Choices, Determination, Purpose, Writing

Treat Jar

Comedy

The professor wears plaid clogs.  She strides into the conference room, bold black and gray swimming around feet sheathed in silver-threaded socks.  I tell her I like her style.  She tells me that every time she hits a professional milestone, she buys herself shoes.  She can stand in her closet and scan the trajectory of her career: her first publication shoes, her first edited volume shoes.  The plaid clogs?  Tenure-track shoes.

“What’s next?” I ask.

“Full professor, going up next year.”

“Have you scoped out the shoes?”

She shakes her head.  “Oh no, that would jinx it.”  Then she grins.  “Which is a total lie.  There are these boots,” she sort of moans.  “Boots and a whole new outfit to go with them.”

This concept mystifies me.  One friend picks out a fancy purse for every promotion or raise.  Coach, Kate Spade, Louis Vuitton.  Another takes herself on a cruise.  I clap along but something rankles.  We’re dogs now?  We get cookies for every well-timed wiggle?

Continue reading “Treat Jar”

Brain, Determination, Learning

Free Refills

unwavering

Contrary to the ego-depletion hypothesis, participants in the depletion condition did not perform worse than control participants on the subsequent self-control task, even after considering moderator variables. These findings add to a growing body of evidence suggesting ego-depletion is not a reliable phenomenon. . .


– John Lurquin et al, “No Evidence of the Ego-Depletion Effect across Task Characteristics and Individual Differences: A Pre-Registered Study,PLOS One, February 2016

Over the past several months, a number of studies have surfaced suggesting the popular idea of ego depletion may not be a real thing after all.  Possibilities of bias are showing up in the analyses of of studies from the 1990s and 2000s.  At the very least, no one has been able to replicate widely cited studies that led to the notion that willpower, like a muscle, grows fatigued with overuse.

This may be background noise for most of the thinking public.  After all, pop psychology is as ubiquitous as wellness and mindfulness.  The various trends are often jumbled up together, adding to the incessant self-improvement chatter that populates our news feeds.  The nuances are for the researchers, clinicians, and educators.

Maybe, too, for college personnel.

To a person who works with graduate students, this is a sonic boom.

Much of the advice I give students has to do with setting themselves up for academic and professional success.  Students who move steadily through a doctoral program tend to do little things well.  This involves putting in place many small systems across a life’s numerous and unique dimensions.  Implementing basic organizational tools, for example, and actually using those tools are tricky for most of us.  Effective students set up spaces that are conducive to studying.  They outline projects and manage time in a structured way, mapping out hours, days, even years.  In this way, they break a doctoral journey down into manageable chunks.

Students also perform better when their finances are in order, their families on board, their workplaces supportive, and their mental and physical health care structures sturdy.  Taking full advantage of the resources available to them at the university, successful students master research tools and set up study and writing groups with their peers.

These folks aren’t more intelligent or “better students” than their floundering counterparts.  They are simply more organized.  They persist with the systems they implement.

Organization and persistence are not qualities in an of themselves.  More like mosaics,   they are a collection of many small habits coalescing into a general way of being.  These are  habits of mind as much as behavior.  Many students come into a PhD program with skills suited to passing courses on the fly or excelling in their jobs.  Developing a scholarly MO is a different game with different rules.  Setting the pieces in place takes dogged attention to detail.

In order to advise my students effectively, I’ve immersed myself in literature on habit formation.  That branch of psychology has been awash in ego-depletion for the past 10-15 years.  It’s a compelling idea.  I bought into the paradigm that self-discipline, as a limited resource, must be conserved for the important things.  Barack Obama only wears his blue and gray suits and he has someone else select his outfits each day.  He has a country to lead, right?  He shouldn’t be tapping his store of willpower for fashion picks.

Because of this thinking, I’ve developed guidance for students that has to do with putting the hardest work in the early part of the day and reducing the number of “intersections,” or places where a choice is required.  To reduce decision-fatigue and keep that discipline muscle focused where it needs to be, students should cut out the complexity and stick with certain rules.  Pack the same lunch every day.  Take the same route.  Study in the same place.  Carry the same backpack, wear the same shoes.

All of these are great bits advice as long as two conditions are met: 1) ego depletion is a real phenomenon; and 2) a life is predictable enough to support invariability and routine.

