Monday, October 21, 2019

The Greatest High I Have Ever Known

My voice cracked. My eyes started to mist. I felt the emotion bubbling up inside of me. Something very special in my life was about to conclude.

The scene: the last session of a course on organizational behavior. My students were enrolled in an MBA program. All officers in different branches of the U.S. military, they began their studies at the Naval Postgraduate School during the summer of 2019.  

I had taught a similar class before, to undergraduates. I find the subject endlessly fascinating. Nonetheless, I struggled at times to pique student interest in some topics. Granted, it was a required course for business majors. Many of them were preoccupied with their major area of emphasis. In this instance, that was accounting and finance. So I could very well have set up a three ring circus and most of them wouldn’t have batted an eyelash.

So I was more than a bit apprehensive about teaching the course to graduate students. Add to my concerns about the subject matter the fact that these students were just starting the MBA program. I had only taught students who were further along in their studies.

Finally, I needed to wake up at 4 am to drive from San Francisco to teach this course in Monterey at 8 am. So I wasn’t entirely confident that I could maintain the level of energy I usually require to teach a class. 

Regardless, I could tell from the very beginning that something special was happening. I don’t have this feeling with every class I teach, so when I do, I notice it. 

I know the feeling when it’s there. It's almost as if it's running through my veins. I experience joy, yet I can't fully describe it in words. It energizes and excites me nonetheless. I feel it swell up inside me as most of my fears and anxieties about teaching rapidly dissipate. 

More tangibly, I see it in the faces of my students. I experience it in our lively class discussions and informal banter. They clearly look forward to the class, as I very much do. 

I also know it when I don’t feel it. Not that that indicates there’s anything wrong. Far from it. I also don’t see a connection between the presence or absence of this feeling and course evaluations. Yet I know, in my gut, that there’s something intangible, almost ephemeral, that’s missing.

I live to have this feeling, specifically when I teach. It takes hard work to realize. And this magic is usually elusive and fleeting, at best. Yet there is no greater achievement for me. There is no greater high I can imagine to have that connection with a class for the duration of our time together. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

I Really Don't Want Other People to Be Like Me

My frustration mounts when I encounter people who don’t do things the way I do. I want things done in a certain way, which I often consider the best way. They fall short.

Then I pause. Frustration aside, I don’t really want others to be like me. I don’t want others to think or do things exactly like I do. Because there’s not much I can learn from them. But there’s one more important consideration. My mix of knowledge, insight, biases, and perceptions makes me neither omniscient nor omnipotent. I fall far short of perfection. To partake of a steady diet of clones wouldn’t contribute to the betterment of the world around me, therefore. 

Besides, life would be boring if everyone were alike. 

That’s why I really don’t want other people to be like me. 

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Let's Get Clear About Vagueness

Life is complicated. It’s messy. Few things, if any, come wrapped up in nice, neat packages. And every day we face an overwhelming range of demands for our time and attention.

Yet gaining access to more information often obfuscates, rather than enlightens. When we’re challenged to respond coherently, we’re prone to shrug our shoulders as if to say, “I’m overwhelmed. I haven’t even given the matter any thought.” We may hesitate, not knowing how to decide. So, we don’t decide. As a result, we’re noncommittal. That is, we’re vague in terms of our actual response.

It’s no wonder that vagueness is all the rage. It’s a legitimate out in our harried times. We’re all doing our best, but we’re just not ready or willing to commit. So, we remain vague.

The problem is that vagueness has moved from the realm of the defensible to a virtual pandemic. We suffer from the painful consequences. Wherever you turn, it seems, you’re scratching your head and wondering, “what does it mean?”

“Will you come to my party?"

“I don’t know. I’ll try. It depends."

That’s vague.

“Are you interested in my proposal?”

“Well, I may be. I don’t know. I think so.”

That’s also vague.

“What about the terms I’ve outlined for our real estate deal? What about the contingencies?”

“Ah, don’t worry about the details. They will all work out.”

Vague yet again.  

