Three Stories: #3 Taking Time for Cats

There are a number of draft posts sitting on this blog. Posts, which for one reason or another, I’ve either never finished, because the inspiration ran out, or I’ve never published, because I decided not to share them. Most of them were written when I was trying to make sense of being too busy, while at the same time I was taking on more work and feeling bad about not being able to commit properly to everything. I probably won’t ever share many of these posts but I still want to talk about some of the themes.

So, let me tell you a story about  cats.

One of the things about cats is that they can be mercurial, creatures of fancy and rapid mood changes. You can spend all day trying to get a cat to sit on your lap and, once you’ve given up and sat back down, 5 minutes later you find a cat on your lap. That’s just the way of cats.

When I was very busy last year, and the year before, I started to see feedback comments from my students that said things like “Nick is great but I feel interrupting him” or I’d try and squeeze them into the 5 minutes I had between other things. Now, students are not cats, but they do have times when they feel they need to come and see you and, sometimes, when that time passes, the opportunity is lost. This isn’t just students, of course, this is people. That’s just the way of people, too. No matter how much you want them to be well organised, predictable and well behaved, sometimes they’re just big, bipedal, mostly hairless cats.

One day, I decided that the best way to make my change my frantic behaviour was to set a small goal, to make me take the time I needed for the surprising opportunities that occurred in a day.

I decided that every time I was walking around the house, even if I was walking out to go to work and thought I was in a hurry, if one of the cats came up to me, I would pay attention to it: scratch it, maybe pick it up, talk to it, and basically interact with the cat.

Over time, of course, what this meant was that I saw more of my cats and I spent more time with them (cats are mercurial but predictable about some things). The funny thing was that the 5 minutes or so I spent doing this made no measurable difference to my day. And making more time for students at work started to have the same effect. Students were happier to drop in to see if I could spend some time with them and were better about making appointments for longer things.

Now, if someone comes to my office and I’m not actually about to rush out, I can spend that small amount of time with them, possibly longer. When I thought I was too busy to see people, I was. When I thought I had time to spend with people, I could.

Yes, this means that I have to be a little more efficient and know when I need to set aside time and do things in a different way, but the rewards are enormous.

I only realised the true benefit of this recently. I flew home from a work trip to Melbourne to discover that my wife and one of our cats, Quincy, were at the Animal Emergency Hospital, because Quincy couldn’t use his back legs. There was a lot of uncertainty about what was wrong and what could be done and, at one point, he stopped eating entirely and it was… not good there for a while.

The one thing that made it even vaguely less awful in that difficult time was that I had absolutely no regrets about the time that we’d spent together over the past 6 months. Every time Quincy had come up to say ‘hello’, I’d stopped to take some time with him. We’d lounged on the couch. He’d napped with me on lazy Sunday afternoons. We had a good bond and, even when the vets were doing things to him, he trusted us and that counted for a lot.

Quincy is now almost 100% and is even more of a softie than before, because we all got even closer while we were looking after him. By spending (probably at most) another five minutes a day, I was able to be happier about some of the more important things in my life and still get my “real” work done.

Fortunately, none of my students are very sick at the moment, but I am pretty confident that I talk to them when they need to (most of the time, there’s still room for improvement) and that they will let me know if things are going badly – with any luck at a point when I can help.

Your time is rarely your own but at least some of it is. Spending it wisely is sometimes not the same thing as spending it carefully. You never actually know when you won’t get the chance again to spend it on something that you value.

Three Stories: #2 Why I Don’t Make New Year’s Resolutions

This is a story I’ve never told anyone before, but I hope that it will help to explain why I think many students struggle with making solid change in their academic and life practices. They focus on endpoints and set deadlines reactively, rather than focusing on process and finding a good time to change. Let me explain this in the narrative.

When I was younger, I was quite a bit heavier than I am now – by about 30% of my body mass. As I got older, this became more of a problem and my weight went up and down quite a lot as I tried to get a regular regime of exercise into my life and cut back on my eating. Unfortunately, when I get stressed, I tend to eat, and one of the things I used to get stressed about was … losing weight. It’s a common, vicious, circle. Anyway, one year, after a Christmas where I had found it difficult to fit into my ‘good’ clothes and just felt overstuffed and too hot most of the time, I decided that enough was enough. I would make a New Year’s Resolution to lose weight. Seriously. (As background, Christmas in Australia is in Summer, so we sing snows about snow and eat roast turkey while sitting around in 90-100F/32-38C heat – so if your clothes are squeezy, boy, are you going to feel it.)