I’ll get to point #1 in a moment.  Regarding point #2, let’s ask the next question, with the understanding that a PhD program is a commitment of anywhere from 5-10 years.  Has any of us ever lived through a  5-year period free of change?  Jobs change, rents go up, recreation morphs into addiction.  Partners come or go or get sick.  Families grow, shrink, move. Children need IEPs or swim lessons.  Bus lines get terminated, cars break down, knees blow out.  Libraries close.  Stock markets crash.  Babies are born.

Far more effective than simplicity and routine are adaptability and resilience.

Perhaps I need to look differently at my effective students.  They may have structures in place, and organization is still a critical skill.  That said, a focus on habits may miss a key contributor to the ability develop and stick with habits.  Underneath the external behaviors may be an effective mindset.  Self-concept unites with a particular framing of the world, creating the way we respond to change.  Yes, successful students implement sound structures.  They also adjust those structures as the ground shifts.  They dismantle the parts that were fixed in one place, then redesign and rebuild them to function on new terrain.

How can a person cultivate a growth and adaptation mindset?  It may be time for a new approach in my advising.  While habits are critical, the perceptions from which those habits grow may be equally, if not more, important.  Clearly, I have some work ahead of me.

Regarding point #1. . .

. . .it may not even really matter that much whether ego depletion is “real” or not. What matters is how you think about your own amount of willpower. A very intriguing direction of research is finding the power of a person’s own beliefs about willpower may be what makes the difference here. When people believe their willpower is limitless, they’re more likely to go after personal goals, they’re less likely to burn out, and they’re happier. In a sense, when people believe their willpower is limitless, it turns out to be true.


– Melissa Dahl, “If You Believe your Willpower is Endless, It Is” in New York Magazine

Students who persist and finish a PhD are most likely those who see themselves as capable of maintaining momentum under any circumstance.  It’s true for the rest of us, too, right?  What happens when we think of ourselves as fundamentally resourceful?  When we picture ourselves having a consistent and bottomless capacity for working through the tough stuff?

What happens is this:  As if by magic, the source delivers.  We find a way.


Image: Martin Klein, “Unwavering”

 

 

Career, Determination, Things I Can

74. Things I Can Backstop: On-the-Job Training

I think breakthroughs come from putting an inordinate amount of pressure on yourself and seeing what you can take, and hoping that you grow some new muscles. It’s not really that mystical.

Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic Monthly
 
 
When my two star students poked their heads in my door four years ago, I bit back the “no.” Their half-apology for just a few minutes had a red flag flapping over it. They wanted something big. Bigger than anything in my job description.

“A graduate student research conference,” they said. “Students run it. Students present. Faculty moderate the panels.”

Students? Faculty? I wouldn’t trust them with a bake sale. Please. Leave the administering to the administrators.

But I turned from my other work. “Come on in,” I said. “Tell me more.”

So they did. They talked about networking and research collaborations, about presentation practice and scholarly community.

I pictured catering orders and room setup, abstract review and program tracks.

The students wanted practical experience in more than just presenting research. This was the toughest part. I could get us from zero to showtime in a snap. Add the task to my list and make it happen. Anyone who manages programs and people knows that an event is an event is an event. Steering committee, marketing, budgets, presenters, tech and space. Hire a wage assistant to make calls and print name badges.

Whatever the substance of the work — in this case, graduate student advising, but it could be affordable housing advocacy or the international association of clown car manufacturers — a thousand details large and small keep the machine chugging (sometimes hacking) along. People like me pull those levers.

People like my students? They get to do cool research and write about it.

In truth, my students’ brains intimidate me a little. These folks are digging into some of the most pressing topics facing our world. Poverty, climate change, security, infrastructure, health care. They conduct research that shapes policies and legislation. As for me? Inside the university, my role is to clear paths. If I can help students through the briar patch of public higher ed bureaucracy with their skin intact, they can get on with their research.

But those two students knew better. Doctoral grads today are stepping off the stage into a 2015 world, and it’s far from Kansas or 1975. The protected academic research-and-teach career has died on the vine. Folks with PhDs today are expected to know how to do things. Like lead people and projects, like find and manage money.

