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.

Success: A good memory is unpardonable (Pt 3)

The point of my mountain getaway was to figure out some next steps. The thing about next steps is that they often lead to a backward glance. The thing about a backward glance… it’s not very reliable. But it can be constructive, regardless of accuracy.

We know that memory is unreliable and malleable. We also know that it plays a large role in building self-identity. So it stands to reason that we could theoretically shape our selves into what we wish for the future, by slightly mis-shaping the past. This could go horribly wrong. Or it could embody the very core of “fake it till you make it.”

But wouldn’t your personality eventually take over? Aren’t there traits that will always dominate and veer you back to the original, supposedly “less desired” path? You will always be too shy to speak up during that meeting, leaving you overshadowed. Or you will always be too friendly to be taken seriously.

Some psychologists disagree. They assert that it’s not so much the consistency in personality that predicts behaviour, rather the “power of the situation:” the roles we’re put in and the nature of the relationships in which we engage.

The glance over my shoulder this weekend was an exercise in both memory shaping and re-situation.

This week marks one year since I moved. One year of being generally frustrated with most aspects of my environment and personality.

At least, that’s what I thought.

At some point I had painted a narrative that my reality was not meeting expectations and so I had “failed” at being “happy.” After that framing, everything conveniently fit the narrative. I continued to collect supporting evidence for my “everything sucks and no one understands” soliloquy.

And then it happened.

Somewhere in between all the fun I was accidentally having, the love I was inadvertently feeling, and the learning I was happening into – somewhere in there, my sob story fell apart. So much so that as I sat watching the sun rise over the range of tectonic accidents, I couldn’t even remember why I had spent the better part of the year so upset. My re-telling of the story was much more made-for-TV-holiday-special, much less Kafka. I had essentially placed an Instagram filter on my memory and hashtagged it #iwokeuplikethis.

And you know what? It worked. By tweaking the brightness settings of my memory, I also changed the position from which new memories are being formed. It’s as if by cleaning up the pieces that were bothering me, I learned how to leverage them to inform a better, calmer, more thankful version of myself.

It may have be an uphill battle for most of the year, but looking back, most of what I see, is simply remarkable. I’d call that a Success.

 

Writer’s note: Thanks for joining me on my little 3 part introspective journey into the world of “Success.” I hope it was at least mildly entertaining. Part 1 here, Part 2 here.

Success: Creativity & Empathy (PT 2)

I find walking downhill a frustrating exercise. I don’t sweat. My toes get squished up against my boots. My left knee grumbles at me. And my footing is only half-intentional, mostly I’m simply avoiding a fall rather than actually walking.

Climbing up, however, well this is among my favourite activities. My entire body feels engaged. Sweat drenches my clothes and curls my hair, letting me know how hard everything is working to get me to where I’m going. I’m sure footed, choosing every rock as if it was put there exactly for me. When I reach the top, the view, the breeze, the first gulp of water- all of these are well-earned.

This is not a “what goes up, must come down” metaphor. It’s just fact. Hiking, is about the climb, the up. The downhill is a side-effect.

But it did get me thinking. Is success similar? Is it also about the up? Are we supposed to be moving toward something in a subjectively upward manner to be considered “successful”? Is this where the anxiety of stagnation comes from? If I’m not gaining “more” of something – degrees, publications, impact factors, LinkedIn followers – am I unintentionally scrambling downhill on the success spectrum?

To touch on these questions, I want to go back to the question posed to my remarkable friend from part one of this post.

What part of you do you want to share most? The most widely that is.

Her answer was simply complicated:

Creativity and empathy. You?

Her creativity and empathy are aspects of her personhood that she’s deemed significant enough to share with the world, leaving behind something of note.

Throughout the rest of our conversation, I realized that any combination of ways I tried to answer the same question still resulted in the same two words: creativity and empathy.

In some ways, isn’t that the essence of being human? Creativity in the form of art, invention, problem solving. Empathy in the form of understanding different perspectives, offering support, guiding each other through difficulties and celebrating each other through triumphs?

