"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.