Sure, uses such as these by themselves seem innocuous for the most part.  But add them up: the unclear responses and the less than deft avoidance of certainty. Don’t forget general statements like “it will all work out.” Collectively, they will crush us. We can’t move forward in many instances without clear, definitive guidance. The absence of it frustrates and paralyzes us.

It’s one thing for us as individuals to choose to remain vague about different aspects of our lives. It’s a far different situation when others we rely on fall short.  They insist on vagueness. They dance around real issues as opposed to tackling them head on.

I’ve grown weary of individuals who bask gleefully in oceans of vagueness. Individuals who by their very occupations should get out of those same oceans. I’m thinking specifically of real estate agents, accountants, and lawyers. These professionals, among others, nonetheless attempt to remain above the fray. I suspect they fear they will sully their hands. Heaven forbid, they might make a mistake or lose a client because they committed to a clear course of action. Or perhaps they are just lazy. Far be it from me to discern the true motive behind individual bouts of vagueness.

Vagueness wastes time and energy. It is the enemy of achievement and excellence. Those are qualities I want in my life. I’ve become zealous about ferreting them out in others with whom I work and engage in other areas of my life.


Tuesday, September 3, 2019

The Hardest Thing to Learn is How to Say No

I’ve said “yes” to many things in my life. I’ve done so with considerable enthusiasm on many occasions, and with grudging compliance in other instances. Regardless, “yes” has always been easy for me; saying “no,” on the other hand, has not. 

To say that I don’t take kindly to people conducting surveys would be an understatement. The same goes for what I consider as other ongoing nuisances that are an unavoidable part of daily life. They’re especially prevalent in a city like San Francisco. 

That I’ve responded curtly, and more commonly, rudely to such missives would be a fair assessment. I’ve learned that my approach only makes matters much worse. More often than not, my palpable hostility engenders comparable anger. What might have been a routine encounter escalates into a negative experience. It clouds my thinking and mars the remainder of my day.

Now, as I’ve written here previously, sometimes you have to respond in kind when people get in your face. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m referring to the infinite number of daily interactions that ask us to decide: yes or no?

That’s why I’ve been spending time improving on my ability to say no. Because I’ve learned that how I choose to do so reflects on me. That’s regardless of the relative merits of the request before me. In other words, if I want my world to respond to me favorably, I need to respond with a deft touch. I need to frame my retorts with a smile on my face. I need to remind myself that the inquiries demanding a response typically have no ill intent. Nor are they typically geared towards me as an individual. 

Besides, “no” is a complete sentence. I don’t need to say or do anything else to communicate my point. 

In short, it’s easy to say yes but a lot harder to say no with equanimity and even charm. It’s the latter area that demands my attention over time. 

Monday, September 2, 2019

Strive to Be for Others What You Always Wanted for Yourself

I had many wonderful teachers throughout my formal education. The best combined three ingredients. First, they displayed a love of their subject matter. Second, they had a talent for communication. Above all, each demonstrated a tireless commitment to student learning.

At other times, I had teachers who fell short. Sure, they knew their material.  Yet it was difficult to tell what motivated their work.  In word and deed, they seemed to care very little about student achievement. 

When I reflect on my formal education as a whole, I tend to focus on the latter group. At certain critical points I longed for guidance. I craved feedback that made sense given my personality and intellectual curiosities. Were it available—and had I been able to heed it—different decisions might have been made. I can’t but help think some of these would have been better than the ones I made at the time. 

Today, I can be this kind of person—the one I always wanted/needed. I can strive to be available and responsive to students, in all senses of the terms. 

I cannot recreate the past. But I can help others realize their futures. I can work to be the kind of person I always wanted during my formal education—but sometimes couldn’t find. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

As a Reminder, Some of Us Don't Need Reminders

I recently bought three pairs of eyeglasses from Warby Parker. I visited one of their retail establishments in San Francisco. 

The prescription was incorrect on one pair. I was informed that the problem would be corrected promptly, and I that the glasses would be ready in a week.

Five days later, I received an email that the glasses were ready and I could pick them up. As I was out of town, I made a note to do so when I returned.

The next day I received another email reminding me that my glasses were ready for pickup. 

