Ramble: Professionalism by the Inch

white measuring tape on white surface
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

When it comes to posting for this blog, my goal is to have content ready to go live by Monday mornings at 9am. It’s largely an arbitrary objective, but I like to try and keep it so that the post is live by the time I get to work for the week and I can kick off work feeling a sense of accomplishment. As of writing these words, it’s 11:46am on a Monday – clearly I’ve missed my target.

Like many people, I’m finding it challenging to maintain productivity while working from home. I can try to claim that I’m in an adjustment period. Afterall, Wednesday will mark two full weeks of me being home from work. But I know in the back of my mind that while it might be true that I’m still adjusting to working from home (now that the novelty has worn off a bit), I also am keenly aware that my productivity habits are spotty at best.

Thanks to my wife, I’ve been able to keep a structured schedule for my days. I’ve also increased my excersising and have used the time at home to practice time-restricted feeding. I’ve brainstormed what I’d like to work on during this period of instability, and my relationship with my wife has grown closer as we’ve been forced to spend more time together at home.

But when it comes to actually doing the things on my list, I’m struggling with tipping over from plan to action. I’ve known for a week that a blog post needed to get done. I’ve even drafted a few ideas with some rough thoughts and structure. Yet, here I am, almost three-hours past my deadline, and I’m writing a vaguely stream-of-consciousness post. I recognize in me the same level of performance I see when students leave their assignments to the last moment to start (note: stream-of-consciousness is a typical strategy to fill space and sound smart).

Meta-blogging aside, the problem is that I’m still not a professional when it comes to many things in my life. I don’t mean ‘professional’ in the sense of being paid for my work, nor do I mean professional in the sense of being recognized as such.

In this case, I mean professional in the sense that Seth Godin invoked in a podcast episode I listened to recently (Seth Godin [Empathy] on the Creative Elements podcast). A professional is someone who shows up (often because they are being paid, though not necessarily) because that is what they do; it’s what’s expected of them. It doesn’t matter how they feel – they show up. Seth Godin notes that this can be hugely inauthentic. Sometimes, like this morning, you have a hard time feeling like you want to show up. You want to show up, and at a second order you want to want to show up, but no matter how much you desire to show up, you struggle with moving from thought to action.

There are tricks to motivating yourself. If I may be allowed to tap Seth Godin again, a recent blog post of his resonated strongly with me last week (React, Respond or Initiate on Seth’s Blog). Reacting is often the easiest route to overcome the motivation barrier – it’s visceral and immediate. It’s also unfocused and sloppy. Responding is more thoughtful and directed, but like this post is still intimately tied to someone else putting work into the field. But Initiate? That gives you maximum freedom of direction, but the hardest to push yourself through. The Resistance (hat-tip to Mr. Pressfield) is felt in direct proportion to how much ownership you have over the initial starting move. To React is to cede the initiative because you are unaware and flat-footed. To Respond is to acknowledge that you are going second, but you are at least aware and ready to make a move. But, to Initiate means you pick the time and place to move things into action, which can have all sorts mental barriers in the way.

I’m of two minds on the matter. On the one hand, I feel like not moving towards a goal is to waste an opportunity that has presented itself to me. Like with compound interest, the more small progress I can put in, the more it will pay off down the line. And if you fail to put in the work, you’ll struggle to rise to new challenges; you’ll end up hurting your future-self because you failed to practice and prepare. Or as Ryan Holiday notes, “you can lie to yourself, saying that you put in the time, or pretend that you’re working, but eventually someone will show up. You’ll be tested. And quite possibly, found out.”

But at the same time, I know I have to be kind to myself. These aren’t expectations that I need to follow, nor do I have to choose them. These are one version of a vision of success, but it’s not the only path or formula to follow.

Being afforded the opportunity to work from home is giving me space to be able to think and reflect. Within the opportunity, it’s important that I take the time to pause and listen to what my preferences are telling me – what do I find important and how do I leverage the tools I have to go where I want to go. Being a professional towards goals you don’t want strikes me as pyrrhic. Sure, you might gain measures of success as someone might define it, but at what cost? If we know that lunches are truly never free, then what is it we give up when we go with defaults?

Showing up doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. Being a professional means being consistent and accountable, even if you are fighting to create progress by the inch. Chain enough inches together over time will still create progress forward.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Masterclass in Storytelling – Hamilton

This past weekend, I had the privilege of seeing Hamilton the musical on stage. As I noted in my Instagram post, I was blown away by the experience, and was moved to tears by the performance. My emotional reaction was due, in part, to my having completed the audiobook a few weeks back. Had I not already been familiar with the story of Alexander Hamilton, I think I would have struggled a bit with the fast paced delivery of the lyrics.

In my mind, the musical is perfect – it is a shining example of why art exists and what it is capable of. Hamilton the musical takes a 35-hour book, of which spans the nearly 50-year life of Hamilton, and distills it down into a powerful 2-hour performance.

