Ready to roll (or teach)

Yesterday I mentioned CS Unplugged. Today I’m helping out, somewhat last minute, at a CS Unplugged event that I didn’t even know about yesterday! Perhaps I should write a post about “Nick gets lots of free money given to him” and keep my fingers crossed?

This does actually segue into something semi-useful and blogworthy in that my general principle in my career is “always be ready to seize a new opportunity”. I stick my hand up for a lot of things but I never stick my hand up if I don’t think that I would do a good job. The price to pay here is that you must always know what you can do, what you have time to do and, harder, have a good enough vision of the future to have the right skills.

I don’t pretend to be an expert here but I have a short list of things that I do that help me to do this:

  1. I prepare myself for the idea that opportunities could come along and think about how and why I should accept them.
  2. I talk to lots of people. I attend events, talk shop, listen, contribute, write several blogs, read just about everything I get sent, send a lot of things on and, generally, try and stay as connected as possible. Why? Because then I know what is happening in my own discipline, in my own Uni and in my own country. Very few announcements are surprises to me because the (much more informed) people I’ve been speaking to have seen it in the wind and suggested it as a possibility. Other people think that I may be able to help them, which means that they may get in touch with me later.
  3. I write down my ideas and what it would take to make them happen. When I have a good idea, I generally discuss it or write it up as a possible funding opportunity – or just sketch out a plan for it. If you came to me tomorrow and said “Nick, I have 10K/30K/100K/1M for a project” I can have an outline to you in about 10 minutes. Wow, that seems a bit… creepy. Why are you planning for money you don’t have? Aha, it’s because…
  4. I have a long term focus. Research this year turns into papers next year turns into grant applications the year after that. Teaching plans for next year have to start now. I don’t naturally have a long term focus! I like to work day-to-day like normal people but I kept finding that I ran out of time because I never really knew what to do next. I referred before to the joys of the pipeline and admitted that I’m naturally not good at this. But that leads me to point 4.
  5. Not being good at something isn’t an excuse. It’s not an excuse for our students (there’s a lot of difference between ‘not enough practice’ and ‘zero aptitude’) so it’s not an excuse for us. This is especially true if it’s part of the job. It’s a hard job. It’s a great job. It’s being responsible for the provision of knowledge to the next generation of scientists, teachers, educators, people, parents, children – it’s the whole human race that we’re working with here. Not being good at something is an opportunity to get better.
  6. I work out when I should say no. I am a hopeless overcommitter but I have now reached a level where I can’t fit any more in so I say ‘No’ more often. I have no kids and my wife is another academic so she has the same time pressures – I have a great deal of time flexibility at home. But I still need to hang out, relax, eat and sleep or I will go mad.  But some things are time critical. While I was writing this a mail came in asking if I could have something (that didn’t have a solid deadline) ready in a week. I thought about it and decided to say ‘Yes’. If I work on this tonight, I can do it. It’s definitely worth it to do this and I want to do this project so I can spend a couple of hours in front of the computer instead of watching Doctor Who re-runs. It’s a delicate balancing act but some of the best opportunities have no initial load or money associated with them – they are overtime eaters until they pay off. If they pay off…
  7. Not everything pays off but take enough opportunities and one probably will. This is the big one so I’ll finish with it. The more things you try (which you have any chance at success with) the more likely you are to succeed. This is often demoralising, time consuming and, until something does pay off, it often makes you feel that you’re wasting your time. Look at this blog. It’s eating at least half an hour a day and for what? This has no pay off associated with it!

    Or does it?

    Well, it does. It forces me to focus for at least one part of a day that could be filled with admin and research on my teaching! On thinking about how I teach, how I learn, how I think my students learn and what I want to share with the world on this. Every post I write makes me a better writer. Gives me more ideas. Focuses me on teaching as I lead back in to first semester. No-one’s going to give me any cash for this, or load relief, and none of my jobs require this – but working here helps me think about how to manage other opportunities. Something here may one day head off into a seed grant idea. Some of your feedback may make me think about things in a different way.

    Working on this blog prepares me for other opportunities and makes me open to share and receive new knowledge. It’s like a workout for my opportunity muscle.

What do you think? What are the best ways to prepare for an opportunity?


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