Like organize conferences.

Those two students wanted to do more than show up and present ideas. They wanted to make the thing happen.

We began.

Like parenting, mentoring is agony. Every stage, every step, takes twice as long and breeds three times as many mistakes. A mentor has to will herself to sit back and let meetings unfold through hours of jumbled conversation that could easily find resolution with a few simple facilitation tricks. A mentor must step with care through one-on-one conversations to offer opportunities for reflection. Mentoring requires pointing people in the direction of resources and contacts, and letting them seek out the tools they need. Like a parent, a mentor must stand at attention behind the curtain, poised to pull the nose up if the machine takes a dive.

I did my part so they could do theirs. The students ran that first conference, and they were giddy with pride. Emerging scholars traveled from around the region and country, and the event exceeded every one of its aspirations.

Then next year, two new students showed up at my office.

And the next.

Every year for four years, I bit back the “no.” I fought through weariness and overcame painful resistance to the colossal undertaking that has yet to appear on my job description. Every year for four years, I faced a fresh opportunity to hone my mentoring skills.

Every year for four years, I sat in on panel discussion and listened as new scholars shared research and ideas on everything from labor policy to gender violence. I watched my students shine as they handed out awards and tallied the number of attendees.

The conference grew. A major TV news personality gave a keynote. A student joined us from Japan. The organizers got hold of funding from other parts of the university. They joined forces with a larger student organization to pool talent and resources. Last year, they reached out to a major international policy association to find out about partnering on the conference. The association sent a representative to spend the day shaking hands and taking measure.

Then the big national association decides they want in.

And the world bucks under my students’ feet.

Four weeks ago.

They show up at my door.

“Help,” they say. “What does this letter mean?”

A fait accompli. The national association lays out a plan for a regional graduate student conference. It will be a consortium event with nine participating schools.

I read and re-read the letter. The phrase hostile takeover hisses through my brain. I look at their baffled faces. I look at the 472 other items in my inbox that are far more pressing than this.

I bite back the “no.”

I turn from my other work. “Come on in,” I say. “Let’s sit down.”

We do. I take a breath, rub my face, then begin.

“Okay,” I say. “What matters most?” I apply facilitation and advising techniques. I guide them through their complex and understandably histrionic responses. I help them hatch a plan of action. I sift around in myself for some kind of map, knowing that from my perch behind the curtain, what matters most is reflective practice. These students have before them a chance to manage conflict and lead change with strategic and effective dexterity.

I have before me a chance to help my students learn how to pull the levers. And how hard. And which way.

In the four weeks between that letter and the association’s big conference call, the students come by. They poke their heads in. Individually. Pairs and trios. They hover around the door. They want more.

I don’t have time for this crap. We’ve talked, we only know what we know, we’ll deal with it on the day of the call. I bite so hard against the “no” that I nearly split my tongue.

“Come on in,” I say. “What do you need?”

An ear, a sounding board, an easy out?

A firm grip? A soft word?

A hand?

“Enter that call like you’re sitting at the head of the table,” I say.

“Do your research,” I say. “How can you find the budget and planning models for the other two regional conferences?”

“What matters most to you?” I say.

“Write it down,” I say.

The day of the call, four of them come. We take over a room. They take over the call. The nine other people on it — faculty and administrators from both the national association and seven regional universities — wake right up when these students chime in. With force I’ve never heard in those emerging voices, the students lean in and articulate a clear vision. They name their questions as opportunities.

I sit back and watch it unfold.

The students have swagger and expertise. Halfway in, the faculty and administrators are directing all inquiries to them.

Somehow, the students claim every part of the shiny new regional conference they’d chosen to keep, and delegate every part of it they’d chosen to surrender.

At the end of the hour, folks on the call begin talking RFPs and laying out a timeline. One of the students interrupts. “I want to say how important it is to have students involved in the planning.”

Isn’t this a given? Apparently not. The nine other people on the call marvel and fumble.

“You mean on the steering committee?” someone asks.

“Sure,” I say.

“So, you mean students will be the ones voting on things? Actually planning everything?”

“Yes,” I say. I glance around the table. Four students are rolling their eyes and suppressing giggles.

“You feel comfortable leaving budget decisions in the hands of students?

