A recent article talking about knowing when to quit/retire from teaching had me reflecting on my own experiences with quitting. Truthfully, I can’t recall many instances where I quit something. Often, I will drag out experiences long after they have been useful, and instead of quitting as an active decision, I’m more likely to let things fall away through neglect. Perhaps there isn’t a strong difference between the two since my history is littered with things that I eventually stopped doing. I suppose in my mind, the difference comes down to whether I made a decision to stop – whether I took ownership over the act.
The strongest instance where I actively made a decision was when I stopped hosting at the local karaoke bar. I was three or four years into my tenure as a host, and for the most part I enjoyed the experience. I had a regular crew of friends who would come in and make the night interesting. However, towards the end, I grew to resent patrons coming in who weren’t my friends. I worked the slowest night, so if things were quiet, we’d shut down early. But if patrons filtered in and kept purchasing stuff, we’d stay open. Catering to the average customer felt like a chore, rather than chumming with friends with our own song preferences and inside jokes.
I started to dislike going into work, and even to this day I don’t sing much like I did while I was a host. I’ll grab the mic from time to time, but I don’t go out to enjoy karaoke anymore. I still work security at the bar, but I stopped hosting all together.
I made the decision to stop hosting because a small part of me knew it was time to move on. I learned what I could from the experience, cherished the memories it gave me, but I recognized that I no longer wanted to spend time doing it. I think that’s the critical part in the art of quitting. It’s not about actually quitting or the how. Instead, it’s about recognizing when the time has come and why.
Sometimes we have to slog it out in things we hate. We don’t quit those things because we assign value to the activity (or someone else has assigned value and we are dragged along for the ride). But quitting is more than stopping a thing you don’t like. It’s about recognizing when the thing is no longer of value to you; that it won’t take you where you need it to go. It is the recognition that your time is better suited elsewhere. The art of quitting ultimately comes down to taking an active role in how you choose to spend your time.
A recent SMBC comic discussing how humans tend to revert to emotional baselines got me thinking. Go check it out; it’s humorously astute.
Shortly after the last Game of Thrones episode aired, reports came out that actor Kit Harington checked himself into a wellness centre to work on personal issues. This was later corroborated with behind the scenes footage showing some of his emotional reactions as they filmed the final episodes. Given that the show was one of his first major long-running parts, it’s not unreasonable that he’s experiencing complex thoughts and feelings around the show coming to a close.
Similarly, Olympian Michael Phelps appeared on Tony Robbins’s podcast and discussed his experiences with depression after his achievements in the pool. He notes that after running on an emotional high from training and competing, returning to “normal life” without any substantial goals is a tough adjustment for athletes. They spend long chunks of their lives devoted to a singular aim, and once they close that chapter of their lives, it can be difficult to find meaning in more mundane pursuits. Instead of reverting to a normal baseline, their sense of balance is skewed and their baseline dips emotionally lower.
I’m neither an acclaimed actor nor athlete, but I have experienced similar emotional falloffs that helps me relate to what these two people might be going through. After a summer of outward bound adventure in my army cadet days (we climbed mountains, glaciers, and biked through the Albertan countryside), I returned to my normal high school life and I experienced a week or so of crushing depression. I felt that after climbing a mountain, what else could I possibly experience in life that would top that? Setting aside that I was a teenager and lacked a more global perspective on life, in that moment I felt that I had peaked, and there was nothing left for me to achieve or look forward to.
The so-called “quarter-life crisis,” which for many coincides with graduating from four grueling years of undergraduate study, is a similar experience, where you no longer are striving towards a goal and now have to seek out to find your own meaning in life. The vast, open stretch before you is daunting in its emptiness. But, instead of possibility, you view the void with pessimism – what do I have before me that can possible measure to what has come before?
I don’t have children, but I suspect that the “empty nest” feeling that parents get when their children head out on their own is similar. You’ve spent nearly two decades caring for your children, nurturing and guiding them towards self-sufficiency, and now that they are heading out, your goal is largely fulfilled and you need to redefine your identity and time in a post-dependent world.