We all have our different versions of creativity, and it’s often what we yearn to share most in our thirst for “Success.” The musician goes to school, makes the right connections, practices for hours to be able to share their creativity on a stage of significance. The researcher subscribes to a brandname institution, seeks funds, obsesses over H- indices to share their creativity in a journal of significance. And so on.

Imagine how successful the world would be if we all had the privilege to tap into that inherent creativity to do good. If it wasn’t some race to have your creativity overshadow someone else’s, but rather to complement. Imagine if our social networks were actually about connecting with one another and practicing empathy rather than self-promotion. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.

If we shift the focus away from how can I be successful to how can I be part of a success-filled world, wouldn’t “Success” be defined as contributing to an environment that enables all of us to have the capacity to exercise our creativity, and the tools to flex our empathetic muscles in support of such creative pursuits.

Sure, some of this is naive, but even more naive is the attribution of success at the individual level. We don’t exist in vacuums. Yet.

Writer’s note: Part 3 of grappling with “Success” while scaling up (and unfortunately down) mountains, coming soon. 

 

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?”

Success: Are you unremarkable? (Pt 1)

“Excuse moi mesdames. Je vous pose une question: c’est quoi la réussite?”

It was 1:30am. We were in a post-Biryani state, having served as taste testers for a spontaneous feast. Sash and I looked at each other, then back at the man, shaking our heads in unison.

Nope.

Having the conversation on “What is Success?” with a stranger, at 1:30am, on deserted streets wasn’t really in our plans.

But dear stranger, to make it up to you, I’ll attempt to entertain your question over my next few posts.

This conversation comes up often. At various points in our lives, we all ask ourselves…

What am I doing? What’s it contributing to? Am I supposed to be contributing to something?

How can I be successful in a mash-up of 7 billion people with dreams and struggles of their own?

How do I stand out? Where is my uniqueness?

In my pre-Biryani state that same day, one of my dearest friends was having a similar moment to the stranger on the street. She texted,

I don’t wish for an unremarkable life.

Not exactly your average Wednesday text. But hey, not exactly an average friendship.

Below is what followed:

mermaidAfter this, we obviously spent some time reassuring each other that we were indeed remarkable.

And then I got more curious. Where does this need come from? I have it too. Most of us do. I’ve spent most of the summer trying to understand my own interpretations of success and the paths I want to take to get there.

Some days, success means “remarkable.” Some days, it means “awake and outside the house.” Other days, it’s a flattering email. And on really good days, it’s just knowing you were a part of something useful. And that’s enough. We would all benefit from learning early on that the latter is a goal worth aspiring to.

Millennials are often accused of being the “participation trophy” generation.  In principle, why is it so horrible that participation is celebrated? The real problem arises when you’re not simultaneously taught to think about what participation really means. The participation trophy is a missed opportunity in understanding that nothing happens unless a collective either decides or is convinced that it should, and then engages with the process and the outcome. Even if that’s just a local race. Instead, we’re given mixed messages. We’re supposed to be unique individuals (this is obviously culture-dependent), special snowflakes with startups and billion dollar ideas. And we compete. A lot. For jobs. For graduate posts because there are no jobs. For life partners who have jobs. And thanks to technology, the pool of competitors is bottomless.

This need to be remarkable is therefore cultivated. And it’s distracting. But it’s not new. Nor is it necessarily just a narcissistic pursuit of recognition. Rather, it’s a compulsion to share pieces of yourself, almost as an affirmation of existing. To contribute, but to contribute in a way that is uniquely yours. To sign your art, whatever that art may be and to be remembered, revered, replicated. It’s become a biosocial instinct. Similar needs continue to convince our species to keep reproducing.

So in an effort to understand what it is that we all want to share so badly, I asked my friend…

What part of you do you want to share most?  The most widely that is.

 

Stay tuned for her answer in Part 2.

Writer’s note: I’m hiding in the mountains for a long weekend. Two parts hiking, one part grappling with how the way I choose to define “Success” will affect the decisions I make in the upcoming year. This is therefore the first in a set of 2-3 mountain posts. If posts appear nonsensical, blame it on the altitude.

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!