To my left, one shoves an invisible gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger. Everyone else chokes back laughter.

“Look,” I say, leaning into speaker. “Students have built this thing and led this thing for four years on their own. All I’ve done is sign the forms. They are responsible and capable. I trust them completely.”

Silence on the phone. Beaming faces around the table. I take the advantage. “The thing is, our students need this experience. Academics, professionals, whatever they do after they leave school. This conference is supposed to be a learning experience. I figure, let them learn all of it.”

What I really want to say is Dude. People rise to the expectations you hold out for them. How high are you willing to go?

The grudging decision is to let each school figure out for itself who will represent it on the conference planning committee. We all know who will sit at the head of the table here.

And because no one is going to ask me, I can give my “no” a rest.

But only for a minute.

Because it’s clear that word is missing from my job description.
 

Career, Learning, Things I Can

9. Things I Can Forgo: Lunch

Lunch is an hour. And it’s a break.

Sacred cows no more.

Lunch hour goes.

(Not the food part. I’m too fond of my fuel.)

Today the forecast was 47 degrees and wet. I trotted off to work in a thin sheath of a raincoat. At 5:30, I stepped out into wind that cut like knives. My neck shrieked. The puddles had turned to ice. Each dark step to the metro scoured my skin.

During the intervening 8-1/2 hours walled in by steel and focus, temperatures plummeted and dragged the sky down with them. I had no idea. Despite a window that can carry my gaze to where the National Cathedral rises on the hill, I didn’t see the dimming light. Despite a city outside my door where I can walk for miles through parks and neighborhoods, I didn’t feel the creeping frost.

This ignorance is the price of determination.

I shouldn’t be proud of giving up my lunch hour. An earlier me would have tsk-tsked today’s me for misplacing priorities and neglecting health. For the four years I’ve held this job, lunch hour meant walking, no matter the weather. My credenza drawer hides an iPod, running clothes, both sunhat and umbrella, both towel and soap (you never know). These feet memorized miles of concrete. Co-workers praised my dedication to fitness.

Truth is, lunch hour walks were my secret recipe for sanity.

All that walking was a way of holding on to my center while the world rushed and tilted around me. It’s easier to sprint across the wire, especially if you don’t look down. First was our imploding family and livelihood, then moving here, then divorce, then working and all that comes with doing that as a single mom trying to establish a home and a way forward. A leaden fear of financial and familial ruin saturated every moment. So I kept moving, walking, and peering anywhere but right here.

Meanwhile, something changed. Like that weather rolling in when I was facing the other way, the very world shifted into a new alignment.

The daily work — the professional this-and-that of making ends meet — began to propagate. Seeds I didn’t know had been germinating started to push through the surface.

Lunch hour used to be for air and breath and body. It was a standing date with my very own self.

Now lunch hour is for asking the next question.

(Which question, you ask? That one. The one dancing just out of reach. The one that barely has a shape yet.)

An opportunity emerged during a team meeting. My department needed someone to teach. I resisted until my Mister reminded me that I do, in fact, have most of what it takes and the resourcefulness to go find the stuff I don’t. So I agreed to it, and it ate up all my time, and I was exhausted, and the extra pay didn’t even begin to cover the hours committed.

I loved it, loved the exchange of ideas, loved making it up as we went.

Before the final class, an opportunity popped up on my voicemail. This one was even more impossible than the last. In a windowless classroom with a sputtering overhead projector — the kind that uses actual transparencies — someone had to guide the learning of 27 visiting faculty who could barely speak English.

With guidance from the dear ones, I agreed to it, and it ate up all my time, and I was exhausted, and the extra pay didn’t even begin to cover the hours committed.

I loved it, loved the students, loved the tangled and unmapped journey.

Before the final class, another opportunity strolled into my office. This was a role supporting our school’s search for a new dean. It would be a politically delicate, thankless, administrative nightmare on an accelerated timeline. I considered it, negotiating right up front with the school leadership while doing so.

I took it, or rather, it took me: It eats up all my time, and I’m exhausted, and the extra pay doesn’t even begin to cover the hours committed.

And I love it, insanity and all.

Something is growing here.

Maybe it’s just a calcification of the soul-jarring careerism that infects the Washington DC region. Maybe I’m turning into yet another stressed and stretched professional Director of (Insert Abstract Administrative Jargon Here) who’s just wearing the same grooves a little deeper into the city sidewalks.

Or maybe it’s the Powers That Be taking advantage of a semi-competent masochist with something to prove.

Secretly, though, I think it’s something else.

Whatever it is, it’s growing right here, in the place this woman inhabits.

Despite all my foolishness and self-inflicted handicaps, novel ways emerge to apply the skills I’ve been accumulating. Even though the tough spots make my head throb and my heart race, it’s thrilling to come upon a problem I simply cannot solve, yet I must solve it, and I somehow know I will solve it, even if it comes to jury-rigging a fix.

Every time I figure out some new mix of tools and techniques, new places to apply them appear. The marvel of this chapter in my too-much-of-a-life is that I keep bumbling into the outer limit of my talents and capabilities, only to find that it’s a membrane and I can push right through.

For the first time in years, I have more in my sights than just getting through the day upright.

Now I want to know what these hands can really do.

Lunch hour is a standing date with possibility.

Lunch hour is one more wide-open chance to ask the next question.

(What are the Things I Can?)

Where the unknown is unnamed, give it voice.

Where answers are missing, reach.

 

Learning, Mindfulness

Step into Space

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. – Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

The theater seats over a thousand. It isn’t full but it’s come pretty close. We sit together in near silence for a minute with our eyes closed. Inside this collective pause, we pull back from what Tara Brach calls “tumbling into the future.”

This is not a spirit circle at a Zen retreat center. This is parents, teachers, and students packed into a public high school auditorium. At the threshold of something new-but-not-new, the moment tilts. Surreal. A congressman from Ohio takes the stage and tells the story of finding his breath. He is one of several voices reminding us that snapping at our kids to pay attention doesn’t do any good until we teach them how to attend. As always, we’re on the hook to show what we tell.

As the parents, teachers, and neighbors of the kids who walk the halls here every day, we have to be willing to learn. A churning stress and a “trance of unworthiness” keeps us doing, striving, reacting, and fighting. It is up to us to release ourselves from it so we can show our children how to have a say in drawing the map of their own minds.

In a county whose schools always ranks near the top of any performance rating and in a region whose inhabitants are among the most highly educated and overcommitted in the nation, this breath is a call to action.

Or inaction, as the case may be.

Any kid that hasn’t learned the pressure is on by second grade figures it out when they go through the Advanced Academics Program screening. The test determines the quality of their schooling for the next six years and no doubt well beyond that. This workshop, Managing Stress Through Mindfulness, is the first of its kind here. Overdue, of course, and also right on time.

Our children struggle as we do. Our children learn to place their attention as we do (or don’t). It is possible that we don’t need to keep ourselves in the hot grip of imagined success and looming failure to drive us to a good life. We strain towards illusion and flee fear and get nowhere right. Caught in a Chinese finger-trap, we strive ourselves into a kind of frenetic paralysis.

The first step in cultivating creativity and possibly even a sense of belonging in this world is a not forward or backward. It is a step into space.

Over the edge is a place between stimulus and response where the pause quietly waits.
 

Uncategorized

Distillation

The iron leaves a streak of gray silt on my blouse. Before I can react, it is cooked in. I have no time for this, but it is my own fault for taking a shortcut. I could have purchased the distilled water, but I chose to fill the iron from the tap. It seems an unnecessary hardship, the task of adding an item so rarely purchased to the list. To actually remember to buy water? With everything else life demands? But now, this. A stain, and I will have to find a way to repair it, to rub the iron over salted paper, to make things right.

It seems such an extreme process. Is it really necessary to cook invisible hitchhikers out of the substance? To force it through those narrow passageways and collect it, so much reduced? This rarified version cannot really be so different from its original stuff. How is it possible that all those microscopic bits, things the naked eye cannot even discern, are such a burden?

It is odd to have this spare moment for ironing. It is odder still to have a spare ounce of gray matter for musing about it. Now that we have entered December, I can tackle some of the lingering items from last month’s neglected list. November was a bear. On November 2nd, a co-worker informed me we had just begun National Novel Writing Month. Sounds nice, but doesn’t everything has a stretch of the calendar these days? Oatmeal Appreciation Week. Lute Celebration Day.