When you experience the closing of a long-term goal that has spanned years, there seems to be a harsh recalibration period for your emotions. Not only do you snap back to baseline, but you have to redefine your expectations for the baseline, and re-code that experience with a new sense of purpose and meaning. The longer you stay in this limbo, it seems the harder you languish.
Achievement and success is wonderful, but I think we tend to only tell stories of the climb up the mountain and we tend to forget the back-half of the experience when we carefully climb back down, taking care not to fall back to earth. I think sharing these stories is important because it lets us know we are not alone in the dark.
I have a trick for finding parking at work in the morning. The trick I use doesn’t guarantee that I’ll find a good spot every day, but it does prevent me from wasting time driving up and down lanes when there are no spots available. The entrance to the parking lot at work is at the far end of the lot, with the building on the opposite side. This means that when you start your search, you begin at the furthest point away from the building and your search pattern will take you towards the building.
In terms of strategy, this means that the spots with the highest probability of being empty are both the furthest from the building and the closest to you when you begin your search. This obviously makes sense from a safety perspective – if the cars were entering the parking lot closest to the doors, then pedestrians would be in greater danger of getting hit and traffic would always be impeded. However, this means that it’s hard to determine when you enter lot where empty spots are among the banks of cars. Due to poor lines of sight and the number of large trucks used by students, you often won’t see an empty spot until you are a few feet away.
If you rely on this strategy for finding the closest parking spot to the door, you’ll waste a lot of time driving around except in cases where you stumble across a spot (which I estimate would be a low probability event). I’ve started using a strategy to avoid searching for those spots and reduce wasted time in randomly driving around.
My strategy attempts to address a number of constraints:
My parking utility is maximized when I find a spot close to the door. This reduces the amount of time spent walking, which is good for inclement weather, icy conditions, and because I’m usually running late.
My parking utility is diminished when I waste time circling the lot searching for ideal spots. Instead, I’m seeking a satisficing outcome that balances maximizing utility and minimizing search time.
I’m competing against other actors as they also drive around seeking empty spots. These people are usually students, who are also usually running late or seeking to reduce their walking distance.
Keeping these considerations in mind, this is the strategy I employ in the morning.
First, I’ve limited my parking search to one of the three lots. By reducing my options, I can make quick decisions on the fly. Lot 1 is directly in front of the door, and since I arrive before the majority of the students, I find that it satisfies my needs most of the time. If Lot 1 is full, I move to Lot 2, and finally Lot 3 being most sub-optimal.
Next, on my way to the entrance of Lot 1, I scan the first row of cars for empty spots there. Since I drive passed it, it allows me to quickly eliminate it if there are no spots, or at least gauge where the spots will be relative to any additional spots in the second and third rows of the lot.
Then, I use a trick to quickly assess the likelihood of empty spots. I look at the shadows of the cars and pay attention to noticeable gaps. When I enter the lot, I can see down the second (middle) row. If I see anything, I drive towards the gap and usually there is a free spot (except in cases where someone has driven a motorcycle and not parked it in the motorcycle-designated lot). If I see no gaps in the shadows, I move on to the third row and repeat the pattern.
The majority of the time, this gives me enough information quickly to know whether I need to drive down a row. There are two limitations to this strategy: first, it relies on there being no cloud cover, and it doesn’t allow for east-facing shadows to be examined. This is not a perfect strategy, but my goal is to maximize my parking preferences while eliminating my wasted time driving around the lot examining each parking spot hoping to stumble onto an empty spot. Using this strategy balances these two interests and generally gives me a satisfactory outcome quickly.
A final consideration I use is to notice cars leaving the lot when I enter, and noting where they are coming from. That is the fastest indication of where a parking spot is on the busiest days when I’m competing against other cars looking to park.
All of this occurs within about 15 seconds of me driving up to the lot at work.
If you have reached this point in the post, you might be wondering why I spent so much time explaining how I find a parking spot (is this really the best use of a blog???). I think this example of setting up a solution to a problem is a fun way of explaining how I ideally like to approach a problem. I try to consider what outcomes I’m aiming to achieve and work backwards to consider options that would fit those criteria. In doing so, I have to consider what input I need to let me quickly assess a situation and make a decision by eliminating extraneous options.
