One of the things I discovered about myself during the past year is that I'm a student, not a scholar. I've always thought of myself as a "lifelong student," but I'm not sure I really understood what that meant till recently.
In my view, a master's candidate is a student, a PhD candidate is a scholar. The differences are many: the difference between being an amateur (student) and a professional (scholar), between minor league and major league, between levels of commitment in terms of time, energy, passion, and dedication.
For me, a lifelong student retains the joy of learning new things and loves sampling the buffet. That's been me, that will always, probably, be me. The scholar, I think, takes a deeper interest and is best served (at least in their early years) by not flitting from flower to flower. Also, the way academe is structured, scholars are professionally groomed for a tough job market; the decisions they make today on the research they publish will have repercussions years down the line. The student, I think, lives more in the moment, or at least has a shorter time horizon for the satisfying of their desires.
As I'm sure I've said in other posts, I like taking classes. This seemed to separate the student from the scholar, in my brief experience. I think I'm one of the "Scanners' that Barbara Sher describes in her book Refuse to Choose: someone who loves the novelty and variety of learning and resists constraining themselves to a single specialty.
Reminds me of these quotes by Bill Moyers on the fun of being a journalist:
A journalist is a professional beachcomber on the shores of other people's wisdom ... A journalist is basically a chronicler, not an interpreter of events. Where else in society do you have the license to eavesdrop on so many different conversations as you have in journalism? Where else can you delve into the life of our times? I consider myself a fortunate man to have a forum for my curiosity.
Had I stuck it out in the PhD realm, my chosen research style would have been that of a journalist. The challenge for my life now, I think, is to elevate that curiosity and focus from a hobby done in my spare time to a respected place of prominence at the center of my life and how I choose to spend the rest of my years on the planet.
Of my master's degree progress, that is.
I took my comprehensive exam on Friday. At SILS, that is writing 6-8 pages on one of two essay questions that are emailed to you at the start of the day. You have until 3:30pm to finish the task. I started mine at about 10 am and wrapped up around 2:30pm, with a break for lunch. Essay questions are about the easiest task I could be given; I wound up writing 10 pages with I think good detail.
Today, Liz and I took a day trip over to Chapel Hill so I could return a stack of library books and pick up a copy of my advisor's comments on my master's paper. I thought I had done a good-enough job on the paper but that there were too many assumptions and maybe too much hand-waving and magical thinking in the Discussion and Conclusions section. I had spewed dots all over the page without seriously connecting them into a recognizable picture. But I thought the paper was at a stage where there was no more I really wanted to do with it. I could have spent days poring over the data some more, I could have done more research in the literature, and so on. That extra work would have represented the last 15-25% of effort on a paper whose value probably didn't warrant more time or energy. In any case, I'd held on to it long enough. It was time to throw it over the wall and see what my advisor had to say about it.
I was rather surprised at how minimal and non-eventful her comments were. I had rather mixed feelings looking over her comments, which were mainly to do with typos, awkward phrasings, mechanical errors, and the like. There were one or two "I don't accept your conclusion" remarks that I don't know how to address just yet; she gave no indication of what I should do to fix them. That's OK; it'll take less than 3 hours to take care of all her marked items and then format the paper per the school guidelines. Still - that's it?
I suppose what's interesting to me about the paper is how flimsy it feels to me. Had this been turned in by a doctoral student, I think it would have been held up to higher scrutiny and with calls for more justification of my statistics and assumptions. But I must remember: this is a master's paper, and the master's paper is probably the first and last research project most students will ever do. If they find they need to carry out a similar research project in their future jobs, then they have at least been introduced to the rudiments of the practice. That's the real goal of the paper. Contributing to the research dialogue is not a realistic expectation. (Though one of my professors said that many master's students look back on the paper as the most satisfying project of their academic career.)
In the end, I suppose, I believe that I did a good enough job, within my capacities and skills; better than others, perhaps, but not as good as I would like to think I could do. (And got closer to in my Chekhov paper last fall.)
Still, as with all things that have happened to me over the last few years in school, these are yet more opportunities for learning as I go.
As I see my schedule open up, with very few obligations on the horizon, I am starting to swell with projects that need to be started: selling off old textbooks, clearing my files of all the printed articles i read, cleaning out my closet, fixing stuff around the house, etc.
What stops me from slapping all sorts of projects into my planner book is another lesson I learned in 2010. I had stopped my banjo lessons due to the pressure of my other responsibilities. We still met weekly, to talk through what I was experiencing and trade strategies. Sometime after the semester ended, I think, I felt much relieved and wanted to resume the lessons. But he refused. His reasoning was sound: I may be in a quiet, stable phase at the moment, but we are not sure how long it will last. It would only put more pressure on me if I were to restart my practicing and then - BAM - life is firing more fastballs at me than i can handle.
And, as I recall, things happened as he said. Not long after, we had to start planning and executing the May workshop and life got crowded indeed. Even after the workshop was over, and life had truly settled down, he held off resuming our lessons. He was right. I needed the rest and needed to come back to a sort of equilibrium. Sometime after I left the program, we started up again and I've been chugging along with the banjer ever since.
All of which to say - I'm keeping my life underscheduled for the immediate future. My top priorities are revamping my resume, starting up a job search, figuring out what the next 5 years should be, etc. But no need to rush in. Relax the taut rubber band before it snaps and breaks. Relax, and pat myself on the head.
Libra Horoscope for week of February 24, 2011
An interviewer asked me, “What is the most difficult aspect of what you do?” Here’s what I said: “Not repeating myself is the hardest thing. And yet it’s also a lot of fun. There’s nothing more exciting for me than to keep being surprised by what I write. It’s deeply enjoyable to be able to feed people clues they haven’t heard from me before. And when I focus on doing what gives me pleasure, the horoscopes write themselves.” I hope this testimony helps you in your own life right now, Libra. If you’re afraid that you’re in danger of repeating yourself, start playing more. Look for what amuses you, for what scrambles your expectations in entertaining ways. Decide that you’re going to put the emphasis on provoking delight in yourself, not preserving your image.
I volunteered to do a tedious job at work -- copy/paste about maybe 200-400 parameters scattered throughout a group of FORTRAN files. The parameters may be in one of maybe 3 different formats. Also, the parameters came with multiline comments (with each commented line starting with !), and sometimes just big wodges of comments on their own that serve as documentation. The goal was to transform these snippets into something our customer could scan using Excel.
I volunteered to do it because it made no sense for a highly paid developer to do such a menial job; also, I kind of like taking on little challenges like this, developing a new technique or learn some new tools, and seeing how quickly I can rip through them. Then it's just a matter of putting on the headphones, pressing a few keys repetitively so the computer does most of the work, and voila.
I realized that my initial solution for this would be overly complicated, as it always is, and that the exploration process as I groped my way toward simpledom would be haphazard, as it always is. I thought "How can I use Applescript to parse the text? Should I just copy the fragments into Word and use Word's formatting functions? Should I use a text editor with some text formatting Services?" (DevonThink makes a killer set of text-formatting services available to Mac users for free; DevonThink not required to use them.)
I spent about 5 hours over the weekend scarfing up text-formatting Applescript code, messing with text editors, messing with Automator, messing with some copied fragments that I was using as my test case, messing with Applescript in Word (which adds its own complications), and seeing possible workflows getting more complicated.
Sometime around Monday evening my brain settled down and I decided on my workflow:
The intent of this workflow brings in what I've mentioned before, about batching similar actions together. With this workflow, I could check each line off as done and move fully to the next set of operations. I could do each set of operations more quickly and efficiently than transitioning from 1 to 2 to 3 to 4 within each file.
#2 gave me the headache, of course, and is where I spent the bulk of my think time. I had on blinders as I was sure I could use some sort of Applescript in Word that would reformat everything in one go, without needing multiple passes. And because I thought it could be done, I thought I had to do it that way.
However, I had set myself a time limit for the R&D, and I had passed it. Time to drop that all-in-one solution. As I looked at the line fragments, I noticed that the bulk of the work would be done in the first line of each multi-line fragment. OK, let's start there.
That shift brought me back to the Agile programming maxim of, "Do the simplest thing that could possibly work." This is when I turned back to Keyboard Maestro; it's not as powerful as QuicKeys (or my beloved Macro Express in the Windows world), but it's quick, dependable, and does the job. In this case, I was using it as a robot typing the keyboard, but that keeps it simple.
That's when I cobbled together my workflow for #2:
Hm. Well, that still looks pretty complicated, doesn't it? But it's faster than me burning hours to get my head deep into Applescript territory, with delimiters, variables, if-thens, and so on.
