of my interviewing weaknesses – I tend to ramble because I haven’t adequately prepared canned stories that showcase my abilities.  With their specific feedback I can reflect and collect stories of how I problem-soved issues, which will help me articulate my value.

While it might be the case that I lost out on the job because I was in competition with a better qualified candidate, I need to remember to always express my value to the employer.  I need to answer important questions like “What can I do for the employer?  What problems will I address?  What money will I save?  What opportunities will I exploit?” etc.  I will need to reflect more intentionally on what I bring and give it a narrative that tells a story.

Most importantly, I need to prepare so I can have more self-confidence.  You can’t sell a product if you don’t believe in it 100%, and I sadly still lack confidence in my value.

As one of the managers and I were chatting afterwards, he said there is a saying in his home country of Romania, which roughly translates to “a swift kick in the butt is still a step forward.”  I think this is a good perspective to take.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

I Don’t Interview Well (Part 2)

Last week I interviewed for a new position in the office.  As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not very good in interviews.  As of writing, I have not heard back whether I’m moving to the next round of interviews (successful candidates will have a further interview with the manager and an interview with the College President), however I’m not overly optimistic that I’ll be selected.

When I say that I don’t do well in interviews, I have to own the fact that not doing well in interviews is wholly my fault.  For last week’s interview, I spent time studying for the position and about engineering educational accreditation processes, and constructing a presentation about the key domains of the accreditation process, but I spent next to no time preparing my answers to the interview questions themselves.  My preparation was largely to watch two mini-courses on Lynda.com on interview prep, and to take notes on some case examples I could bring up for achievement or behaviour questions.  Only  the night before, for about twenty minutes, did I have my wife run some sample questions past me.  My lack of preparation and practice on answering questions is entirely on me.

I did have one insight, though, that gives me some solace.  In thinking about how poorly I thought my interview went, I reflected on how many interviews I’ve done in my career to date.  This was my 5th interview, and only my third interview for a non-entry level position.  I  realized that one of the reasons why I was so unprepared, and why I didn’t spend more time prepping my answers is that I don’t know how to prepare for a mid-career interview.  The phrase “what got me here won’t get me there,” comes to mind in this scenario.  I don’t yet have a clear picture of what I should be aiming at in interview questions.

I know the mechanics of the interviews – I should be demonstrating value to the employer and painting a picture of what I can do for them.  I should consider what their questions are trying to elicit from me and tailor the response accordingly.  When giving a behavioural- or achievement-based answer, make sure to ground the example using the STAR method (situation, task, action, results).  Link strengths back to the job competencies, and identify weaknesses from the job competencies that I’m actively addressing.  I know these facts, but because I lack confidence in myself I have a hard time selling it to others because I don’t believe it for myself.  No amount of resentment towards the dog-and-pony show process will elevate me above other candidates.

If I want to succeed, I need to get better at playing their game.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

The Value of a Myers-Briggs Test

There seems to be a publishing cycle, where every year a new slew of articles are released to damn personality tests, such as the Myers-Briggs.  Lifehacker published one recently, and a book was released at the end of summer about the mother-daughter duo who created the assessment tool, which can be paired with a book released a decade ago discussing personality tests more broadly.

A few years back, I was thinking about my career, and I happened to take the test.  According to it, I’m a INTP, the Logician, an introverted big-thinker who is logical but adaptive.  A year later, I took the test again and I drifted into ENTJ territory; apparently in that time I became more extroverted and more rigid in my planning.

This, of course, is the biggest issue with these personality tests.  They tend to overly rely on generalizations of fluid behaviours and attitudes.  People rarely have stable traits over time, and the test tends to loosely clump these together in attempt to create a meaningful picture.  In this, the Myers-Briggs is nether reliable nor valid from a scientific point of view.  As the Lifehacker article points out, along with many others, it’s dangerous when you base decisions on the conclusions drawn from these tests for things like dealing with others or hiring employees.  The best thing you can do, the article claims, is to use it as a fun conversation starter and nothing more.

But I find value in the tests for another reason.

Humans are drawn to stories.  We like crafting narratives to explain events and give meaning to our lives.  While we would want our stories to align with true accounts of history or phenomena (a book I recently bought argues that it’s not possible), we can still find value in stories that are not, strictly speaking, true (I’m appealing to a coherence-model of truth, rather than a correspondence-model of truth; I never thought I’d drag that grad course back up in conversation again…).  We can find value in a story even if we are agnostic towards it being literally true or corresponding to a fact “out there” in the world.

When it comes to my career, one problem I have is that I have a hard time knowing how to sell myself.  When you are crafting your resume or CV, or when you are interviewing for a position, you are trying to create an appealing story of yourself.  You are painting a picture of the kind of person you are that aligns with the demands of the job or the needs of the employer.  Sometimes, it’s hard to create a compelling story for yourself.  You don’t know what to include, what to leave out, and what needs some mild spin.  You have to decide how to play-up key points and downplay unsavory details.  How you choose to connect the dots can make a large impact on what others will think of you as a candidate.  You don’t want to be dishonest, but sometimes the “truth” is very compelling.

One critical area that the Myers-Briggs can offer value is providing inspiration for how to tell that story.  It creates neat little packages that arranges details in interesting ways.  It allows you to take the generalizations and apply them to your own experiences.  It’s the same trick astrology uses – if you make a statement sufficiently ambiguous, you can find confirming evidence to support it.  Using this to your advantage, you can create a compelling backstory for yourself while also prompting you to fill in the details with good stories.

And if something does fit?  Leave it out and move on.

As long as you don’t pigeonhole yourself, you can tell a story about you that shows how valuable, interesting, and desirable you are to others.  The Myers-Briggs can offer some themes and typologies to help sell the best version of you.  Just don’t believe everything you read.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Post-Script: After I drafted this post last week, Seth Godin posted some thoughts about changing your story.  If I’m randomly coming up with ideas that coheres with advice from Seth, I count myself in good company.

~R