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

Supporting Community

Since the birth of our son, my wife has joined an online mom’s group in our town. Among the various posts asking for advice or to share items for sale, there periodically comes posts from the admin notifying the group of a request for aid. Families who find themselves in a financial pinch can contact the admin to anonymously ask for support.

The other day, my wife saw one of these posts, and in reflecting on how expensive life can be with our newborn, she felt instantly connected with the call for help. The pandemic has been hard on most people, but we feel we’ve been very fortunate to have our jobs reasonably secure this last year. While I have lost two side jobs over the course of the pandemic, my main source of income allows us to be fairly comfortable.

So, without much deliberation, we picked up some gift cards for the grocery store, loaded it with funds to help with groceries for a week, and offered them to the administrator. This is on top of the automatic monthly charitable contributions I started in November.

In the moment, this had me reflecting on what it means to be a part of a community. Setting aside questions about the role of government and the problems caused by exploitative capitalism, there is a strong moral case to be found in looking out for our community neighbours. We want our communities to be vibrant and healthy. Hyper-individualism may maximize utility for you and your family unit, but I think that outlook discounts the intangible benefits we see when we pitch in to help people feel safe, secure, and taken care of. Take your pick of moral argument:

  • Deontological – we have a moral imperative to help those who experience suffering due to a lack of resources.
  • Utilitarian – the morally right thing to do is to use surplus utility to offset the suffering experienced by others.
  • Feminism & Intersectional Ethics – redistributing wealth, even in the short-term, helps to buttress against the effects of systems that oppress people. This also applies to those who by luck or happenstance are experiencing suffering.
  • Rights-based & Social Contract – people have a right to security of person, and while this right is usually handled by the state, the community shares some of this responsibility as part of the social contract; if you want to derive the benefits of living in a community, you ought to be willing to support and contribute.
  • Virtue ethics – charity and magnanimity are virtues of the ethical person; giving neither too little, nor to excess.
  • Theory of Justice – if I were not in a privileged position to feel safe and secure, I would hope that my community could help me. It is better to work to lift all life conditions and raise the floor of suffering.

In truth, I often feel like a terrible neighbour because of my social habits. I feel awkward meeting new people and making small talk, so I’ll wave at neighbours at a distance instead of striking up conversation. Over a year into living in this house and we just learned the last names of one of our neighbours (who have been fantastic the entire time we’ve lived here – dropping off gifts for our son a few times since he’s been born). Where I lack the social grace to learn about the lives of my neighbours in a meaningful way, I hope I can make up a little bit of good will that comes from answering a call from a stranger online.

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

Gifting Books

I’ve longed for the day when I would be in a position in my life to gift people books. I don’t mean gifting people books for Christmas or their birthday, or even as a congratulatory token for their accomplishments. Instead, I mean an unprompted, unsolicited book to people I think would value the read. Where I can give a book because of how much I enjoyed the experience, and by giving it to others I hope to share that feeling.

I’ve finally found such a book. Last week, I finished Waubgeshig Rice’s novel, Moon of the Crusted Snow, a dystopian novel about an Indigenous community in Northern Ontario that gets cut-off from the rest of the Province. It’s dark, but also life-affirming; it felt like the perfect pandemic read, even though it was published two years ago.

Despite its themes and content, it was a wonderful book to read. As I noted in my Instagram post, the characters feel real and the narrative helped me feel as though I was walking among the community while the story unfolds. A commenter on the book noted that the story is very accessible for folks who are unfamiliar with reservation life of Indigenous peoples in Canada. Yet, the book doesn’t talk down to the reader – it’s infused with cultural references, history, and language that makes you work to understand it in places.

I have already gifted this book in audiobook format to one friend, and I have ordered two more copies for other friends. I am also excited to give this book as gifts because I feel it’s important to support Indigenous and other minority voices, and help amplify them so that we can enjoy more great art from these creators.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

What I Read in 2020

Here we are at the dawning of a new year, which for me means it’s time to post an update on my reading over the last year. For my previous lists, you can see them here: 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016. It’s hard to believe this is my fifth reading list!

TitleAuthorDate CompletedPages
1Creative CallingChase Jarvis22-Jan304
2The Age of Surveillance CapitalismShoshana Zuboff25-Jan704
3Animal FarmGeorge Orwell27-Jan112
4Alexander HamiltonRon Chernow02-Feb818
5RangeDavid Epstein12-Feb352
6The Bookshop on the CornerJenny Colgan29-Feb384
7Call Sign ChaosJim Mattis12-Mar320
8The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the GalaxyDouglas Adams19-Mar208
9The AlchemistPaulo Coelho22-Mar208
10Guns, Germs, and SteelJared Diamond06-Apr496
11UpstreamDan Heath16-May320
12SymposiumPlato18-May144
13Gulliver’s TravelsJonathan Swift25-May432
14Anything You WantDerek Sivers11-Jun96
15Extreme OwnershipJocko Willink & Leif Babin18-Jun384
16The Code. The Evaluation. The ProtocolsJocko Willink 23-Jun93
17How Will You Measure Your LifeClayton M. Christensen28-Jun236
18The Last WishAndrzej Sapkowski05-Jul384
19The Expectant FatherArmin A. Brott & Jennifer Ash06-Jul336
20The Coaching HabitMichael Bungay Stanier14-Jul234
21The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksRebecca Skloot23-Jul400
22WorkingRobert A. Caro08-Sep240
23Crime and PunishmentFyodor Dostoyevsky15-Sep544
24Every Tool’s A HammerAdam Savage18-Sep320
25Love SenseDr. Sue Johnson20-Sep352
26NaturalAlan Levinovitz22-Sep264
27The Kite RunnerKhaled Hosseini06-Oct363
28My Own WordsRuth Bader Ginsburg10-Oct400
29Kitchen ConfidentialAnthony Bourdain20-Oct384
30Stillness is the KeyRyan Holiday06-Nov288
31The Oxford InklingsColin Duriez07-Nov276
32The Infinite GameSimon Sinek14-Nov272
33The Ride of a LifetimeRobert Iger21-Nov272
34As a Man Thinketh & From Poverty to PowerJames Allen26-Nov182
35Medium RawAnthony Bourdain06-Dec320
36A Christmas CarolCharles Dickens06-Dec112
37The Little Book of HyggeMeik Wiking12-Dec288
38Nicomachean EthicsAristotle30-Dec400
Total12242

Overall, I’m happy with how the year went for reading. In reviewing the list, a few things stood out to me. First is that I surpassed my total books read for the year over 2019 by 13 entries. While we can certainly have a discussion about the merits issues of using the number of books read as an accurate key performance indicator of comprehension or progress, it was nice to see that I stepped things up a bit. I was fairly consistent in making my way through the books, with only a dip in April (likely because of the life-adjustment that came from working from home) and the silence seen from mid-July to the start of September thanks to the birth of our son in early-August.

I’m also happy to see that I read fewer self-help and business books last year and instead dove into more fiction, memoirs, and books about history. In my previous roundup, I had commented about wanting to be more intentional with my reading after feeling burnt out on certain genres of books.

One significant change in my reading habits this past year was that I joined a reading group/book club. A friend organized it just as things went into lockdown in March. We meet online every few weeks to discuss books selected in a rotation by the group. I commented earlier that I read 13 more books this year than last, and I’d attribute the book club to being the single biggest reason for the boost in completions (we cleared 12 by year’s end). Here are the books that we read:

  1. Call Sign Chaos by Jim Mattis
  2. Symposium by Plato
  3. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  4. How Will You Measure Your Life by Clayton M. Christensen
  5. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  6. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  7. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
  8. Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
  9. The Oxford Inklings by Colin Duriez
  10. As a Man Thinketh & From Poverty to Power by James Allen
  11. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
  12. Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle (finished in the final days, though we haven’t met to discuss it yet.

I’d normally create a separate post about my top reads for the year, but I’ll include it here for simplicity. In chronological order of when I finished, my top 5 reads of the year are:

  1. Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (among my top reads ever; I was fortunate to see the stage play before the shutdown in March)
  2. Call Sign Chaos by Jim Mattis (the first book I chose for the book club; I was struck by how Mattis talks about self-education and reflection)
  3. The Expectant Father by Armin A. Brott & Jennifer Ash (since we were expecting this year, this book was a nice roadmap to know what to expect, and it provided some comfort along the way)
  4. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (I recommend everyone read this book; it reminds me of the important work we do on the research ethics boards I sit on, and why we must be critical of research)
  5. My Own Words by Ruth Bader Ginsberg (I started this collection of writings and speeches before RBG died, and was sadly reminded after finishing of what we lost in her death).

This was a pretty good year for reading. It felt good to get lost in more fiction, and I’ll have things to say in the future about the value I’m finding in reading as part of a group. In the meantime, Happy New Year, and it’s time to keep tackling my reading backlog.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Class Dismissed

I received some sad news last week – my time as a teacher has (for now) come to a close. The Chair has decided to take the course out of the general education elective rotation and will offer a different slate of courses to ensure students have a variety of electives to choose from.

This is not entirely unexpected. I taught my first section in September 2016, and am currently in my 13th straight delivery. In this time, I’ve had a little over 300 students, meaning I’ve graded some 3,000 assignments and 600 essays.

Back in 2016, I snapped this photo of my last day in the classroom for my very first semester of teaching (all the rest of my deliveries have been online).

It has been a great experience and has taught me a lot about empathizing with students and overcoming my biases and assumptions of how one ought to teach. It was also humbling to see some student work come in that, frankly, was better than anything I could have written.

I appreciate the patience my students have shown me these last four years as I have moved cities, gotten married, graded while on my honeymoon, and when welcoming our child into the world.

I’m looking forward to a bit of a break from teacher life, but I hope to get another opportunity in the future.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Observations on “A Christmas Carol”

Our bookclub tackled A Christmas Carol as one of the last reads for the year. It was a wonderful chat about what the holidays means to us, how things have changed over time, and what the moral lessons are from the short story.

This was my second time reading the story, so in addition to my knowledge of it from cinema (thanks largely to the Muppets), I was able to pay closer attention to the themes threaded through the story.

I noticed, for instance, that while the story is largely about redeeming one’s soul and the spirit of giving during the holidays, knowledge kept popping in. For instance, when Scrooge is haunted by Jacob Marley, Marley notes that he walks the earth as a result of not letting his spirit roam while alive. This unfinished business suggests that experiencing the world (cultivating awareness of those beyond yourself) was an important element of living a fulfilling live (after all, why would a spirit need to roam if they had a fulfilling life?).

The chains worn by Marley were a symbolic reminder of the knowledge he now possessed of his life’s actions. Each link forged by his life’s misdeeds are discrete representations of his lack of personal knowledge of his actions while alive.

Scrooge is unable to be receptive to the ghosts’ messages of redemption until he gains personal knowledge of himself by traveling to the past and understanding the choices that lead him to this point.

The Ghost of Christmas Present beckons Scrooge with “Come in man, and know me better!” Becoming acquainted with the present requires one to be present in the moment.

Scrooge’s redemption is only realized because he confronts the Spirit of Christmas-Yet-To-Come, pleading to know whether the shadows he sees are set. Why would you show these images to me if my knowledge of them won’t change what’s to come! he cries to the ghost.

I couldn’t help but draw a connection to our own problems with empathy in our charged political moment. We often lament our failures to connect with folks “on the other side.” We lack the empathy to understand their position to see how our similarities vastly outweigh our differences.

Dickens’s solution to the problem of empathy is rooted in knowledge. Yes, Scrooge is motivated initially by the desire to redeem his immortal soul and to avoid the fate of Marley. But his change of heart comes by letting his soul out to walk around and to know others. He connects with them, which in turn creates empathy and a desire to help.

It’s a delightful story that I was more than happy to revisit at this time of year.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan