Coming to Terms

It may be that I’m coming from the traditional Asian family. In such a context, there are only a few career paths worth taking. Doctor, lawyer, engineer – anything that can be labelled and understood as smart and difficult to achieve. Or anything that makes money. I am decidedly none of these. I would say that I ended up label-less, in a field difficult to explain to my mother. I shrink the job description to a few words. Despite the universities and degrees, the cost and travel, it’s not as glamorous as she’d hoped. She can’t explain it in a word to her friends, to my aunts or my uncles. All she has to show are the names of various institutions, places where they’ve never been, but only hear about in the news. Huge organizations where working there doesn’t mean much unless you can say that you actually do something apart from the ever-nebulous, analyze.

Anything that has a label would be better. Or else, anything else would be better.

“His degree will essentially be in Neuroscience. That’s not what he does, but that’s what will be written on his degree in any case.”

(This last comment goes unheeded. Neuroscience is a known, labelled, respectable science, bien sûr.)

“See, that’s what I dreamed of you doing.”

(I had no knowledge of said dream.)

She continues, “Anything would be better.”

(Really? Anything?)

I put aside the fact that after ten years, she doesn’t really know what I do. (But perhaps I’m giving her too little credit, and her statement still holds. That is another matter altogether.) And that, even if she doesn’t know it, this is what she wanted at one time. It’s just that my ultimate employer doesn’t yet start with “World” or end with “Bank”. In her mind, she knows what those people do. And it’s respectable.

My efforts to explain the last ten years bear little fruit. Through a mishmash of opportunity and ‘interest’, I have fallen into what I’m doing today. Your school teachers and professors don’t seem to mention the significance of a label once you get out into the world. It’s somehow important. It’s somehow critical that you can fit your days into a single word, or maybe two. At some point, I came to envy those who could graduate and immediately say, “I’m an engineer.” Or “I’m an accountant.” Or “I’m a doctor.” And people know what they mean. There’s no need to go further. They don’t endure the moments of pause or confusion and the necessity to breach an entire subject matter just to convey how they spend their time. Yes, I envy that. Or perhaps self-branding is a skill I don’t have. But I’m skeptical that that is the solution.

The closest label that we’ve been stamped with is social scientist – a label that could mean nearly anything and one that has been gendered and pushed aside as soft. And this is forever hard to swallow. But perhaps I’m finally coming to terms with the idea.

“What do you do?”

“I study *mumble mumble*…”

“Hm okay, but you do do statistics? That counts. I’ll add you to the mailing list for our seminar.”

THAT COUNTS.

And with those couple of words, perhaps I finally began coming to terms with the label. For now, let’s set aside the fact that external validation seems necessary for me to accept what I’ve become. And that there’s some feeling that the career defines me. With those words, it began to take the form of something real, respected, and worth the brain energy spent. Based off a simple interaction, this is delusional, of course. But perhaps, all the same, it was some recognition that I’ve spent some of my years learning at least some things. So yes, perhaps I finally am coming to terms.

But then, I’m also adding words to say Computational Sciences on that final piece of paper…so maybe not.

Learning to Learn

And with that, another year is over. Yes, I know it’s only the beginning of June. And I realize that this is month 6 of 12. But I’m talking about a year in which I’ve created my little academic bubble and languished in it. In the last mile, in those final weeks, walking out of exam after exam, fending off sleep to make word counts, holding off crippling anxiety as THE exam approached, all culminating to walking on that plane and leaving it behind. At least for three months. Three glorious months. I make it seem like an ordeal. Perhaps I need to rein it in a bit, but maybe, I’m not that far off.

One year, completely gone. And what have I contributed to the world? Hard to say. In this respect, learning seems extremely selfish. Will we students really pay it forward? Who knows. If I’m not, what has been in it for me, really? I’ve had small moments of reflection along the way, but have only now allowed myself the time to put it down in words. If I’ve spent all of this time learning, what has been the biggest lesson? On the whole, I’d venture to say that it was learning to learn. Before this year, I’d never explicitly acknowledged the challenges I have with this undertaking in a way that is productive.

Let me say now that I do not intend to discuss learning how to learn with this post. That has been done a number of times already (Coursera, TEDx, HBR, Learn.Love.Code.), and by those who make a career of studying it. I’m only hoping to relate my experience of simply getting into a mindset supportive for learning based on existing (self-imposed) barriers. This means recognizing the challenges in the first place, their foundations, and working to overcome them, a process which, I’ll posit, is one in which I need constant reminders.

I could attribute it to the nature of doctoral studies – that, in the pursuit of new knowledge, we acquiesce that we don’t know or understand everything. But I have to acknowledge that it’s my institution too. [Let it be known that I’ll give credit where credit is due, despite my reflexive scruples about the complex that comes with the ivory tower.] Learning alongside people who you respect and find amazingly capable, and finding that they’re asking similar questions, it’s encouraging. But there are times when you feel inadequate too – the dreaded, but famed “imposter syndrome”. It’s real, and it comes in waves. You periodically convince yourself that a wrong decision was made somewhere. Countless times, I’ve rationalized, “Too bad, I’m here now. If a wrong decision was made, they’ll have to deal with it. I’ll simply wait until they drive me out.” This is decidedly an unhealthy way to go about it. Luckily, the sheer number of things to do often crowds out these thoughts.

This year, remembering three key things has been important to me. And these ideas have formed the basis of my experience in learning to learn. They’re simple. Perhaps that’s why they’ve helped.

  1. The Decision, with a capital D

Mais à elle seule elle est plus importante que vous toutes, puisque c’est elle que j’ai arrosée.

Le Petit Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

This one was an accident. I simply wanted a Le Petit Prince daily planner because it’s cute. How was I to know that it would become an integral piece of my experience. Looking at it every day, I eventually took it to heart. To do what I want, I needed to make it a real, tangible, reachable goal. I came to graduate school. I came to learn such and such. With this explicit decision, I’ve invested time and money and have made inevitable tradeoffs. This is what I’ve decided to spend my time doing. Did I really want it? Well, then. I need to water it.

This seems very simple. But I hadn’t forced myself to pin it all down before. Forever the jack of all trades, master of none. The decision is key. I came back to school to learn. I didn’t come because it’s expected. I didn’t come to please someone else. I didn’t come because I was bored, or because I didn’t know the next step. I wanted to know more. Or at least have the tools to find out.

There are endless distractions. Part of coming back to school is the network. You want to meet great people, build lifelong friendships and colleagues. You want to discover all you can about the opportunities in this field and what you can contribute to it. You want to explore the city and all it has to offer. You want to move ahead, be involved, have an impact on your immediate world. And you can do these things, but not at the expense of your learning. With so many distractions and obligations pulling every which way, the dangers of graduate school can be many. It’s not merely an expected rite of passage as going to college has become for much of the middle class. The sirens of graduate school, though momentarily intriguing, can throw you off course. You’ll forget what you came here for and may find at the end of it that you’d never really decided what you wanted at all.

Deciding to learn means making an explicit decision to focus on learning at this point in time. Particularly in doctoral studies, it means realizing that your time as a student, inclusive of academic obligations and freedoms, is short. At some point, you must prioritize a topic over others, regardless of how interesting they may seem. The daily reminder of my decision and that only I can take the time to cultivate my learning kept my focus when I found my resolve wandering.

  1. Learning requires humility

She’ll probably never know how much this affected me. In the first few weeks of school, a girl in front of me in class had taped to her laptop: Learning requires humility. It was impossible to miss. And to follow it up, in jelly letters on her planner: I am wrong often. I studied this with fascination each day. She has the self-awareness to admit her pride as a significant barrier to her learning. And the commitment to remind herself to confront it each day. Directly ahead in my line of vision, I too became committed to the reminder each day. A reminder that I before didn’t know I’d needed. But I did.

Learning requires humility. I took this one to heart too. It’s no secret that I struggle with a sometimes overwhelming sense of pride. But I need to often ask myself, for what? Often, it’s become only a hindrance and not helpful in any way other than to feed my own discomfort. I made a decision to learn, and that’s what I intend to do in spite of debilitating pride and inevitable embarrassment. I will admit that I do not know. I will take advantage of my professors and peers, extracting all information and understanding. It’s part of my commitment. It’s part of the commitment that you must make to learning. Some people make it naturally. Some do not allow their pride to veil ignorance. But I find such cases to be uncommon.

  1. Grades don’t matter

Really, they don’t. Perhaps this one is relevant only to the perfectionists among us. Perhaps I can only say this as a doctoral student. It’s the very last degree. There is no more school to do, in theory. But the argument holds when it comes to learning. And it’s important. In a number of classes, my letter grade fails to convey how much I actually learned in the course. In fact, my highest grade often means that it required the least learning. (Of course, this is not always the case.) In some cases, I found that I only truly understood the material a little later than hoped – after the exam. I would venture to say that this can often be so. But learning is happening nonetheless.

The system has ingrained in us the importance of grades. You are ranked based on how well you perform according to arbitrary standards, or simply the knowledge or opinions of an individual. This seems somewhat flawed. In some respects, it can be more of an evaluation of psychological or political prowess, e.g. What does this professor want from me? Still, one doesn’t realize how deeply we adhere to the system until one make the effort to change mindset. This reminder is urgent, insistent. It must be to elude the ever-near spiral of self-doubt and self-loathing. And overcoming the threat of the spiral is so important to achieving more and discovering more. Even so, it’s a hard one to internalize, and as a result, requires constant recognition.

These have been my thoughts over the past several weeks, as I was forced to contend with inevitable questions: am I really doing what I wanted / want? Is this the life that I’ve chosen? For what? At least I can say that I’ve grown in some ways. I’ve realized some things. And what has changed the most is a newfound capacity to learn, despite challenges and despite ego. To what end is to be determined. With that, I begin summer. A glorious summer. But I will take these with me. Perhaps the formulations of my commitments will change in time. For now, I’m content with this list. That they comprise the most significant of my realizations and only a year of personal growth. Finally, it seems, in my twenty-some years, I’ve started the real journey of learning with openness and humility. I hope to make it a lifelong venture.

The Simple Ones.

“Why do we die?”

It’s the second week of school. It’s the first couple of weeks where you get all the orientations, all the introductions, and all the premonitions of future stress. [Yes, I can already see it coming. At least we can say that we were warned.]

In these first weeks, we get the “simple” questions.

“Why do diseases kill humans?”

Simple in construction, but perhaps not so simple in their answers.

I was struck, on the one hand, that this is what academia allows you to do – allows you to simply ask these questions, and take the time and resources to search for and understand the answers. Which is amazing. We aren’t pressed for time, worried about the next deliverable. Or rather, this is on our way to that next deliverable, even if we don’t know what that is yet. Academia allows you to ponder the world and its constructions and its tragedies and its physical wonders. It gives you the mind space.

And then on the other hand, me: THIS IS WHAT ACADEMIA ALLOWS YOU TO DO, in the alarmed, incredulous sense. Directly, there is no rationale for practicality. None. This is solely for my benefit, my luxury of thought. It’s a thought exercise. While many in the world can hardly make eight hours of sleep, while many are just trying to keep it together, while most just ain’t got time for that. We’re here asking each other,

“Why do we die?”

Back-to-School

It’s September. Meg Ryan is smelling bouquets of sharpened pencils in You’ve Got Mail, grade-schoolers are buying 25 duo-tangs and 12 glue-sticks, Ikea is rife with cute pillows for your dorm room, Kylie Jenner’s about to come out with pumpkin spiced latte lip kits (ok, I don’t know if that’s true but it would be unsurprising), and teachers are lying awake at night wondering what will be thrown their way this year.

Dig into most global problems and eventually you’ll get to a cause or solution rooted in “education.”

Gender inequity? Educate girls. 

Donald Trump as president? Turn back time and educate America.

War? Educate the vulnerable and marginalized.

Climate change? Educate kids in environmental stewardship. 

Education is the tarnished silver bullet. And the teaching profession is left holding the smoking gun.

Teachers are rarely given the support or recognition needed as first responders in the global fight against ignorance. Instead, they’re left with oversized classrooms and a sea of expectations. Expectations from parents, from administrators, and from arbitrary standardized tests. To cope, the superficially ambitious collect workshop credits and degrees to bump up their pay grade and their chance at administrative roles, while the more introverted quietly burn-out in a bon fire of inefficient collaboration and perceived inability to address the educational and social needs of the less “typical” students in their classrooms.

As in other sectors, administrators in education have a solution for these challenges: collaboration. Poorly-defined, daunting for most, and often terribly executed, collaboration is among the most misused trends for quality improvement. Classrooms are not boardrooms, students are not products, and test scores are not bottom lines. The recipe for effective collaboration in schools needs a lot more attention and resources than simply pairing teachers up and introducing poorly thought-out projects that do not necessarily address the needs of students nor teachers.

Collaborative overload, as coined by the Harvard Business Review, is a symptom of growing pains that come with change. Change being the ridiculous 50 PERCENT INCREASE in time spent on collaborative activities by managers and employees over the past two decades. This needs to be examined carefully and course-corrected so that better collaborative practices can be realized.  Left alone, collaboration can veer off track and leave some overburdened as others coast along.

Up to a third of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees.

In a classroom context, that means that an already over-burdened teacher is now spending more time a) sitting in meetings, and b) doing extra work in the name of collaboration on behalf of a colleague. For certain personality types, specifically the more introverted, this spells disillusionment and burnout. Mmm my favourite dynamic duo. Good teachers are leaving the profession because of this, and it’s hurting students, other teachers, and society overall.

Good leadership in schools is required to effectively distribute collaboration, to monitor it, and to recognize where it’s helping and where it’s hurting. A one size-fits-all approach to collaborative education simply doesn’t work. It undermines the privilege inherent in being tasked with impressing young minds and the nuanced attention to detail required to inspire, motivate, and protect the 30 or so little people staring up at you.

But while we sit here with bated breath for good leadership to appear out of thin air, let me take a moment to thank you. Here’s to you. The one lying awake at night wondering how to help every one of the 30 little brains. Here’s to you, going above and beyond to create value in otherwise empty attempts at collaborative projects. Here’s to you, teaching a new batch of little people not only how to count, but also to recognize what counts.

Happy new scholastic year!

Decisions, decisions.

Anyone remotely within earshot (text-shot?) of me these past two – six?? – months has had to experience the agony of me agonizing over “my future.” That is, the next five years of my future. You could argue that’s not very long, and in the grand scheme of the universe, I concede that it isn’t. But in my mind, right now, a youth in her mid-20s, it’s very much my future, the one, the only. As my stress mounts and the deadline for final decisions approaches, I find myself soothing my tension headaches with the idea that all of my decisions are ultimately arbitrary. I will be similarly happy and unhappy with any decision that I do choose. I will be similarly excited and apprehensive about which path I do take. I would rationally argue that so much of our lives are built by chance encounters, split second actions, and opportunities explained largely by luck. (I mean, can we consider conception for a second here? [Thanks, D].) When it comes to decisions, choices, or paths, I just have to take one.

Arguably, choosing haphazardly and reaping similar benefits and losses with each choice does not apply in every situation. For example, I’d hope that we don’t think about choosing a life partner this way. (I may be young, but I’d hope I’ve gotten that far.) However, I’d say that in my current situation, this is what I’m facing. Every person I’ve consulted on the matter of my future has ended with the final thought: “It’s a good problem to have. You’ll do great with any that you choose.”

Thank you for that. I do appreciate it. I really do. But it doesn’t help. It doesn’t help my predicament, which comes down to making a choice and basing that choice off of something hopefully tangible. Something that I can point to and say, “See, that’s why I made this decision. That’s why I am dealing with these challenges and frustrations that I mightn’t have faced in these other options. Because of this. And this is a good reason.”

I’m coming closer to the conclusion that having that thing won’t be possible. It would probably morph into an excuse rather than a reason rooted in passion or desire. It will be a justification for my inevitable complaints, which will be followed up by, “You shouldn’t be complaining at all. You’re one of the lucky ones, remember?” By now, I run the circles in my head over and over again with a particular deftness.

So I come back to this idea that these decisions are ultimately arbitrary. However, my attempts to accept such an idea bring an overwhelming feeling of resignation. If all decisions are arbitrary, what’s the point? And this is where the road gets dangerous. This is where I teeter on a cliff edge that I’ve worked so hard to avoid in the past year. This is where the motivation stops, and so does the eating, and the sleeping. It’d been so long I thought I’d forgotten where the cliff was. Or that it was gone forever. But it’s been there, in the same familiar place. Luckily, it’s a predictable cycle.

It’s followed by rejection. I have to reject the idea and, in my recesses of my brain, I have to call attention to things that “actually matter” in life. Even if for a time I believe such perception to be an illusion, I also remember that the illusion is still better than the teetering – for now.

So where does this leave me with my decision? I suppose the idea is that once it’s made, there’s no use in going back to the what-ifs. So I just have to take one.

And the cycle starts again.