It’s important to know when you need to be right, and when you need something to work well enough most of the time. For instance, if this were a higher-stakes situation (say, I was doing surgery), I would want a strategy that would be the equivalent of finding the closest spot to the door every time. Instead, I know that my goal is achieved if I reduce the amount of walking time and reduce the amount of time and fuel spent hunting for an optimal spot.
When coming up with a strategy, I knew that hoping to stumble across an empty spot would be a net increase in my search time. So, I found a way to quickly gain information that would eliminate many non-options. Rather than looking at the cars themselves, I instead look for gaps in shadows – an indirect indicator of outcomes I want. It’s a simple heuristic that eliminates the need to confirm that cars are occupying spaces all the way down the long row.
While the strategy will not save me time in 100% of cases, it does shift the outcomes to a net decrease in search time, which meets my goals and gets me to work on time (most of the time).
You can tell who has recently released a book based on who is making their way through the podcast circuit. It’s never a coincidence if you see an author’s name pop up on the latest episodes of several shows your have saved in your playlist. I enjoy listening to these episodes to get book recommendations, and for the most part find that the shows don’t go into too much depth with the author.
This was pointed out by a friend of mine (thanks, Wil, for smashing my illusions!) when he commented that a show I happen to listen to lacks the depth he looks for in a good podcast. After he pointed that out, I saw it everywhere: the host of the show brings the author on, and by whatever means the talking-points get established, the show typically has the host ask 5-10 key questions that are ripped directly from the book. It reminds me of students who skip the reading because the whole thing is covered in class. You get a good sense of what the main points of the book are, but that’s about it. If you’ve read the book already, you might as well skip the podcast episode.
However, there are gems in some shows, and I spotted two a few weeks back. On two different shows, authors who had recently released books were chatting about the ideas in the book and the topic drifted to the idea-generation process. They were short asides, but I found them fascinating to hear how these authors come up with their ideas and structure the construction of their books.
You can give the shows a listen yourself, but I’ve summarized the main points below.
How do you set up the bounds of research? How do you delineate what you put in the book? What should I include in the book?
There will be a few topics you generally know should be in, but after that you don’t know.
Epstein starts with a broad search down rabbit holes. He used to think this was a bad thing and a waste of time, but now it’s thought of as a competitive advantage. Sometimes, though, you end up with a bunch of nonsense.
He creates a master thought list – citation and key ideas or sentences.
As these coalesce into a topic, he moves like-ideas together. When a topic emerges, he tags it with a title and creates keywords that he would use if he’s searching for it. Then he moves similar tags together and a movie storyboard emerges where one topic flows into the next.
The goal is to avoid it being a bunch of journal articles stitched together.
It’s a road map of his brain’s exploration of the topic.
Unlike academics who just read journals and don’t go in-depth, he uses his journalism training to talk to the people – more will always come out in conversation than what’s included in the text. Scientists will include interesting tidbits offhand that are related, but don’t expand on it, so it creates a thread to pull on. It’s also a good fact-checking exercise and makes the story richer.
How do you find ideas that are well-timed/timely with discourse on careers, technology, etc.?
He thinks, writes, and publishes all the time (especially blog posts and articles). He’s constantly reading and testing out ideas. He’s talking to people, having conversations, and seeing what topics emerges. It’s a work ethic to him to constantly be reading and writing.
He tests out what he’s interested in and see if others are interested. It might be foundational to something he works on over time, or it might wither because it doesn’t gain traction or doesn’t bear fruit.
To validate ideas: 1. He asks, “Are people talking about it, or leaving interesting comments on my blog posts?” 2. With ideas comes a sense of “mental confidence.” He asks “Is this working for me? Does it click as a structure to provide a workable framework for seeing the world?”
Over time, something will emerge and persist. It generates advice that’s useful, more evidence comes up, and it is applicable across situations.
The search is opportunistic, but once something emerges, he does a deep dive. (Kadavy evokes the fox-porcupine reference from Isaiah Berlin, popularized by Jim Collins).
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.