The other advantage of this workflow is that this should cover about 80% of the code I'll have to reformat. I now have a base set of actions that I can clone and customize to handle the exceptions.
Anyway, the lesson as always: don't overthink it. Keep it simple.
The New Yorker has suffocated at times beneath a mask of wry gentility. For all its glossy reputation, the magazine still turns up its nose at stories and poems that make too many demands on the reader. It’s a middlebrow journal for people who would like to be highbrows — and perhaps for highbrows who love a little slumming. The cartoons, as Biele notes, provide an antiphonal chorus to the reckless consumerism of the ads. Just as the literature is for those who want to think themselves literary, the ads are for those who want to think themselves rich. (If you were old money, you’d already own Tiffany by the trunkload.) Bishop’s close association with the magazine, almost all her best poems appearing there after 1945, probably contributed to her struggle to be taken seriously. To be a New Yorker poet was sometimes a deal with the devil.
I went to a “mindfulness” group at the psychological clinic here. I don’t know much about the topic yet, but it struck me that one definition would be using your own mind to your benefit rather than to your detriment. In other words, don’t outthink yourself. Notice the thoughts and emotions you are having and allow them to pass through you without overstaying their welcome. I’ve always thought the best way of dealing with negative emotions is to pay no attention to them at all and hope they would go away, but I’m open to new approaches.
I had an excellent ~6 hours of solid writing/wrestling with my master's paper one day last week. At this stage, I'm still drafting raw text and am not in the polish stage where I'm honing the thoughts in the sentences and paragraphs, and ensuring my themes and the story I'm telling are all working together, which is what I would call "the writing phase". Right now, I'm at the "vomit text" stage, if I may be forgiven for such a phrase.
Here's how I structured my time and my environment to encourage me to work:
I'm now at the point where i'm trying to generate text for the last part of the paper, the discussion and conclusion, and find myself somewhat lacking for words. I've started with random ideas and sentences i put under those headings as I worked on other sections of the paper and so this has provided me a starting point. But the section still feels anemic.
I think the solution here is, again, to trust the process. As my favorite book on writing says, use the words you have to attract the words you want. So, let the the sections feel thin for now and as I continue sweeping through and reading and re-reading, let any other words or ideas bubble up when they're ready.
I should say, this is also the time when it's helpful to have another pair of eyes look at the text, so I'm trying to get a draft finished for my advisor to review so she can tell me where I've gone too far or not far enough.
In trying to implement some new behaviors, I'm finally listening to advice and looking at how to piggyback the new behaviors on existing behaviors. The best way to introduce a new habit being to start small and link the new behavior to an existing behavior. These are basically implementation intentions , as introduced to me by the Psychology Today blogger on procrastination, Dr. Timothy Pychyl  (who also has an extensive site devoted to his procrastination research, an affordable e-book on the topic, and scads of podcasts subscribable through iTunes).
An implementation intention basically says. "I will do behavior x when y happens so that I can achieve z." The objective is to have your environment deliver the cue for the behavior you want to encourage. In addition to supporting your goals, implementation intentions can support something called prospective memory, which I'll blog about someday (after putting it off for nearly a year!).
If a task I need or want to do is a one-off, or requires extra will-power to motivate myself to do it, then that's a task I'm not likely to do. Therefore, I need to plan how to make more routine the things that I that I think will be beneficial to me. So here are some behaviors I'm trying to implement now:
Now, will these intentions work every time? Maybe not. But by thinking about how to work around my natural resistance, I increase the chance that I'll do them more often. And more often is better than not at all.
This may seem ironic, given that last point, but one of my favorite articles I’ve read this year: 10 Reasons You Should Never Get a Job by Steve Pavlina. A related tweet from Nassim Taleb: ”The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.”
I happened to like Paul Houser’s work in Abigail Norris and Jerry Rothwell’s The Work’s the Thing, and he said some interesting things to say, such as “The notion of artists being special people is a bit misleading. If anything, they’re less than special. It’s almost something you’re missing rather than something extra you’ve got.”
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!
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.
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.
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.]
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.  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:
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.
 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.
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.
“We see evidence for mind-wandering causing unhappiness, but no evidence for unhappiness causing mind-wandering,” Mr. Killingsworth says.