Libra Horoscope for week of December 30, 2010

In 2011, I believe you will have the chance to weave your fortunes together with an abundance of allies who are good for you. They will be your equals, they will share at least some of your most important values, and they will respect you for who you are. That’s excellent news, right? My only worry is that you might shy away from the demands that such invigorating collaborations will make on you. It would be less work, after all, to fall back into reliance on more prosaic relationships that don’t ask so much of you. Please don’t take the easy way out, Libra. Rise to the occasion!

2010 leaving, 2011 rushing forward

2011 begins much better, in many ways, than did 2010. At this time last year, I was involved in helping to put on some events that scared me and my companions witless. My vacation time had been spent working on a paper so I could finish an incomplete. I had a full load of classes ahead of me and still no clear idea of what I was doing. January 2010 would finish with me at probably my lowest point of the entire year, wondering what had gone wrong.

The year evened out. I had the support and help of good friends and advisors and decided to leave the PhD program and finish my masters. I ticked off that earlier incomplete, staggered through the rest of the semester (which included a statistics class -- blearrrgghh) with only one incomplete, and helped execute a weeklong conference that, by all accounts, went very well.

I spent the summer finishing an incomplete from the spring (I wish I could have written that paper faster, but...). I spent the fall executing a hard-copy, hand-delivered questionnaire to my neighborhood and taking a Chekhov course that was a long, cool drink of water, and for which I wrote one of my best-ever papers.

I read, in the book Dirty Words of Wisdom, a good quote from Alanis Morrisette, that everyone has times when they go through s--- and that you always get through them. So don't worry about them. Nice thought, though it's hard to keep that perspective when reality bombards you with reasons not to get up in the morning. One of the things I learned this year were various tools to help me get through those times so that I can make it to the other side.

Other learnings:

  • Accountability gets me up in the morning. Knowing people are depending on me, or that I've committed to a deadline, spurs me to get stuff done. Filthy dirty deadlines -- hate 'em, but they work.
  • My mentor, The Unclassifiable Cassidy, advised to commit to the deadline before you're ready -- it's the only way to make sure you get the work done. If you wait till you have the data analyzed, the conference will have already taken place. In other words: you'll never be ready, so just get on with it.
  • This means, setting personal or arbitrary deadlines for yourself can work too, if I make them personal enough. For my questionnaire, I knew they needed it to be delivered at least 2 weeks before Thanksgiving, because once the holidays started people would be too busy to respond. For my Chekhov paper, I aimed to have it done the weekend before it was due and so worked on it bit by bit over several weeks (one of the few times I've done such a thing). This turned out to be a good thing, as I had two great insights occur to me in the shower the day before the paper was due; I spent that evening bolstering the paper with those insights and it really strengthened the whole thing.
  • This means, relatedly, disassociating the deadline from the project's completion, as explained by Cal at Study Hacks. He recommends starting on a project within 24 hours of receiving the assignment. I must admit, I like the idea.
  • My advisor last year had a few core principles that stick in my ind, even if I've not fully adopted them. Among them: it takes as much time to do a big project as it does a small project, so go for the bigger win - make the effort mean something. She also emphasized that no one ever told her what to do; she had to decide what were her priorities and what she wanted to accomplish with her energy, time, and career. It's about being independent rather than being a student -- or an employee.
  • I need structure. When I don't have structure (as expressed by deadlines, accountability) then I flounder and flop and end the day feeling worse rather than better. This, although there's often a voice within that screams not to be chained by these dreary and boring rules. I have not worked out trade negotiations between these voices yet, but it's coming.
  • It has to be the journey and the destination. I heard several times during my year in the academic vineyard, that if some part of you isn't perversely enjoying at least some of what you're going through, then that isn't the job for you. I'm all for delayed gratification, but it needs to come sooner rather than later in some form.

I ended 2010 way more upbeat then when I started. I spent my Christmas break reading a wonderful book and not even checking my email. There is still, at the back of my head, that niggling puritanical whisper "but you aren't accomplishing anything." I begin 2011 less sure of my path -- say what you will about the academic experience, it's run by the calendar and the pace ensure you're productive. I certainly never wrote or created as much in a short period of time as I did while working full-time and going to school. (In fact, I see now that the academic expectations of research, teaching, publications, and service formally externalizes what employees are always told to do -- but rarely do -- in their careers: work hard, network, be active in your professional association, keep your resume updated.)

I am joining with a few other people in creating a mastermind group, admitting which in public makes me feel like I'm coming out of the closet as a Kenny G fan or Republican or something equally shunned by society as simple-brained and noxious. Still, 2010 taught me that my old ways of believing and living were not enough to cope with the stress of what I went through. I want to experiment with and play with new methods to express (and maybe form) new beliefs.

I've set myself a deadline of January 31 to have my masters paper drafted, with the data entered and crunched, and the literature updated. It's an aggressive schedule and it's the kind of spur I need to get things done. Even if I'm not finished, I'll have accomplished more than if I'd waited for the mood to strike me.

Other goals for the year include finding work, making some money, networking, raking the leaves, cleaning my office closets from 4 years of neglect, etc. As I look at my calendar book for January, and think about what I need/want to do, I want to see how much benevolent pressure I can put on myself such that I get done what I want without stressing out too much. Journey and destination.

Another tool I plan to use is Christine Kane's Word of the Year. I've not gone through her worksheet, but I want this year's word to be ACTION. As I look back over 2010, much of my distress was caused by my worrying over a problem, journaling about it, brooding, sitting and looking out the bus window while morosely spinning dark futures about it, when only a few minutes of action was enough to dispel about 90 percent of the gloom. Taking action -- even and especially -- when I don't feel like it, is what I want 2011 to be about. I want to look back on 2011 and marvel at all that I did, all the people I met, all the things I wrote, and wonder at how I did it all while feeling on top of things the whole time.

Of course, there may be a problem with FOCUS or CLARITY. If I take action on all things, large and small, won't that dissipate my effectiveness? Maybe, but that's a problem to deal with when I'm actioning all over the place (and it's something I hope the mastermind group would help me to rein in).

Today, for example, I have 5 things written down that I'd like to accomplish by the end of the day (writing a blog post is one of them), yet I see that the dishes need to be washed and the clothes need to be put away. Do I put them on my list? Do the other more important things first? Whoa, Sparky, slow down. Those are my thought processes running amuck again, and not serving me. The thing to do is simply to take action -- wash the dishes, put away the clothes, clean my desk, take a nap, even. Don't let my thinking get in the way of taking action.

Here's to 2011.


Two views of boredom

The first, from an emotional, Buddhist perspective, and the second, from the productive academic's perspective. Both emphasize being mindful of when you're in the state of boredom and how to use that as a cue to put the mind in a more curious, awake state.

I like Jonathan's summation of the problem:

Boredom is like pain, it tells us that something is wrong and requires a change.


>> Later on the same shoot, Blake and I were sitting on the beach at his estate in Malibu (for which he charged the studio ridiculous location fees. He knew all the tricks.)

We were talking about power in Hollywood, and I asked him, “How much power do you have?” ’

“What do you think?” he asked, gesturing up the hill to his house where Julie Andrews was waiting, to the Masereti in the driveway, and five acres of the most exclusive real estate in L.A.

“I have it all,” he said. “Guaranteed greenlights, name above the title, final cut, final budget approval, approval over advertising and marketing, final approval on casting … all of it.”

“And what has it cost you to get that?” I asked him.

“My health,” he said. “Countless hours on the couch. Drug addiction and multiple times in rehab. Ulcers. My first marriage. My peace of mind.”

“And has it been worth it?” I asked.

“You know,” he said, “I ask myself that all the time. And I find, to my horror, that I cannot say yes.”

So what does work? Here are some techniques Professor Wiseman has found in his study that are effective at helping people reach their goals:

1) Breaking goals down into small steps, then rewarding themselves when each stage has passed.

2) Telling friends about what they were trying to achieve.

3) Reminding themselves of the benefits of obtaining their goal.

4) Charting their progress.

Not that quasi-friends are entirely bad. Sociologists have shown that “weak ties” are as crucial to the flourishing of social networks as strong ones; more quasi-friends probably also means more job opportunities, and more chance of making real friends, or meeting the love of your life. Perhaps all we need is some kind of technological fix, to display a message under every chipper status update, and as a permanent subtitle on numerous television shows: “Don’t forget: this person is barely holding things together.”

That’s the most beautiful thing that I like about boxing: you can take a punch. The biggest thing about taking a punch is your ego reacts and there’s no better spiritual lesson than trying to not pay attention to your ego’s reaction. That’s what takes people out of the fight half the time. They get hit and half the reaction is your ego is saying, I cannot believe that person just lit me up, how humiliating. And what a fighter has to do and what Micky does and what these guys do, whether it’s a prison thing or a crime or a drug episode, is they kind of just go. [He mimes ducking and getting up.]

Writing lessons learned (yet again)

I'm currently writing a final paper for my Chekhov class (which has been WONDERFUL). My teacher and I agreed that it would be a good exercise for me to dig really deep into a single story rather than try to survey a batch of stories to prove some conjecture or other. As a writer of fiction myself, I was more interested in reverse-engineering a story to see how Chekhov constructed it.

I chose a story we had not read called "On Official Business" (Garnett translation). On the surface, it's a story in which nothing happens except that people wind up as depressed and miserable as when they started. But on really picking the story apart to see how Chekhov wrote it -- the narrative techniques he uses, his deployment of imagery, sound, and repeated phrases -- well, it became a rather rich stew.

I thought, aha!, I will now be able to get this paper off my plate early and not have to worry about it late in the semester. Ha-ha! Not so! My first priority was to distribute a questionnaire to my neighborhood as part of my master's project, and the logistics of that proved surprisingly overwhelming. (As with almost all master's work, it isn't hard, it just takes lots of time.)

I started making notes per my favorite writing book, Thinking on Paper, and quickly had 8 pages. [1] Then I floundered around looking for some sort of structure that I could slot my ideas into, looking for headings that were "mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive," but found that approach just generated more text.

At this point (last night, in fact) I decided it was time to stem the flow and remind myself of some writing truths I picked up from here and there:

  • If everything's important, nothing's important. This is a staple of technical writing. I was trying to put everything I knew into this paper, all of my notes -- with the effect that the really big points were getting lost.
  • Kill your darlings. Faulkner's famous piece of writing advice. In my working life, whenever I've had trouble writing an article or column that I felt strongly about, deleting the text I loved best allowed the piece to fit neatly into its allotted word count and allowed the other ideas to fall naturally into place. I'm too in love with some of the points I'm making or the language I'm using.
  • Create a title, just to get started. A title creates a focus for ideas; fiction writers or poets may pick a toneword or image or piece of music that expresses the effect they're after and that helps them choose the words and images that will cluster around it. I re-read the Chekhov story again, started making more notes, and hit on the title" "Dreams and Reality in Chekhov's 'On Official Business'". It's helping me decide what to leave out, which is as important as what I put in.
  • Write more than you need. As the authors of Thinking on Paper say, use the words you have to attract the words you want. You're not under any obligation to use them.
  • The sooner I get the first draft done, the more fun I have. Rewriting is re-thinking, revising and editing is more fun than squeezing out that first draft. When I re-read what I wrote, new phrases, new ideas, better choices come unbidden to my head.
  • It's only supposed to be a 12-page paper, for crying out loud. But, I'd decided to let the paper be as long as it wants to be. I'm enjoying spending time on this project and discovering all the clues Chekhov put into the story. However, time and energy constraints -- and the patience of my professor -- should also be respected!

The blog Stupid Motivational Tricks has really smart, tough advice on the business of academic writing. One post very cogently said that you don't write a paper, you write for an hour. Just focus on this piece or this point for an hour or so, get that done, and then move to the next.

For this morning's writing session, I want to focus on the character Lzyhin and draw together some of the criticism related to his epiphany. In other writing sessions, I want to tackle the secondary characters, Chekhov's use of imagery and sound to create a netting that holds the story together, and the circularity of the story's beginning and ending. That's all way too much to write about in a short paper, even given 8 uninterrupted hours. But I can get each piece done and, as Jonathan Mayhew points out, even a mediocre week of writing ends in getting some writing done, and that's the bottom line.

[1] I created a PDF summarizing the book -- and other bits of writing advice -- in my first class at SILS in 2006. That historical provenance out of the way, here's a link to the PDF.


Examining the unlived life

Alex has a wonderful essay up this week on the unexamined life vs the unlived life. I recognized so much of myself in his description of his early college self. And i would say it's only been fairly recently that I've decided to bias myself towards action -- even fidgety action -- over excessive rumination. (Just look up what "brown study" means.)

I think had Alex pushed farther, he would have probably detected fear prompting the defensive thinking posture he (we) adopted. Fear of rejection, fear of not being good enough, fear of not being perfect, fear of not being loved. There are damn few Socrates in the world whose motivations are not based on fear; for the rest of us, I think we adopt that intellectual camouflage and hope for the best.

And I loved this description of one of the risks we run by overindulging our penchant for thinking over a livelier balance between thought and action:

Believing advice is the greatest help we can provide others who are suffering. It’s not. The greatest gift we can provide others who are suffering is encouragement—encouragement that draws its power from our having experienced similar sufferings that we’ve overcome ourselves.

Anyway, his post reminded me for some reason of this wonderful Alexander Theroux quote from his novel Laura Warholic:

I decided at one point in my life that I never wanted to be anything that would not allow me to be anything else I wanted to be ... I ended up being nothing that I can currently identify, which I suppose means I got my wish.


"The enemy"

Here’s a quote from Stephen Fry’s novel Making History, one of the few passages that struck me as admirable in that lamentably bad book.

If there is a word to describe our age, it must be Security, or to put it another way, Insecurity. From the neurotic insecurity of Freud, by the way of the insecurities of the Kaiser, the Fuhrer, Eisenhower, and Stalin, right up to the terrors of the citizens of the modern world –

THEY ARE OUT THERE

The enemy. They will break into your car, burgle your house, molest your children, consign you to hellfire, murder you for drug money, force you to face Mecca, infect your blood, outlaw your sexual preferences, erode your pension, pollute your beaches, censor your thoughts, steal your ideas, poison your air, threaten your values, use foul language on your television, destroy your security. Keep them away! Lock them out! Hide them from sight! Bury them!

(originally posted 2010-11-22, updated for micro.blog)

When actresses like Hathaway (and, to a lesser degree, actors like Gyllenhaal) decide to bare all, they inevitably justify the choice by saying it was integral to the character. Of course nudity is integral to the character; so is buying groceries and paying the bills, yet directors don’t feel compelled to show that stuff. There’s nothing remarkable about a character taking off her clothes to have sex—that’s how most of us do it. Conversely, a person’s refusal to undress during sex gives us a world of information about who he is (three words: Eliot Spitzer’s socks).

Career Fare

Attended a career fair for master's and PhD students yesterday. I haven't been to such a thing in a long time and it was personally instructive, even though it may not turn out to be professionally lucrative.

There were two facing rows of tables lining a long lobby, with tchotchkes and mini-candy bars available occasionally, big poster displays, modest table displays, handouts, and many young people dressed up and with up-to-date resumes.

As I wandered through, it reminded me of some speed-networking events I've been to, modeled on the speed-dating event. I methodically (which is what I am) walked down the east row of tables first, talked to a few people, judged within a few seconds whether they were interested in what I had to sell or whether I had a chance at all of impressing the company or organization rep, and then made my way down the west row of tables. Along the way, I eavesdropped, picked up literature (when did that sacred word become so devalued as to refer to company-shilling handout sheets?), and weighed whether it was worth it to me or to them for me to stand in line and make a pitch.

In truth, many of the vendors were after hard-science skills or hard-core qualitative research skills, and I have neither of those. I was surprised to find that I was able to talk to about 3 vendors who I think I could help and whose mission I felt meshed with my skills and background. I had gone in expecting not to stay long, and I was out within an hour. Still, I needed some event to get the ball rolling -- update the resume, clarify what I want, start calling on my network -- and this more than served that purpose.


More on panic and discomfort

Mark Z at ZhurnalyWiki paid me the great honor of referring to my panic post. He ended with this thought:

And of course there's my favorite strategy: try to identify what causes panic and avoid situations where it might arise.

Sensible (and I think a little tongue-in-cheek) advice, though I believe there is more to this issue and I fear I lack the articulateness and critical thought to tease out all the threads. Still, let's try.

I take banjo lessons and my teacher one day asked me why I was taking a particular song at such a slow speed. "It's the speed I'm most comfortable practicing at," I said.

His reply was a zen slap: "Your comfort is not our concern." He explained that if I continued practicing only at speeds that "felt good" then my improvement would proceed so slowly as to be invisible. Instead, it was better to crank up the metronome to faster-than-comfortable speeds, stress myself a little, and build up the muscles, resistance, experience, whatever, so that I could see improvement happen faster. Even if I go too fast and have to step back to a slower speed, I'd still be practicing at a more intense level than had I plodded along at "safe" speeds.

This is advice applicable to any activity where one may want to see progressive improvement: weight training, long-distance running (waves to Mark Z), scholastic work, leadership skills -- deliberately putting yourself in an uncomfortable place in measured doses so that one gains the skills to operate competently with a higher or more capacity. (One key, I think, is defining the "measured doses" -- you don't go from couch potato to marathoner in a day.)

But I should note that, on days when it's obvious that I'm feeling off or am easily irritated by my performance, my teacher backs off on that advice and will instead say, "Take it easy. Some days, you only need to go at speeds where you're comfortable. Don't beat yourself up." So the wisdom, I guess, is knowing the difference between challenging oneself and abusing oneself.

With banjo, I intentionally crank up the metronome past my comfort zone and stress myself to play faster so that I can encourage my mind to confront and solve the problems I'm facing with fingering and rhythms. I know why I am putting myself through this discomfort -- so I can play better. And when I practice a week later, the section that had previously given me so much trouble is now comfortably folded into my normal practice, causes less stress, and is now a building block to help me conquer more complicated material.

What's needed here is my own willingness to confront a shortcoming. With any sort of training of this nature, a teacher or mentor is helpful. They can provide methods or rituals or processes we can employ that, over time, help us break the challenging problem down into pieces that can be easily solved, thereby reducing the discomfort and anxiety to mere questions of technique and experience. For example, only tackle four bars of a new song at a time till you feel they're not unnatural under your fingers, then tackle the next four bars, then play all eight bars at a slow speed and then faster. Jog at an easy pace before you start sprinting. And so on. After a while, what seemed difficult or impossible is routine. One of the things my first coach noticed was that, once we get past a block or remove an unhelpful attitude or behavior, we find it hard to remember what our problem was to begin with or why we thought we had a problem at all. The new neural pathways that we've laid down bypass -- and maybe help us forget -- the pain we'd previously put ourselves through.

Now we edge from discomfort to panic. Deliberately putting oneself outside of one's comfort zone is one thing, but life often thrusts us without warning into situations over which we have no control. In my still-young life, for example, I've been dumped, laid off, endured and recovered from detached retinas (both eyes), and forced to confront my moral/emotional/intellectual/human shortcomings in many other ways. I read a quote (from Alanis Morrisette, of all people) that said we're all going to go through shit at one time or another, and we're all going to get through it, so it doesn't pay to worry about it. That's useful to keep in mind, I guess, but hard to pull from memory when you're in the throes of panic (particularly when you're in an emergency room). It's during the panic times -- particularly times of illness -- that I call on my meditation and yoga experiences to put my mind in a more helpful place that will help me endure what I'm going through, help channel my emotions so they don't fuel panic, help improve my resiliency. Many of these situations we cannot avoid, we can only face them as well as we can. If you have someone's hand to hold, even better.