Last week, I tried a new tactic to engage with my students. I was inspired by two workshops I attended during Conestoga’s annual E3 (Employees for Excellence in Education) Conference. The first workshop covered how to write good assignment prompts, with clarity and purpose in mind, and the second covered strategies for writing for online courses. In the course I manage online, my students were preparing to submit their first major philosophical paper, and historically my students do poorly on the writing side. I largely attribute this to it being their first time trying to write a philosophical paper and their only exposure to this point was either essays in high school or non-philosophy essays for other courses in college. After sitting in on these two workshops, I reflected on what I could do, in an online course, that would improve my student’s ability to write. It’s challenging to engage with online students for two reasons:
first, you (almost) never meet your students face to face, so you lose the ability to use tone, voice, inflection, and body language to convey information, and
second, online courses are atemporal, which means you don’t engage with your students at the same time.
An idea I’ve been kicking around for some time is creating a video for my students as an added bit of content for the course. The problem with this option is it’s still fairly static and easy for students to skip if they feel it doesn’t contribute to improving their assessments. It also goes in one direction, where I speak at my camera rather than engaging with the students.
However, I’ve been mulling over another option. I have borrowed a web camera from my podcasting partner, I have a good microphone, and I delivered a webinar with a live Q&A in the middle of May. I considered running a livestream last semester, however when I offered the option to the students, I had no requests for it. But this semester, I decided to set it up and run it, regardless if students attended or not. At worst, it would be a wasted hour of my time. However, the benefits would be two-fold: my students would have a chance to interact with me and ask me questions about their assignment, and it would give me practice with a new skill set.
I picked a date and time, figured out how to broadcast (in the end, I went with Twitch, but next time I’ll test out YouTube Live) and went for it. I had 4-7 students drop in, which is fairly low engagement, however the questions were really good and I had a lot of fun actively engaging with students again.
One unfortunate thing was I didn’t set up the system to auto-record, so I don’t have a copy of the livestream to review or upload. I ended up recording a second (static) video to cover the main points so that my students had something to reference when they were completing and submitting their essays this past weekend.
It was a good experience and I plan to run at least one livestream per semester moving forward. I have yet to grade the papers, so I don’t know if I had a material impact on their performance, but in time I hope that my students will get better with the added direction I can give them. I also now have a video that I can post to help them think through the process of writing a philosophical paper. If nothing else, it’s good to build handy resources and have them available for your students. My goal is to help my students improve their thinking and writing as a result of taking my course. Even if their papers are 1% better as a result of my direction, it’s worth it.
I had a strange realization last week. I am now at a point in my career where I need to make “give business card” a default action for when I’m out and about, but not for the reason you may think. Under normal circumstances, I feel it’s relatively rare that I have to give out a business card. In most instances, my role has been too small and insignificant to warrant it, but also because I don’t really buy into the culture of swapping business cards with people in an effort to ‘network.’ I have been promoted to a new role, which entails more responsibility and autonomy when it comes to business meetings, but I’m still getting used to the idea of thinking of myself as an administrator or a manager.
Last week, I was in a coffee shop to grab a quick bite to eat before a meeting. The cashier saw that I was wearing a jacket with our school’s logo, and he excitedly asked if I was a student or employee. I let him know that I work at the college, and he asked in what area. When he heard I work in the school of engineering, he proudly told me that he received multiple acceptances into our mechanical engineering diploma programs. Since the coffee shop was dead, he then launched into a mini history of his background – he was born in east Africa, immigrated to the Middle East, did secondary school in the US, and now has his visa to study in Ontario. He told me some of his education, that he had top marks in design in high school, and even has a portfolio.
His energy and enthusiasm was infectious, and he left a strong impression on me. He sounds like a great kid, and I have no doubt that he will be successful in his studies. I told him where he could find me on campus, and he said he’d find me in the future.
I realized as I was driving away that I had missed the perfect opportunity to give him my card and promise to follow-up if he had any questions. I want to see him succeed, and if there was anything I could do to help, I’d gladly try.
Rather than seeing the business card as a way of helping myself, I should put more emphasis on seeing the business card as a way of helping others.