Later that day, I received a third email about the same pair of glasses.

Three emails about one pair of glasses! Yes, I did unsubscribe from Warby Parker’s email list after the first email. That was the second time I had done so. Apparently, the need to inform me about my new pair of glasses superseded an earlier request to “unsubscribe” from all emails. 

The bottom line: I got the message the first time; I usually do. I don’t need reminders. Dates go immediately into my calendar. Tasks, with deadlines, get entered into Todoist. It’s the app I use for managing personal and professional responsibilities. 

Organizations seem to thrive on sending out reminders and other vacuous messages. They refer to them as “customer service.” To that end, raising the issue with an organizational representative often meets with a cold stair. You know the one that says, “how dare you even ask.” What follows is one of the following lines:

“Well, we consider it a courtesy to remind you.”

“We remind all our clients.”

“That’s our system, and we can’t change it for one person.”

This rationale is complete nonsense. The technology exists to accommodate such requests. If you can’t accommodate a relatively simple customer request why should I ask you for anything else? 

Listen up, people. Some of us don’t need reminders and other equally pointless email. Please heed our call. 

Monday, August 26, 2019

Everything I Needed to Know About Writing I Learned While Taking Exams in College

As I noted in my previous blog post, I’ve never considered myself a writer. Thinking back to when I consciously identified writing as a distinctive act—probably in college—I never considered it part of my identity. The act was simply too painful. That I did well in school proved only a temporary salve to my pain. 

I learned how to succeed in writing assignments. I’d start them well before their deadlines. And I wrote—early, and, at times, excruciatingly slowly. The process of such writing, primarily research-based or analytical essays, was fraught with fear, worry, and anxiety. I wanted to do almost anything else but write, including reading, taking notes, even memorizing. Putting pen to paper was simply too painful. Thank goodness I started on assignments as early as a I did. The end product was good, perhaps even great at times. But it simply didn’t reflect the agony I went through to produce it. Nor did I feel much of a sense of accomplishment above and beyond earning a high grade—in other words, the external validation for an effort and resulting work product I’d just as soon forget. 

Now, exams were another story. Sure, I felt incredible comparable pressure and anxiety. I lay awake at night running through names, dates, and places (as I was a history major), while fretting I didn’t know the material as well as I should. This anxiety and feared peaked the moments before the exam was distributed, as pristine blue exam booklets lay in front of me, awaiting my entries on their lined pages. 

Then, as I looked over the exam questions, something clicked. Always! Even on the rare occasion when my first glance at the exam question stoked fear and doubt, the ideas instantaneously flowed. My mind was filled with everything I had crammed into it while preparing for the exam. And I started to write. And write. And write. And write. I filled one blue book, then a second, and so on.  I only stopped when I was forced to do so, as final exams were limited to three hours. In some instances, I could have gone on much longer. Nonetheless, I was physically and intellectually exhausted at the end. 

In these circumstances I was focused on emptying my brain of everything I knew that I believed would respond to the exam question before me. I wasn’t nervous, anxious, or worried about what I would write.  If anything, I often felt as though I needed to do no more than continue to move my hand and only feared that I would run out of time before I had the chance to exhaust my knowledge on a particular topic.  I didn’t need to think, as I knew the material so well that it felt like it was a part of me. I simply needed to step aside and let it flow through me onto the pages of the blue book.

One example stands out. I took a class on medieval English history during my senior year of college. My schedule was such that during the designated finals period I had one pending project: the final exam for this course. I had five days to prepare for it. I spent nearly every waking minute of those five days rereading course books and my notes. In the process I internalized a rich narrative about medieval England, chock full of names, dates, places, and corresponding analysis.  

The exam date came. Once again, I started writing immediately and didn’t stop until instructed to do so. I felt as though someone or something else was guiding me, and the ideas simply flowed through my body to the blue book in front of me.

Early during the following semester, I ran into the instructor of the medieval England class. He saw me, shook his head, and said, “Mitchell, your exam. Wow. It was a question of overkill.”