But then, there is that class of panic that is irrational -- fear of bridges, fear of elevators, fear of your thesis advisor (!). It's not realistic to avoid bridges or elevators or your advisor all of the time. And it's at that point that you dip into the various books and stuff I pointed to in the panic post, or enlist a therapist or counselor who can help you confront that fear or help make it go away.

Looking back on my spring, my panic was alleviated by my being surrounded by very understanding people who were able to relive me of some responsibilities that were simply more than I could handle, provide needed advice and -- importantly -- perspective on the situation, and generally just let me jabber as I tried to make sense of this experience. (Actually, I think making sense of something comes with time and distance from the event; when I'm in the weeds, I just want to get through it and make the pain stop).

I could have stayed in the PhD program, well outside of my comfort zone, where I was experiencing myriad panics at all sorts of levels -- scholastically, logistically, with personal relationships -- told myself that I'm not supposed to be comfortable, reconciled myself to living with the frustration, and just gotten on with it. Several people I know did that. But there are problems with that mindset: I didn't know how to measure progress in any of these areas so I had no objective markers to show whether I was progressing or regressing. I didn't have any methods -- apart from brute application of time and energy -- to help me get through the different types of work I was called on to do. I felt stuck in the same place and didn't see my situation -- or myself in that situation -- improving.

But my biggest problem here was that I was never clear on why I was doing the PhD. And because I didn't know why I wanted the PhD, I couldn't understand why I had to suffer what I was suffering. If I had had a clear picture of the destination, I could have found a way to suffer through the journey.

Anyway -- some more jabbering on a topic that, were I to talk about it with everyone I know, would make even me bored. Best to talk about it here where I can get it out of my system and spare the ears of my dear friends.


In fact, study after study has shown that simply monitoring your behavior is a powerful intervention in itself. The problem is that self-monitoring required planning, motivation and vigilance - things that most of us trying to change a behavior lack (hence the reason we have a problem to begin with). Fortunately, there are a range of technologies -old and new - which make self-monitoring our behavior easier and more effective than ever before.

I remember some years ago someone (unfortunately I can’t remember who) wrote to me to describe his time management method.

He had a tickler file numbered with the days of the month, i.e. 1-31. Each day he would put all correspondence received into the tickler file for that day. So today is the 16th, and it would go into the compartment for the 16th.

First thing each day he would take out of the tickler file for that day all the correspondence he had put in it a month previously. He invariably found that 95% of it had happened anyway, or was no longer relevant.

I’m not sure I’d recommend it, but he seemed very happy with it!

November 16, 2010 at 14:08 | Mark Forster

Last month, husband was in a grumpy mood. We have a rule for those moods: Accomplish something! Pick something off the list, pretty much anything, and do it. Usually, it’s something that’s been bothering you for a while so getting it off the list will be a load off your back, but not something that makes you feel frustrated just thinking about. Something that gets you moving, and that you will take pride in.

You are young, and have not met the big disasters of life yet, like a divorce with children, the death of a loved one, the bad decisions with life-long consequences. At your age I liked keeping track and archives, even bank statements many years back. Not a good idea. Your past starts to grow on you, and can slow you down on your way to new pastures. So remember to build in mechanisms for forgetting all but the most essential stuff. Use Facebook and Linkedin to keep track of people, keep some nice pictures, but learn to delete and forget. You will thank me later.

Brooks applies chaos theory in an interesting way, too, by boiling its lessons down to three actionable questions: What do you know? What do you not know? What can you learn? Asking — and answering — those three questions can help you take all of that panic and uncertainty and wrestle it into something you can work with while simultaneously expecting the unexpected. Because after all, you really do have no idea how this will unfold.

Two experiments revealed that (i) people can more accurately predict their affective reactions to a future event when they know how a neighbor in their social network reacted to the event than when they know about the event itself and (ii) people do not believe this. Undergraduates made more accurate predictions about their affective reactions to a 5-minute speed date (n = 25) and to a peer evaluation (n = 88) when they knew only how another undergraduate had reacted to these events than when they had information about the events themselves. Both participants and independent judges mistakenly believed that predictions based on information about the event would be more accurate than predictions based on information about how another person had reacted to it.