I can’t remember the details of the New Year’s Eve party but I do remember waking up the next day and thinking “Ok, so now I lose weight”. But there were some problems.

  1. It was still very hot.
  2. Everything was closed because it was a public holiday.
  3. I was still stuffed from Christmas/NY indulgence.
  4. I was hungover.
  5. I had no actual plan.
  6. I hadn’t actually taken any steps towards either dietary change or exercise that I could implement.

So, instead of getting out of bed and doing anything healthy, I thought “Oh, ok, I’ll start tomorrow.” because it was just about impossible, to my mind, to get things started on that day. I made some plans as to what I’d do the next day and thought “Ok, that’s what I’ll do tomorrow.”

But then a friend called on the 2nd and they were in town so we caught up. Then I was back at work and it was really busy.

And… and… and…

When I finally did lose the weight, many years later, and get to a more stable point, it wasn’t through making a resolution – it was through developing a clear plan to achieve a goal. I set out to work up to walking 10 miles as loops around my block. Then, when I achieved that, I assessed myself and realised that I could replace that with running. So then, ever time I went out, I ran a little at the start and walked the rest. Finally I was (slowly) running the whole distance. Years later, a couple of bad falls have stopped me from long-distance running, but I have three marathons and numerous halves under my belt.

Why didn’t it work before? Well, lack of preparation is always bad, but also because New Year’s is one of the worst possible times to try and make a massive change unless you’ve actually prepared for it and the timing works for you. Think about it:

  1. New Year’s Eve is a highly social activity for many people as are the days after- any resolutions involving food, alcohol, sex or tobacco are going to much harder to keep.
  2. It’s high stakes, especially if you make your resolution public. Suddenly, failure is looming over you and other people may be either trying to force you into keeping your resolution – and some people will actively be trying to tempt you out of it.
  3. There’s just a lot going on around this time for most people and it’s not a time when you have lots of extra headspace. If your brain is already buzzing, making big change will make it harder.
  4. Setting your resolution as a goal is not the same as setting a strategy. This is really important if you fall off the wagon, so to speak. If you are trying to give up smoking but grab a quick cigarette on the 3rd, then your resolution is shot. If you have a plan to cut down, allowing for the occasional divergence, then you can be human without thinking “Oh, now I have to abandon the whole project.”
  5. New Year’s Resolutions tend to be tip of the mind things – if something had been really bothering you for months, why wait until NYE to do it? This means that you’re far less likely to think everything out.

After thinking over this for quite a long time, I’ve learned a great deal about setting goals for important changes and you have to try to make these changes:

  1. When you have a good plan as to what you’re trying to achieve or what you’re just trying to do as a regular practice.
  2. When you have everything you need to make it work.
  3. When you have enough headspace to think it through.
  4. When you won’t beat yourself up too badly if it goes wrong.

So have a Happy New Year and be gentle on yourself for a few days. If you really want to change something in your life, plan for it properly and you stand a much better chance of success. Don’t wait until a high stakes deadline to try and force change on yourself – it probably won’t work.


Three Stories: #1 What I Learned from Failure

It’s considered bad form to start ‘business stories’ with “Once upon a time” but there’s a strong edge of bard to my nature and it’s the end of a long year. (Let’s be generous.) So, are you sitting comfortably? (Ok, I’ll spare you ‘Once…’)

Many years ago, I went to university, after a relatively undistinguished career at school. I got into a course that was not my first preference but, rather than wonder why I had not set the world on fire academically, I assumed that it was because I hadn’t really tried. The companion to this sentiment is that I could achieve whatever I wanted academically, as long as I really wanted it and actually tried. This concept, that I could achieve anything academic I wanted if I tried, got a fairly good workout over the next few years, despite evidence that I was heading in a downward spiral academically. What I became good at was barely avoiding failure, rather than excelling, and while this is a skill, it’s a dangerous line to try and walk. If you’re genuinely aiming to excel, which includes taking the requisite planning steps and time commitment you need, and you fall short then you will probably still do quite well and pass. If you are focused lower down, then missing that bar means failure.

What I didn’t realise at the time was that I was almost doomed to fail when I tried to set my own interpretation of what constituted the right level of effort and participation. If you are a student who has a good knowledge of the whole course then you will have a pretty good idea of how you have answered questions in exams, what is required for assignments and, if you wanted to, you could choose to answer part of a question and have some idea of how many marks are involved. If you don’t know the material in detail, then your perception of your own performance is going to be heavily filtered by your own lack of knowledge. (A reminder of a previous post on this for those who are new here or are vague post-Christmas.)