Yes, it was. But more importantly, as I reflect back on this experience, I could see how writing could be a very different kind of experience. One that was difficult, but nonetheless enjoyable as I relaxed and simply let the information and ideas flow from my brain onto the paper or computer screen. Yet it took me several years, and a lot of anxiety and effort, to fully embrace this perspective. Now I do. And I love to write. 

Little did I realize then, as I do now, that everything I needed to know about writing I learned in college—while preparing for and taking written exams. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Not a Writer but a Person Who Writes

I’ve read a lot of books about writing. In fact, I love reading books about writing. There’s an intimacy about the process of writing that the best books in this genre seem to capture. I’m talking about classics by Stephen King, Natalie Goldberg, and Anne Lamott, among others.

None of these authors would claim to teach grammar, punctuation, or writing mechanics. We can look to classics such as Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and William Zinsser’s On Writing Well for guidance on those topics.

But as I’ve learned, writing is a whole lot more than mechanics or narrative development. That’s true even when it’s been explicated by accomplished and celebrated writers. For most of us who use writing as part of our work context is key. Where, when, how, and for whom we work shapes our writing. It determines everything. So much so that we might even see ourselves as mercenaries. We act in humble service to the written word. We aim to help our organizations communicate with key stakeholders. We cannot usually, if at all, write like we want to write. Our writing must adapt, more often than not, in response to some directive. We write, but we may never deign to refer to ourselves as writers. 

Sometimes, we do receive guidance. But as we move from job to job, and organization to organization, that guidance changes. We’re expected to write differently. That might demand we adopt an organization’s formal specific stylistic requirements. Or, we may have to fundamentally change the way we write. 

In other words, how we write changes over time. It must. Sometimes these changes are painful, as change often is; other times, not so much. 

This perspective, and the experiences that inform it, means I refer to myself as a person who writes. I’m not a writer. I struggle to craft prose that serves any one of a number of purposes, all in service to a higher aim. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Personal Branding Starts with An Inside Job

Developing a personal brand starts with an inside job. So, before you trumpet it to the world, you must get clear about who you are, what you stand for, and your values. You must then cultivate an ironclad understanding of the impact of your work. Then, and only then, can you comfortably and confidently share your brand with others. 

This course of action rings especially true if you want to be authentic and transparent. You cannot simply wish them into existence. Rather, they represent ideal states we must continue to work towards achieving over time.

As a result, one’s so-called “brand” often reflects an individual, transactional focus. It’s devoid of the perspective and insight that being out in the world can offer. In other words, you cannot lock yourself in a room to map out your “personal brand” devoid of the broader context.

I know that when my interests, values, and activities conflict, it’s uncomfortable, even painful.  Ultimately, I am less than satisfied with professional opportunities that I encounter.

More importantly, when you tout a personal brand that doesn’t match who you actually are, I believe it’s patently obvious to others. That only hurts you over time. 

Yes, we need to define ourselves lest others do so to our disadvantage. Yet action divorced from deeply held and felt beliefs and values is doomed to fail. So, look inward before you communicate outward, if you hope to build a personal brand that lasts. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Should I Attend School Online or in a Traditional Classroom?

I recently responded to a Reddit query from an individual seeking guidance on whether to attend school online to earn his degree. To that end, I share what I've learned and observed as an instructor and student in online and traditional classrooms settings.

I rely heavily on visual and verbal cues in the classroom, not to mention the energy of a live audience. If you find that environment most conducive for learning, you may struggle with online work as much of what I described is absent or markedly different (and takes time to adjust to).

Studying online seems to require more effort. For one, it’s easy to get distracted (you think you can multitask because no one sees you). Second, staring at a computer screen can be more exhausting than going to a physical classroom

These points aside, online learning works well if you’re disciplined, truly committed to learning (and not just doing the bare minimum to pass), and desire/benefit from the greater flexibility online classes can offer. Example: if you’re a night owl, you could attend class then (assuming it’s not a live class).

In short, online learning also makes a ton of sense if a) you want to earn a degree not offered by a university in your geographic area; 2) you neither have the time or desire to travel to a physical location to attend class; and/or c) the traditional university experience isn’t that important to you.