There are so many fantastic elements of the play. I don’t want to spoil the experience, but I can’t not list some of my favourite parts.

For instance, in the second song, a throughline is set-up that spans Hamilton’s life where he ambitiously declares that he won’t throw his shot (waste an opportunity to advance himself). But, at the end of his life, when he is dueling Aaron Burr over a matter of honour, he chooses to “throw his shot” (raise one’s weapon in the air to waste your shot, signalling that you are not participating in the duel) as he becomes morally opposed to dueling. It was haunting to hear this theme get set up so early.

I loved the use of space on stage. The floor was set up with two circular discs that could rotate in different directions, which meant that the actors could allow the stage to carry them around the space to give the illusion of traversing great distances.

Speaking of those discs, there were a few moments in the play where things could freeze in time or rewind. The actors could halt in tableau, but the discs would rotate them around, giving the appearance that they were reversing in time. This was so cool to see – we were able to watch a scene play out twice: once from Hamilton’s perspective, and one from the narration of a side character who was singing her motivations while guiding the scene along.

I’m not normally a great fan of dancing, but even the bodily movements of the performers had me transfixed. The ways they moved around to evoke things like battlefield war, or Hamilton feeling at the centre of a hurricane made me forget I was watching a play on stage.

So many other elements came together in amazing ways – how they used space on the stage to signal travelling over vast distances, how costumes took on symbolic meanings, the politics of ceding from England through the Kings’ songs, and the incredible attention to detail of every word spoken, rapped, and sung by the cast. The last straw was Eliza getting the final word. So. Good!

The experience was so wonderful and memorable, I can’t put into words what it meant for me to see it. I simply don’t have the vocabulary developed to articulate how smart and charming the musical was. It was a pure masterclass of how to put together a modern piece of art to tell the story of one of the United State’s founding fathers – a man whose impact lasts through to today, but whose legacy is unknown to most everyday persons.

I’ll end with one final note. In the premiere week of the show in Toronto, the CBC news company ran a short piece about the show. Within the segment, they showed a clip of an interview with the musical’s writer and original-run star, Lin Manuel Miranda, where he gives advice to up and coming playwrites. Now, granted, his words are meant to speak to marginalized voices who fall outside of what is deemed normal or popular art. However, his words, more generally applied, can speak to the creative urge in all of us.

“Well, I’ll tell you the only advice I can give is: write what’s missing. Write what you don’t see on stage. I started writing in the Heights because I really wanted a life in musical theatre and so I wanted to write the kind of show I wasn’t seeing. So, don’t write the next Hamilton. Write what isn’t Hamilton. Write the story that only you can write.”

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Enough Blog Words to Fill A Book!

fountain pen on black lined paper
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

I’ve hit a couple of milestones recently. For instance, last week I hit a nice big milestone in Duolingo when I hit 600 consistent days of doing lessons.

I wouldn’t say I’m particularly fluent in German, but during my trip in October of last year, I was able to follow some of the conversation going on around me and put into practice the lessons given by the app. I was able to manage thanks to small, consistent daily micro-lessons that expanded my vocabulary a bit at a time.

Something similar happened for this blog as well. From time to time I check-in on the site’s stats and analytics. I don’t have any plans or intentions to seek monetization, so I only check in on things out of a sense of curiosity rather than seeking optimization. I originally set up this blog as an exercise to see if I could keep a consistent weekly writing schedule. At the time, I had the aspirations to go back to school to become a paramedic, and so I also had intended to use this blog to apply the concepts I was learning to help me reinforce my learning. I’ve since abandoned that path, and so the blog largely remains a project to force me to come up with something to post on a weekly schedule.

I was looking at the stats last week and felt a sense of satisfaction for hitting a couple of milestones. First, it appears that I have not missed a weekly post in the last three years (I might be late posting, but I still get something up). Also, I’m happy to see that overall my words per post are trending upwards, though I hope this means I’m providing more meaningful, nuanced posts rather than just being verbose.

Then, I decided to check on how many words I had written for this blog.

YearTotal PostsTotal WordsAvg Words per Post
20163717,660477
20175428,625530
20185226,545511
20195232,210619
202033,0751,025
Sum108,115

As it turns out, I had written the rough equivalent of a book in the four years I’ve been at this. Beyond the urge to create something and a desire to force myself to “write more,” the steady drip of a weekly schedule has now pooled into a large body of words.

