What I Read in 2019

macro photo of five assorted books
Photo by Syd Wachs on Unsplash

Last week, I gave a highlight of the best books I read in 2019. Below, I present what I read in 2019. By comparison to 2016, 2017, and 2018, last year was a paltry year in reading for me.

TitleAuthorDate CompletedPages
1Harry Potter and the Deathly HallowsJ.K. Rowling6-Jan640
2The Bullet Journal MethodRyder Carroll31-Jan320
3Daring GreatlyBrene Brown4-Feb320
4Trumpocracy – The Corruption of the American RepublicDavid Frum25-Feb320
5DriveDaniel H. Pink4-Mar288
6TwilightStephenie Meyer10-Mar544
7The Gift of FailureJessica Lahey12-Mar304
8Better – A Surgeon’s Notes on PerformanceAtul Gawande27-Mar288
9The Graveyard BookNeil Gaiman11-Apr368
10Bad BloodJohn Carreyrou9-May352
11Atomic HabitsJames Clear23-May320
12Built to LastJim Collins25-May368
13Digital MinimalismCal Newport30-May304
14Right Here Right NowStephen J. Harper14-Jun240
15MasteryRobert Greene20-Jun352
16Complications – A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect ScienceAtul Gawande25-Jun288
17VagabondingRolf Potts29-Jul240
18Becoming SupermanJ. Michael Straczynski4-Aug480
19A Game of ThronesGeorge R.R. Martin11-Aug864
20UltralearningScott H. Young31-Aug304
21Reader Come HomeMaryanne Wolf11-Sep272
22The ThreatAndrew G. McCabe14-Sep288
23IndistractableNir Eyal19-Sep300
24Permanent RecordEdward Snowden22-Sep352
25The Path Made ClearOprah Winfrey19-Nov208
Total:8924

I have a few thoughts as to why my reading rate dropped off significantly last year and what I can do about it in the year to come.

Life Pressures

Last year had a few significant pressures on my life that might have affected my desire to read. We started basement renovations early in the year, only to discover our basement’s foundation was cracked, requiring us to source quotes and opinions for repairs. This delayed our basement renovation, which didn’t finish until the summer. The protracted project weighed heavily on our minds throughout the year as we questioned whether we were making the right decisions for our home repairs, or whether we would need to make additional fixes later down the line.

Another big change for me was a change of my job at work. While I wouldn’t say it affected me as strongly as the basement renos, it disrupted my routine enough to impact my desire to focus on reading when I came home from work. Couple that with another full year as Board Chair for the non-profit I head up, and it left me with less cognitive bandwidth for self-improvement.

Podcasts and Music

If 2016 was my year of purchasing books, 2017 saw me start to utilize Libby to access the library, and 2018 was an all-out race for me to go through as many audiobooks as my brain could absorb, I felt a greater push away from books in 2019. Instead of working my way through 8-15 hours of content for one piece of work, I found the shorter format of podcasts more satisfying on my commutes. I enjoyed the variety in topics, shows, and voices.

However I also found I was drawn back to listening to music instead of information. With the sheer volume of books I’ve consumed in the last three years, it was nice to go long stretches without a goal of getting through books (or trying to learn new things) and instead allow the melodies, riffs, percussion, and lyrics sweep me away.

Book Burnout?

Overall, my rate for the year was a bit varied. I started slow in January and February, then picked back up in March. April only saw one book completed, then I found my footing again through May onward. However, October is when my wife and I traveled abroad for our honeymoon, and I never recovered my reading habit for the rest of the year.

Given that I spent most of the last three years focusing on business, personal development, and productivity books, I didn’t feel a strong desire to read those books in 2019. Even among the books I did read from that area, I found looking back that I don’t remember anything of note from those books. Neither the book’s theses nor the examples they offered have stuck with me as I enter the new year.

I’ve mentioned a few time the concept of the animated bibliography on this blog, and I think I’ve hit peak saturation for the genre. I’ve read the canon, and find that reading new books in the genre is resulting in diminishing returns; that is, I’m not really seeing a lot of new insights being offered that leaves me wanting more.