After some years out in the workforce, and coming back to do postgraduate study, I finally learned something from what should have been quite clear to me, if it hadn’t been hidden by two things: my firm conviction that I could change things immediately if I wished to, and my completely incorrect assumption that my own performance in a subject could be assessed by someone with my level of knowledge!

I became a good student because I finally worked out three key things (with a lot of help and support from my teachers and my friends);

  1. There is no “lower threshold” of knowledge that allows you to predict if you’re going to pass. If you have enough grasp of the course to know how much you need to do to pass, then you probably know enough to do much better than that! (Terry Pratchett covers this beautifully in a book called “Moving Pictures“, where a student has to know the course better than the teachers to maintain a very specific grade over the years.)
  2. Telling yourself that you “could have done better” is almost completely useless unless you decide to do better and put a plan in place to achieve that. This excuse gets you off the hook but, unless it’s teamed with remedial action, it’s just an excuse.
  3. Setting yourself up for failure is just as effective as setting yourself up for success, but it can be far subtler and comprised of many small actions that you don’t take, rather than a few actions that you do take.

Knowing what is going wrong (or thinking you do) doesn’t change anything unless you actively try to change it. It’s a simple truth that, I hope, is a useful and interesting story.

A Break in the Silence: Time to Tell a Story

It has been a while since I last posted here but that is a natural outcome of focusing my efforts elsewhere – at some stage I had to work out what I had time to do and do it. I always tell my students to cut down to what they need to do and, once I realised that the time I was spending on the blog was having one of the most significant impacts on my ability to juggle everything else, I had to eat my own dogfood and cut back on the blog.

Of course, I didn’t do it correctly because instead of cutting back, I completely cut it out. Not quite what I intended but here’s another really useful piece of information: if you decide to change something then clearly work out how you are going to change things to achieve your goal. Which means, ahem, working out what your goals are first.

I’ve done a lot of interesting stuff over the last 6 months, and there are more to come, which means that I do have things to write about but I shall try and write about one a week as a minimum, rather than one per day. This is a pace that I hope to keep up and one that will mean that more of you will read more of what I write, rather than dreading the daily kiloword delivery.

I’ll briefly reflect here on some interesting work and seminars I’ve been looking at on business storytelling – taking a personal story, something authentic, and using it to emphasise a change in business behaviour or to emphasise a characteristic. I recently attended one of the (now defunct) One Thousand and One’s short seminars on engaging people with storytelling. (I’m reading their book “Hooked” at the moment. It’s quite interesting and refers to other interesting concepts as well.) I realise that such ideas, along with many of my notions of design paired with content, will have a number of readers peering at the screen and preparing a retort along the lines of “Storytelling? STORYTELLING??? Whatever happened to facts?”

Why storytelling? Because bald facts sometimes just don’t work. Without context, without a way to integrate information into existing knowledge and, more importantly, without some sort of established informational relationship, many people will ignore facts unless we do more work than just present them.

How many examples do you want: Climate Change, Vaccination, 9/11. All of these have heavily weighted bodies of scientific evidence that states what the answer should be, and yet there is powerful and persistent opposition based, largely, on myth and storytelling.

Education has moved beyond the rationing out of approved knowledge from the knowledge rich to those who have less. The tyrannical informational asymmetry of the single text book, doled out in dribs and drabs through recitation and slow scrawling at the front of the classroom, looks faintly ludicrous when anyone can download most of the resources immediately. And yet, as always, owning the book doesn’t necessarily teach you anything and it is the educator’s role as contextualiser, framer, deliverer, sounding board and value enhancer that survives the death of the drip-feed and the opening of the flood gates of knowledge. To think that storytelling is the delivery of fairytales, and that is all it can be, is to sell such a useful technique short.

To use storytelling educationally, however, we need to be focused on being more than just entertaining or engaging. Borrowing heavily from “Hooked”, we need to have a purpose in telling the story, it needs to be supported by data and it needs to be authentic. In my case, I have often shared stories of my time in working with  computer networks, in short bursts, to emphasise why certain parts of computer networking are interesting or essential (purpose), I provide enough information to show this is generally the case (data) and because I’m talking about my own experiences, they ring true (authenticity).

If facts alone could sway humanity, we would have adopted Dewey’s ideas in the 1930s, instead of rediscovering the same truths decade after decade. If only the unembellished truth mattered, then our legal system would look very, very different. Our students are surrounded by talented storytellers and, where appropriate, I think those ranks should include us.

Now, I have to keep to the commitment I made 8 months ago, that I would never turn down the chance to have one of my cats on my lap when they wanted to jump up, and I wish you a very happy new year if I don’t post beforehand.