I take a lot of inspiration from Seth Godin, and I learned from him the value of consistently showing up and putting in the work. It’s not about creating high quality giant pieces of work from fiat, but instead the slow, plodding, steady work of creating a little bit at a time. When you look back, you see the vast distance you’ve covered by forcing yourself to focus on putting one foot in front of the other. Not everything is going to be good – in fact, most of it will suck. But, over time you get better at the work, and sometimes you can find the good stuff emerging from the mediocre.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Citing Your Sources

writing-828911_1920
Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay 

While reading a post from A Learning A Day, I thought I’d keep the irony train rolling by linking to Rohan’s linked post from Derek Sivers about the perceived need to quote an idea’s source.  Specifically, I wanted to respond to this point:

2. School teaches us to reference. But we’re not trying to impress a teacher anymore. And every unnecessary fact dilutes our point.

I often reflect on the learning objectives I expect to achieve in a course lesson while teaching.  I try to parse out the meaningful things I want students to learn from rote procedural tasks that don’t serve a purpose.  The last thing I want to do is to reinforce the wrong lesson or derive the wrong conclusion from a student’s performance (e.g. did a student do well on a test because they understood the material, or because they are good at taking tests?).

Derek’s point above about references is well-taken and got me thinking: why do I want students to cite their sources?  I brainstormed a few reasons and listed them below with comments.

Reason

Thoughts

I want a student to be mindful of their research process (procedure). Having gone through writing my master’s thesis, it’s easy to lose track of references and citations if you don’t stay on top of it.  This isn’t super relevant to most assignment learning objectives, but it’s a good practice to have before launching into a bigger endeavor or capstone project.
2. I want a student to critically examine their own knowledge (what do they believe to be true facts, where did that fact come from, and why do they think it’s true). I’m not sure if making students cite their sources achieves this aim on its own, but I suppose I could use citation requirements to help guide them through this process.
3. I want a student to be mindful of idea ownership and give credit to people who have done work.

 

I’ve used this mostly in plagiarism cases where students copied work and submitted it as their own.  I try to distinguish between sloppy citing and outright theft, and I remind students that they shouldn’t get marks for work they didn’t do.  I’m still undecided if this is a rule of the academy or a legitimate thing to prevent fraudulently passing work off as your own in the future.  This point, though, is mostly relevant in academic contexts as opposed to Derek’s notes about doing this during conversations.
4. I want an easy way to see if the student did the work. This is a trick I’ve developed to see whether a student giving me their opinion is right by chance, or if they have informed their opinion by doing the course reading.  The same result could be gained if students inserted relevant information without citations, but the citations help to highlight this when I’m reading through their submission.  In other words, it makes my job easier.
5. I want to reinforce good academic writing habits. Using references is part of what it means to write academically, and is used as part of the integrity process.  This is only a good reason if my objective is to teach/reinforce academic writing for students.
6. This is the way it has always been done.

 

More cynically, requiring citations is part of the tradition, and who am I to question it?  It’s not a good reason to require it, but it is what it is.  I won’t included in the list to the left, but a more sadistic version of this is “I had to do it, so you have to (go through this rite of passage) too!”
7. I want to remain consistent with departmental policies and culture. Whether written or unstated, most departments adhere to some level of standards.  This was less the case for me in undergrad and it depended largely on the preferences of the prof.  By the time of my thesis, I ended up developing a hybrid referencing system that did not strictly follow any of the major citation methods.  I received no comments from anyone who reviewed my thesis on my citation practices.
8. It’s important to trace an idea’s lineage as much as possible to spot fabrication. If you are going to insert facts or conclusions into your work, it’s important to point to where you found them.  Without a citation or an adequate way of accounting for how you know what you purport to know, it’s possible that the information is made up.  Being able to trace these things helps, albeit this is more useful from a scholarship point of view, as I suspect a lay-reader isn’t concerned with checking a text for factual accuracy and instead takes it on authorial authority.

9.

Related – to see if a student is able to either properly reference work, or at the very least charitably restate ideas without dropping important content from the idea. This perhaps falls under sloppy citation practices, but on occasion students will misunderstand a piece of text and paraphrase or summarize information incorrectly.  Knowing where the student is drawing their source from can have pedagogical merit if you take the time to compare the student’s work with the source and discuss the divergence.

10.

Related – when an author cites their sources, a reader can use the bibliography of sources for further reading.

 

This is perhaps more for book nerds, but I love having references to be able to learn more for things that pique my interest.  This is, however, not the context Derek is referencing when he discusses giving citations during a normal conversation.  If Derek’s conversation partner was interested and want to know more, I’m sure they would ask Derek for more information.

11.

More abstractly, knowledge and academics is a web of mutually reinforcing facts, so academic writing is an extension of that reality. This one is a bit of a stretch as to why a student who is not adding to a body of knowledge is required to rigorously cite their sources in a pedagogical exercise, but I include this more epistemological point to try and be exhaustive.

12.

It’s a symbolic representation that the student (in most contexts) is not generating new or novel work/insights that creates new knowledge, but instead is remixing ideas from other sources. I think this is a good reminder of what the goal of the assignment should be (students are often far too ambitious in what they think they can reasonably achieve in x-number of pages), but I wouldn’t consider this to be an adequate reason to insist on proper citations.