No, no, my friend explained. You write a whole novel in the month of November. 50,000 words between the 1st and the 30th. He had started it already. I was dumbstruck. One day in, and I was already almost two days behind! I couldn’t wait. The opportunity to write towards such an ambitious goal was too delicious to pass up, no matter how strong the other demands on my time. That evening, I went home lacking an idea, an outline, or even a character. I did, however, have everything I needed to begin: a wide-open canvas and the thrill of the hunt.

It turns out it is not so very hard to write 2000 words a day. As long as I ignored my tired and crossing eyes, the 13 items on my to-do list, and all the tempting pulls away from the pen, I had no problem producing copious, overflowing quantities of words. It’s simply a matter of sitting one’s backside down at the page and commanding the hand to go. I did not have time to doubt the process. The choice to achieve the goal is itself the act of faith. Whatever source I drew upon was abundant, it was far bigger than I am, and it was unconcerned with anything going on up on the skin of my days. It flowed on its own, right on past me if I didn’t dip into it. As soon as I did, up it welled.

The juice that spilled out to the surface may be crude. It stuck to everything, including itself. It took no identifiable shape. But it was the raw material, and it was rich, tasty stuff.

I crammed writing into every nook and cranny of my waking hours. Previously undiscovered pockets of time revealed themselves. After Bug goes to bed, I found energy I never knew I possessed because I usually tell myself I am too foggy. My lunch hour was long enough for both a 30-minute walk and 1000 words. Waiting in Tee’s parking lot for 10 minutes, grabbing the first open seat on the metro, tapping my toes in the doctor’s office waiting room. As long as I shed the habits of distraction and the illusory need for ritual, as long as I simply opened the book and started writing, no matter what my state of mind, I could – I can – write 2000 words in 45 minutes flat.

Two choices I made starting out on November 2nd: First, I was going to finish it. Second, I was not going to sacrifice any other essential element of my life to finish it. These two things require a quick and dirty assessment of what, in fact, qualifies as “essential.”

These things are my necessaries:

  • Giving my 8-hour work day my all.
  • Being an attentive mother and playmate to my kid.
  • Running, dancing, sleeping, and eating well.
  • A bit of time with friends.
  • Caring for the dog.
  • Flossing.
  • And, because the success of the whole endeavor turns on the axis of a secure home, being at least a tolerable housemate to my forbearing parents.

The two choices – finishing it and not giving up the important stuff to do so – required sanding down and fitting together the edges of all the tasks in a day. I had to learn quickly how to move between them without chatter and nonsense. Moments became intentional. Yes, a well-balanced gal needs her version of loafing. For quiet, I lit a candle and stretched my body across the living room floor. When done, I took a breath and returned to the page.

Such an endeavor comes with a cost. Among other things, writing fiction means not reading up for the LSATs or the GREs. It means not reading at all. No news, no poems, no advice columns, no blogs by friends. The list of things I do not do when I write is infinite. Worrying about the not-doing was yet another thing I did not allow myself to do.

The main cost is not anything like a loss. It is a purification. In a few short weeks, I discovered this: As I increase the heat and push writing through the narrow spaces between the necessaries, what is left behind is inessential. The things I do not do – things like watching TV, unfocused shopping excursions, Facebook, and pawing through my closet trying on five outfits before deciding what to wear to work – are junk. Dregs and residue. They weigh down my vision, clog up my brain, and leave a sticky residue choking the pores of my days.

Ignore the task of distillation, and the stains become inseparable from the fabric. The work to repair the tarnished journey is far more of a burden than the simple discipline of practice.

My birthday gift to myself on November 28th was to cross the finish line. After work and cake and gifts and Bug’s bedtime ritual, I dragged myself to my room and wrote the 50,000th word. The next evening, I grafted an ending onto one limb of the story and dumped the whole thing on the NaNoWriMo website.  It’s mostly garbage, but it is the raw beginnings of another novel. And I completed all 52,800 words of it in 28 days.

Distillation is not a gentle process. Heat and aggressive focus: these are the things that burn apart the elemental makeup and offer up a concentrated supply of the pure and right.

Write on.