In my list last week, I commented that the books that I’m drawn to now is starting to shift away from business and productivity and more towards moral lessons found in fiction, biography/memoir, and journalistic explorations of current events. That’s not to say I won’t continue to be tempted to pick up the latest book that promises to fix my life, but it does mean that I’m intending to be more selective in what I choose to prioritize.

Assuming I continue to live a somewhat healthy life that is free from accidents, I figure that I have around 45-50 more years of life left. If I read around 3 books consistently per month, I will get another 1,650 books in my lifetime (4 per month is 2,208 books, and 5 books per month is 2,760 more books before I die). While that sounds like a lot, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the number of books that come out each year and the books that have already been written. There is more to life and learning than being more productive or seeking more meaning in one’s life. I’ve grown to appreciate the value of storytelling this past year, and there are a lot of stories out there to sink into. If I only get access to a few thousand more stories, I should make sure they count.

Happy New Year and Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Policy vs. Guidance Pedagogy

During an ethics board meeting recently, we discussed ways of providing direction to faculty members who have student-based research in their courses.  For faculty who have research elements built into their courses, it can be a challenge to determine what counts as research, and whether said research is subject to the rules governing conducting research at an institution (specifically in our case, whether an ethics application would need to be submitted to the board).  Not every scholarly activity necessarily counts as research, and not every kind of research requires an approval from the institutional research ethics board.  Since this can be a bit of a murky area, we have been considering ways of providing direction.

The conversation abstracted away from the specifics of this case, and we discussed some of the issues concerning policy and guidance, which applies to education and pedagogy more generally.

The benefit of policy is that it spells out clear expectations of what is expected, what the division of responsibility looks like, and what consequences might be considered in the event of a policy breach.  Policy is designed to protect the institution through due diligence, and it focuses on expressing what rules need to be followed in order to not get into trouble.  Loopholes arise when the policies are not sufficiently rigorous the cover contingency cases and when policies are not harmonized laterally or vertically with other policies.  Policy documents focus on the “ends.”

On the other hand, guidance documents focus on the “means” by providing suggestions and best practices that could be followed.  Guidance documents typically do not include comprehensive rules unless it’s appropriate.  Instead, the purpose of the guidance document is to provide clarity in ambiguity without necessarily spelling things out.  They are deliberately left open because guidance documents are meant to supplement and add to ongoing conversations within a field or system.  While guidance documents also do not provide comprehensive options to contingent situations, the strength of the guidance document is that it’s educational in intent – it provides reasoning that helps the reader understand the position it takes, and paints a vision of what success looks like.

I realized in the meeting that this has a lot of crossover into considerations for teaching.  It’s is better, in my opinion, to teach students frameworks for thinking, rather than rules for success.  In the case of ethics, I would avoid teaching students what rules they need to follow, and what they need to do to avoid getting into trouble.  Instead, I would seek to build good practices and habits into the material I’m teaching so that I can model what success looks like and help them understand why.  This way of conceiving the material is forward-thinking.  It gets the students to envision what the end-step looks like, and allows them to work backwards to figure out how they want to arrive there.  By focusing on the principles you want the students to uphold (as opposed to rules to follow), the students learn to think for themselves and are able to justify the decisions they make.  This also has the benefit of avoiding the problem with prescriptive policies – students are prepared to reason through novel situations based on principles.

 

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

It’s Not Easy Being Chair

I recently took over as Chair of the Board for the non-profit I sit on.  So far, I’ve chaired two meetings and I have to admit I feel out of my element.  I don’t mean that I’m not able to carry out the job – I seem to be doing alright by the feedback I’m receiving from the other board members.

It’s one thing to sit as a board member and evaluate how a meeting is being run, spotting pieces here and there that could be run more efficiently, or structured different, but it’s an entirely different thing to actually run the show.  I think the past Chair did a fantastic job, so when I say there were things that could be more efficient, I don’t mean it as a criticism.  What I mean is, when someone else is putting things into motion, it’s easy to see various areas where something could be done better.  But when you are the one putting things into motion and steering the ship, you spend so much time keeping things going that you don’t have the time or the mental bandwidth to evaluate things in real time and adjust for efficiency.