13.

Like other skills, the act of referencing needs to be practiced. I’m sympathetic to this, but as Derek is implying, you should be practicing skills that transfer into other domains or that you will need.  In most instances, outside of school you don’t need to cite sources.

14.

Citing references is part of the argumentation process.  In order to build a successful argument, you must clearly express and state your premises, which includes any premises taken from the work of others (either their premises or their conclusions). I’m also sympathetic to this as I think everyone should keep in mind that arguments need to be made to help convey ideas.  It shows the logical chain from premise to conclusion and seeks to make the implicit explicit, and the unstated stated.

Other than a subset of the reasons above, a strict requirement for citations is often unnecessarily enforced in the classroom, and is almost never required outside of the academic setting.  I think there are some good pedagogical reasons to have students go through the effort  to cite their sources, but you should be intentional when teaching as to when those cases apply.  For instance, I am less strict about my students citing sources and instead I look for them to directly apply material from the course in their assignments (instead of giving me their opinions).

I enjoyed Derek’s point about how citing sources is a common trope in pop non-fiction, which sounds like a convergence on my ideas concerning animated bibliographies, or Ryan Holiday’s “15 academic studies” comment from a few weeks back.  Maybe Derek’s right – we should have more courage to integrate knowledge into our existing schema and be prepared to state things as facts instead of citing our sources.  I’m not sure I’m prepared to abandon the practice wholesale, but it has given me something to chew on.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

“The Same Fifteen Academic Studies”

Despite my rant a few weeks back on the podcast-book marketing relationship, there are a few authors I will check out when they appear on podcasts I’m subscribed to.  For instance, Ryan Holiday just released his new book and is out promoting it to various podcast audiences.

He appeared on Rolf Pott’s podcast, Deviate, and had a conversation about what it’s like to write a big idea book.  Towards the end of the episode, he makes an off-hand remark on getting ideas from recently published books, and how he chooses not to do this because it tends to result in recycling the same academic studies.  Given how much I rant about animated bibliographies and short term content bias, I was happy to see some convergence in our ideas – that my amateur attempt on commenting on culture is shared by people I admire and hold in regard.

I’ve transcribed his remarks below, but you can go here to listen to the episode yourself.  Holiday’s comments begin at the 50:37 mark:

Potts: And that’s why you should feel blessed not to be an academic, right, because that’s such a useful model from which to write a book.  The academic world has these different hoops to jump through that often aren’t as useful.  And I would think that, sometimes, there’s types of research, like, do you do much Google or Wikipedia research, or is it mostly books?

Holiday: Yeah, I mean, you have to be careful, obviously, relying on Wikipedia, but yeah you do wanna go get facts here and there, and you gotta check stuff out.  I like to use obituaries.  Let’s say I’m writing about a modern person and they’ve died.  New York Times obituaries, Washington Post obituaries often have lots of really interesting stuff.   Then you can be really confident that dates and places and names are all correct because they’ve been properly fact-checked.  So I like to do stuff like that.  I watch documentaries from time to time.  In this book, there wasn’t really a great book about Marina Abramović, but there was some really great New York Times reporting about her Artist is Present exhibit, and there’s also a documentary with the same name.  So I’m willing to get stuff from anywhere provided I believe it’s verified or accurate, but you can’t be choosy about where your stuff comes from.  And in fact, if you’re only drawing from the best selling books of the last couple of years, just as an aside, an example, I find when I read a lot of big idea business books, it feels like they’re all relying on the same fifteen academic studies.  It’s “the will power” experiment, and “the paradox of choice” experiment, and the “Stanford Prison” experiment!  They think it’s new because it’s new to them, but if they’d read a little bit more widely in their own space, they’d realize that they’d be better off going a bit deeper or treading on some newer ground.

*****
(Note: I’ve lightly edited the transcript to remove filler words and some idiolects).

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Beware the Salesman

Podcast ads.

Hacks and routines.

Blogs that promote and sponsored content.

Look to the incentives and see if they align with your own.

What’s in their interest might not be in mine.

This might change over time.  Sources that don’t sell might eventually sell.  There is a future where I might try to sell you something or join my mailing list.

Beware the one who sells you solutions for problems they don’t have.

Beware the sponsored content coming from authorities you like.

Beware the salesman who makes universal the particular.  The one who puts everyone into a clearly defined box.  The one who makes money on your problems.  The one who charges to join their community.

I’m not saying these are all inherently bad things; merely that they merit many second thoughts.

Secret shortcuts don’t exist.  If they were valuable, they wouldn’t be secret and they wouldn’t be a shortcut – they would be the norm.

Everyone has to make a living.  Everyone has something to sell.  But not everyone has your best interest in mind.

Caveat emptor.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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