Before, I would receive the agenda, figure out where I could contribute to the discussion, show up and sit in as part of the group (which sometimes amounted to sitting back and letting others run the discussion).  Now, I make the agenda and set the tone, then I have to be the one to get the discussion rolling.  It falls to me to manage the Board’s caseload, and lead any strategic directions we choose to go.  In time, it’ll also fall to me to work within my mandate from the Board and start the generative process of strengthening the organization and planning for the future.

Based on these last two meetings, it’s going to be a long time before I’m leading in any meaningful sense of the word.  The best way I can describe my performance is managing how much force is getting applied to the flywheel to ensure momentum isn’t lost.  When I reflect on my performance, it feels awkward and a little weak (wishy-washy, as opposed to done with a sense of conviction).

My default state is to excessively talk and look to the body language of others to see if they are receptive to what I’m saying.  If I sense they are not understanding me, I keep talking and hope that if I throw everything at them, they’ll understand what I’m saying.  A friend once likened it to a faucet.  Where I should be dialing things back, I instead open the valve and give them a fire hose of information.   Of course, this is the opposite of what I should be doing as a leader of a group like this.  I should spend less time talking and more time listening to the wisdom of the group.

The good thing is that it’s early in my tenure so there is plenty of time to get more comfortable in the role and learn how to settle into a groove.  Like I said, I’m not doing a bad job.  The rest of the group is fine with how the last two meetings went.  This is merely my critical self-reflection coupled with my desire to do better.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Thoughts on Providing Feedback

I had a heartwarming moment this past week where a student provided some positive feedback about my teaching.  I “teach” an online course through the college and have been one of the instructors for the past year.  I find online courses a difficult medium to engage with students because you never get face to face interaction with them, so you need to find other ways to reach out and build a rapport.

One of the methods I choose, and use when I teach in-class as well, is to take time to provide comments and feedback on assignments.  I think of assignments as ways for me to provide real, concrete feedback on student performance (rather than just a grade).  In addition to the marking rubric, I will give three kinds of feedback:

  • comments on how well a student engaged with material according to a certain criteria;
  • areas where the student did not measure up to the criteria and why;
  • (most importantly) guidance on how the student could improve in the future.

That last bullet point is important to me because when I reflect back on my own learning in school, I realize that grades are often a poor way of gauging how well you understand the material.  Instead, the numeric grade stands as a proxy for how many “answers” you got right.  For the purposes of education, I’m concerned of the other side of the grade – the marks that you didn’t get; why you didn’t get 100%.  If I, as an instructor, can fill in the details of what the student missed, I can guide them towards improving in the future.

It takes me a while to grade assignments because I spend the extra time giving constructive feedback to the students.  If I simply told them what they  got wrong, the student won’t have a sense of what steps they could take to do better next time.  I don’t want the students to use trial and error to figure out how to improve skills.  Instead, I will give them explicit feedback on what I want them to do differently in the future.

Perhaps you are thinking that I’m coddling the students too much.  Maybe you are right, but I assume the students are here to learn, that I’m positioned as the expert, and that teaching is more about molding and guiding students, not expecting them to stumble across the correct answers.  I want the students to be mindful of what I expect of them (and it forces me to reflect on what I want to see in the student’s progress, which is significantly harder than a capricious grade you slap on after reading through a paper).

If done right, you should see a general improvement in the quality of the assignments you receive over the semester.  Students who are looking to improve will pay attention to your feedback and will get better over time.

I’ll close off with an excerpt from the student who emailed me:

I struggle with philosophy but I wanted to try out this elective. Your feedback has really helped me to know where I have gone wrong and what to work on for the future assignments. I have never got so much feedback from teacher, so thank you.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Study Strategies #5 – Application

One of the hardest things I find my students struggling with is not grappling with deep philosophical thoughts, or technical jargon (to be fair, they do struggle with these as well), but it’s in the application of course material.  Most often, when my students submit work for me to evaluate, they submit work that is either:

  • straight opinion (read: a submission that is not structured as an argument with evidence and connecting ideas through logic); or
  • an attempt to solve or provide a definitive response for all the problems of this philosophical issue in about a page.

The thing my students don’t realize is that I don’t care whether they “solve” the philosophical problem.  Granted, I don’t expect them to be able to solve the problem in a page, but that’s not the point.

The purpose of the exercise is for me to check the thought-process of whether they are able to understand the material and work with it.

I was recently chatting with a Program Chair about her time teaching engineering courses.  She noted that often she’d give problem sets that lacked defined measurements, and her students would pause to ask what the length or value of the unknowns are.  She was very frank that she didn’t care what number their calculator displayed because it was more important for her to see whether the students could think through the problem, manipulate the equations, and understand how to go about solving a problem.  For her, the solution was extraneous for the purposes of the class – it was a quick and convenient way to mark an answer right or wrong, but not entirely indicative of whether the student was understanding the concepts.

Now, you may say that this is all well and good for engineering, but how does that apply to philosophy (“But, philosophy has no right answers!!!) or any of the other soft sciences or humanities disciplines.

The truth is that the faster you try to apply the concepts, the easier it is to learn and make the concepts stick, and it’s not all that different across disciplines.  If you are trying to learn a concept, the best thing you can do is to try to take what you think you are learning, and apply it to a novel situation.  By focusing less on the details and working with the core concepts, you get a chance to see what makes sense to you and where your gaps in knowledge are.

For the course I teach, the students work their way through the online module materials, which includes extra readings, embedded videos, probing questions, links to additional sources, etc.  Then, after a round of discussion board posts, the students have a weekly essay prompt related to the week’s topic.

Early in the course, my students will often reply strictly to the essay question with what they think the right answer is.  Through my weekly rubric feedback and general emails to the class, I encourage them to go back to the module content and apply the concepts they are learning to the essay prompt.  What would so and so say about this concept?  How does this school of thought define this concept?  Do you agree with how this concept gets framed?

The point of undergraduate philosophy courses is not for students to generate original philosophical thought.  That is an aim, but it shouldn’t be the outcome.  Instead, the instructor should be guiding the students to think better and understand the concepts being covered so that they can then apply it in novel situations.

When studying, a good way to learn the concepts it to try and extract the ideas from how the author framed them and see how you can apply those ideas in new ways.  It reinforces the learning and helps to spot gaps in understanding in a way that straight memorization doesn’t provide.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

100th Post!

EXPEDITION

This post marks my 100th entry on this site!

My first post went live on April 21st, 2016 and, if memory serves, I have managed to post at least once every week since then.

The original motivation to start this site was three-fold.  First, I vainly wanted to snag up the domain name in the off-chance that I wanted to use it in the future.  Second, I wanted an excuse to force myself to write regularly.  It had been a few years since I finished my master’s degree, and I found that my writing skills had softened over time, so I wanted a reason to regularly practice those skills to keep them sharp.

The third, and primary reason, was to chronicle and reinforce my path towards becoming a paramedic.  I had intended to document the application process of returning to school, the time spent as a student, and eventually the transition into a career.  I also wanted to use the website to discuss and teach the concepts I was learning because I believe it is a good mode of reinforcing the material I would have learned in class (an effective way of learning is being forced to teach it to others).

While the first two reasons have been honoured, I have since shelved the idea of becoming a paramedic.

The unfortunate result is that I’ve been maintaining this site up to 100 posts without a clear purpose or direction of where I want to go.  This is amusingly also the case with what I want to do career-wise.

I had my performance appraisal at work last week, and my boss said she was “super happy” with my work and contribution (there are a few areas of growth we identified, but otherwise it was a great appraisal).  When we discussed my future avenues of growth, I was hard-pressed to come up with the next steps of where to go next beyond wanting to take on more responsibility in general.  I have a few concrete skill sets that I want to work on, but nothing that lends itself to an obvious career choice.

I suppose this blog is an accurate reflection of my career trajectory.  On the one hand, the status quo looks good, clean, and polished.  On the other hand, it lacks direction and purpose.  However, the blog also affords me the space to stop, reflect, and document things as I go.

I don’t have an answer as to where I’m intending on going next, but at least I can share my muses along the way.

He’s to another 100 posts!

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

Skills Worth Developing – Resisting “That’s Not My Problem”

The job I have at the college is my first full time job after I finished university.  Prior to the position I’m in, I have worked only full-time hours on contracts and a smattering of part time jobs.  I thought, like many others, coming out of university that I knew what it would mean to have a job, be an employee, and work responsibly.  I wouldn’t say I was unprepared to enter the workforce, but it would be charitable to say that I had a lot to learn, and many beliefs to update.

This is, in part, why I decided to occasionally write thoughts in a series of posts loosely connected with the theme “Skills Worth Developing.”  There are many hard skills that employees should pick up over time to help them do their jobs better and advance in their careers.  Organizations like Coursera, Udemy, Lynda, etc. are excellent resources to help one pick up those kinds of skills.  But many other skills (usually dubbed “soft skills”) are usually picked up through experience and self reflection.  This blog serves both to force me to write, but also to force me to make permanent any self-reflections I’ve had, and these reflections might be valuable to others.

The last time I discussed Skills Worth Developing, I discussed the merits of storytelling as a communication tool.  This time, I want to reflect on a phrase I heard a lot when I first started working – “That’s not my problem” or “That’s not my job.”

You might be wondering why I lump this in with the notion of skills, instead of some other attribute, such as attitude.  True, something like this will overlap with one’s “attitude” while on the job, but I view this as a skill because it’s a habit and ability that can be modified over time, practiced, and strategies can be employed to use it in the workplace.  Therefore, I loosely connect it under the skills area that should be developed and practiced over time.

One other observation I want to make is that this skill – avoiding falling into the “That’s not my problem” mentality – is something I exercised as a beginner.  I think this is a fantastic skill to develop early in your career, but I’m not entirely sure of it’s value when you are well-established in your role.  The value of this skill is that it increases your value to the company when you are still differentiating yourself.  The same can not be said for someone who is either well-established in their company or field, where their value is tied directly to their ability to focus on problems that they can uniquely solve.  In those instances, it’s probably a better strategy to limit distractions from your primary role and duties.

And so, we come to the problem of “That’s not my problem.”  I found early on that many employees in a work environment can take on the “not my problem” mentality for a variety of reasons.  Perhaps they were burned in the past and now refuse to extend themselves.  Some feel overworked and overstretched.  Some are lazy.  For whatever reason, they resist helping others in their duties.

I find two issues with this kind of mentality.  First, it goes against the spirit of cooperation, collaboration, and teamwork.  The workplace is a team of employees who are working towards common goals to advance the interests of the organization (while hopefully advancing their own personal interests in parallel).  Any time someone says to a coworker “that’s not my problem,” what they are in fact saying is “your problems aren’t important enough for me to take an interest.”  They end up placing themselves above the interests of their coworkers and the organization.  I’m not saying that this is wrong per se – I am sympathetic to the ideas that this mentality is easy for organizations to exploit, and that there is no moral imperative to place the company’s interests above your own, so you should guard against it taking advantage of you.  What I am saying is that taking this as a default position undermines the team.  Everyone is supposed to work together to solve problems and strive to the company’s mission.  If you don’t want to do that, what’s the point of working at that company?  I would hardly think that it’s just in service of the paycheque.

The second issue I have with this attitude is it closes you off to development.  I directly attribute my success so far to my willingness to learn outside of my prescribed job.  By helping others with their tasks (so long as it does not prevent me from taking care of my own job area), I am able to develop new hard skills and learn about areas laterally and vertically from my position.  I am better able to see how my role fits within the larger context of our department, which continuously exposes you to new opportunities for growth and development.  You become more valuable to the team and you strengthen your ties with your coworkers.  When you are just starting out, this is a valuable way of integrating yourself and setting yourself up for advancement.

When you ignore the impulse to say “that’s not my problem,” you acknowledge that your coworkers are people with their own problems, concerns, hangups and worries, while also setting yourself up as a person of value for the team.  It is a perfect opportunity to step up and be noticed in your workplace.

That is why I think resisting the impulse to say “that’s not my problem” is a skill worth developing.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan