That which is bigger than us

We learn about things that are bigger than ourselves in layers, and we accomplish tasks that are bigger than ourselves one step at a time.

 

In college, this knowledge came as a revelation to me. Instead of learning, memorizing and standing atop a field of knowledge, knowledge was something that was created in pieces. Knowledge came to be about process.

 

In graduate school, I again came to relish the mystery of the analytic process through the activities of conversation analysis and discourse analysis. Over and again, I began with a small piece of data, like a conversation or a snippet of video, and watched it come to life through rounds of observation. Something that began as a digestible piece that wouldn’t necessarily attract attention became a multilayered journey into all of the pieces that comprise the situated social actions we make every day.

 

As a parent, I learned almost immediately that parenthood was bigger than me. I learned that I couldn’t be, do or know it all, and I learned that the choices and priorities I made dramatically governed the shape of my family. I learned that I could not be perfect in anyone’s eyes, and I could never measure up to every standard by which I was being measured. I learned that I was ultimately responsible for something I valued more than I had imagined possible, and that I ultimately had to accept and embrace my unique approach to the task. I could only strive to be a parent in the ways in which I was capable, and I could never fit anyone else’s vision. I learned that my shortcomings had to be a bridge of understanding to other parents, who also found themselves unequal to the task at their hands.

 

In my professional life, I’ve learned to relish the possibilities and opportunities that teamwork can bring. As a team we can achieve far more and greater things than we could ever achieve as individuals, and that which we can accomplish can be an inspiration. As a manager the most I could wish for is a team that is inspired by process and by potential, who can love the work and love the product of that work.

 

Ultimately, that’s what I wish for all things that are bigger than myself. Inspiration, pride, a love of the journey and the process- to love life and be surrounded by others who love life, in all its complications, challenges, ups and downs.

 

But all of this talk of inspiration neglects the other side of things that are bigger than us. When we make choices of where to focus our time and energy, other elements are always neglected. As a parent, I have to remind myself that I may not be a go-to mom at bake sale time, but I have other qualities to offer my kids. Even as we work to get things done there is always an undercurrent of things not getting done. And there are times when the journey ahead is more daunting than inspiring. There are the moments when all of the work we’ve accomplished becomes undone before our eyes. There are the toddlers behind us as we clean, some more and some less metaphorical, dumping toys and laughing. And there are the mountains ahead that seem to be too big to climb.

 

There is a TED talk that has been making the rounds lately about emotional hygiene. In it, the speaker talks about how we handle failure and disappointments. We all encounter failures and disappointments, small and large, every day. We conquer our to-do lists one day, only to see them build back up the next day. Sometimes our hard work is unrecognized. Sometimes our efforts are not enough. It’s one thing to love process, but what do we do when the process can’t fit the task ahead? How do we handle ambiguity? To Ignore these challenges is to undercut the complicated texture of life.

I believe that part of embracing life is to embrace the mess; to embrace that which is bigger than ourselves; to keep feeling around the darkness until we find our way; to have faith that there is a path through the darkness, to continually double back to our rocks; to embrace the challenges and embrace our core that guides us through them; to recognize the downs and the ups, and to know where within ourselves to find the strength to persevere. These moments, these challenges allow us to be hear, see and do that which is much grander than what we could see, hear achieve alone or in any immediate sense. These are the elements that give depth to our lives. These are the challenges that define our lives and make life worth living.

Ruby slippers? The professional skills that parenthood builds

As a parent of older children, I am strongly aware of the ways in which parenthood has affected my career. I’m also aware of the many professional skills that parenthood has reinforced in me. Lately I’ve found myself discussing these skills with other parents, many of whom had always focused more on the drawbacks of parenting than on the advantages it brings to the workplace. These skills can be like our ruby slippers. They are wonderful, and we’ve developed them along the road without ever realizing what we’ve had.

For example:

1. The buck stops here.

There is a moment in (very) early parenthood when you hear your child cry and wonder what someone will do to soothe them. In the next moment you realize that you (more than anyone else on earth) are the one who is supposed to soothe the child. This is a big step in your transformation into parenthood. This sets the stage for you to advocate for your child, defend your child and soothe your child. But it also transforms you as a person, from someone who expects others to do things to someone who expects to do things yourself. The guts with which you advocate for your children should also help you advocate for yourself and your co workers, and the proactive habits you develop can permeate everything you do, both in the home and in the workplace.

2. Efficiency

Wasting time is a big deal for parents. I am happy to waste time on a kayak, at the beach, or hiking with my kids. But I am not willing to redo work that I have already done. This distinction has made me very aware of my time use and organization. Although multiple layers of checks and balances can be great, I don’t want to read the same email twice, shuffle the same piece of paper twice or spend time trying to figure out where I left off with a project- potentially redoing work that I have already done. My time feels precious, and that drives me to be significantly more organized and efficient. It also drives me to think carefully about process and streamline what I can to maximize quality and minimize unintentional duplication.

3. Prioritizing

There is more work to do than you will ever be able to keep up with. You can’t work full time or overtime and pursue professional development, and then come home and keep a perfectly clean and maintained home, cook a full meal, keep up with the laundry, spend time doing homework and teaching extra lessons, attend PTA and school events, take your kids to lessons of all kinds, do bathtime and bedtime rituals, juggle sick kids and dentist appointments, keep up with all of the bills, paperwork and repairs that arise, exercise regularly, keep up with the news and trends, pursue spiritual fulfillment, participate in your community, develop your hobbies and interests, spend time with your extended family, and enjoy leisure time. You will have to prioritize the things that you find most important and necessary. Thinking strategically about your time is also a really great professional skill that will help you to better organize your time and the time of your team.

4. Reconciling differences

The priorities that you have chosen from the list above will evolve over time, and they will be different from the priorities that others choose. Your priorities will differ from other adults’ priorities, and they will differ from your kids priorities (and their priorities will differ, too!). Somehow you will have to reconcile these differences, and “my way or the highway” will only get you so far. At work you will also find that you have different priorities than other people you work with. Managing differences in priorities is a great professional skill to have.

5. Dealing with personal conflicts

One amazing lesson of parenthood is that just when you are ready to turn and run for cover from your child is just about when you need to spend more time together. Find a change of scenery and an activity that you both enjoy, and retreat to it together. Whatever challenge you were stuck on will usually become much easier to pull through after a break. The same trap of pulling away and developing conflicts happens in professional environments. These traps can grow into irreconcilable differences if they are left to fester, but they can often be little more than small bumps in the road if they are caught and acted on early.

6. Gratitude for intellectual challenges

I love parenthood. But as much as I LOVE Boynton and Dr Seuss books, I am also very happy to balance out family time with activities that stretch my mind and make me think. Before I became a parent I took a career for granted. Of course I would always be working! But in the early days of parenthood it sometimes felt like a miracle to walk into the office on time, fully dressed, and rested enough to do my work. I am very fortunate to not only have a job that supports my family, but to have a job that keeps me intellectually stimulated and interested. I am interested in research methodology, and I am extremely grateful to be able to pursue that interest. For someone who had labeled solo trips to the grocery time “me time” for years, graduate school felt almost like a really great book club. It was an excuse to read great books, write interesting papers and have regular discussions with adults who shared some of the same interests. A career is not just a responsibility; it is a privilege.

7. Explanations, explanations and more explanations

I spent a few nights while I was in graduate school reading academic articles to my family and explaining why they were so cool and interesting. I also practice talks with my family, taking detours to make sure they understand what I’m saying. Being able to communicate about your work with any audience is a real gift. Not only does it help you develop a great understanding of your work, it helps prepare you to interact with a wide variety of people.

 
There are many more topics along these lines that I could cover, and maybe I will cover them another day. But for now I hope you’ve taken some inspiration from the advantages that parenthood brings to a career. Parenting can make you more focused, more proactive, better able to deal with an array of people, and more grateful for work and the challenges it brings. It brings challenges, but it also fortifies you.

A Postcard from Japan

Hi all,

This week I returned from a 10 day trip to Japan, and I figured I would share some pictures with you.

The first pictures were taken on the plane ride over. We flew over the frozen Midwestern US and Canada and over the Bering Strait, and the view was breathtaking:

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And finally we were over Japan!

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Our home base in Japan was a place called Nobi, which is in the Muira peninsula, west of Yokohama and Yokosuka but not all the way to Muirakaigan:

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We spent some time exploring the Muira Peninsula, which included Yokosuka, home of the Japanese and American naval bases:

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and Yokohama, second largest city in Japan, home of a famously large Chinatown with a few nice temples inside:

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as well as many natural wonders, including Muirakaigan beach and Jogachima island:

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Kamakura is also on the Muira peninsula. Kamakura has many beautiful shrines, great shopping and food, and the third largest Buddha in Japan- which was hollow (we were able to step inside) .

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Tokyo is North of Muira and full of many kinds of wonders, from gardens, shrines and temples to buildings, nightlife and neighborhoods with very distinct characters. We explored many of the different areas of Tokyo:

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We also attended a drum festival in the town of Narita, which most people only know for the large international airport. This was a truly amazing experience! As we walked from the subway to the big temple we passed many shops, ate amazing street food and saw smaller drum performances. The main performance was on the steps of the big temple, and we were able to explore the grounds and gardens and return to see drumming by fire at sunset. Once the performance ended we followed the main road back to the city, but now it was dark outside, the shop lights were low, and the shopkeepers had set candles out to line the path.

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Truly an amazing experience- thank you for sharing!

 

 

Professional Identity: Who am I? And who are you?

Last night I acted as a mentor at the annual Career Exploration Expo sponsored by my graduate program. Many of the students had questions about developing a professional identity. This makes sense, of course, because graduate school is an important time for discovering and developing a professional identity.

People enter our program (and many others) With a wide variety of backgrounds and interests. They choose from a variety of classes that fit their interests and goals. And then they try to map their experience onto job categories. But boxes are difficult to climb into and out of, and students soon discover that none of the boxes is a perfect fit.

I experienced this myself. I entered the program with an extensive and unquestioned background in survey research. Early in my college years (while I was studying and working in neuropsychology) I began to manage a clinical dataset in SPSS. Working with patients and patient files was very interesting, but to my surprise working with data using statistical software felt right to me much in the way that Ethiopian meals include injera and Japanese meals include rice (IC 2006 (1997) Ohnuki Tierney Emiko). I was actually teased by my friends about my love of data! This affinity served me well, and I enjoyed working with a variety of data sets while moving across fields and statistical programming languages.

But my graduate program blew my mind. I felt like I had spent my life underwater and then discovered the sky and continents. I discovered many new kinds of data and analytic strategies, all of which were challenging and rewarding. These discoveries inspired me to start this blog and have inspired me to attend a wide variety of events and read some very interesting work that I never would have discovered on my own. Hopefully followers of this blog have enjoyed this journey as much as I have!

As a recent graduate, I sometimes feel torn between worlds. I still work as a survey researcher, but I’m inspired by research methods that are beyond the scope of my regular work. Another recent graduate of our program who is involved in market research framed her strategy in a way that really resonated with me: “I give my customers what they want and something else, and they grow to appreciate the ‘something else.'” That sums up my current strategy. I do the survey management and analysis that is expected of me in a timely, high quality way. But I am also using my newly acquired knowledge to incorporate text analysis into our data cleaning process in order to streamline it, increasing both the speed and the quality of the process and making it better equipped to handle the data from future surveys. I do the traditional quantitative analyses, but I supplement them  with analyses of the open ended responses that use more flexible text analytic strategies. These analyses spark more quantitative analyses and make for much better (richer, more readable and more inspired) reports.

Our goal as professionals should be to find a professional identity that best capitalizes on  our unique knowledge, skills and abilities. There is only one professional identity that does all of that, and it is the one you have already chosen and continue to choose every day. We are faced with countless choices about what classes to take, what to read, what to attend, what to become involved in, and what to prioritize, and we make countless assessments about each. Was it worthwhile? Did I enjoy it? Would I do it again? Each of these choices constitutes your own unique professional self, a self which you are continually manufacturing. You are composed of your past, your present, and your future, and your future will undoubtedly be a continuation of your past and present. The best career coach you have is inside of you.

Now your professional identity is much more uniquely or narrowly focused that the generic titles and fields that you see in the professional marketplace. Keep in mind that each job listing that you see represents a set of needs that a particular organization has. Is this a set of needs that you are ready to fill? Is this a set of needs that you would like to fill? You are the only one who knows the answers to these questions.

Because it turns out that you are your best career coach, and you have been all along.

In praise of getting things wrong and working toward better

“An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field” -Niels Bohr

I’ve been reading “In the Plex,” a book about the history of Google by Steven Levy. I highly recommend this book, because as I read it I am increasingly aware of the ways in which Google’s constant presence invisibly shapes our daily lives. Levy makes a point in the book of attributing some of Google’s constant evolution to its obsession with failure. In search terms, isolating failures is relatively easy- if people soon return to the search page, reframe their query, or continue down through lower ranked results their search was a relative failure. Failures are identified and isolated by Google and then obsessed over until the PageRank algorithm can be appropriately tweaked in a way that passes rigorous testing protocols.

In this way, Google is similar to an increasing number of failure- focused initiatives, including some of the engineering based models that have been applied to healthcare and more. These voices are increasingly the source of innovations that are continually shaping and reshaping our future. But the rhetoric of failure and success of its evangelizers can be hard for us to wrap our heads around, as people who naturally fear, avoid and focus on failure in a negative way.

Over the weekend, while I was practicing Yoga I told one of my kids my favorite part of the practice (note: not a good time for chatting). I love that Yoga is a process. One day you will be able to do something that you may or may not be able to do the next day, and vice versa. My practice involves quite a bit of balancing on one foot, and there are days when that balance feels effortless and days when that balance feels impossible. But the effortless days only come because I continue to practice despite the disappointments of my wobblier days. Yoga instructors sometimes talk about the power of intentions and working in ways that align with our intentions. One of my kids pointed out that the wobbly days, as I call them, are exactly the reason why she hates Yoga. She’s believes that she’s no good at it, and because of her assessment she will avoid it. You can probably guess that this conversation is far from over between us.

We see attitudes like these affecting people (including ourselves) every day. Some people theorize that the lower representation of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields is due to a larger proportion of women than men who doubt their abilities or judge their abilities more harshly. We hear about graduate students who experience what is sometimes called the ‘imposter syndrome.’ I remember some students in my graduate classes who chose not to participate in class for fear they would sound stupid. I’ve heard of medical practitioners who were so worried that they would make another mistake that they were afraid to practice. As a writer, I know that the power of self doubt can cause writers block, but I also know how much easier it is to edit or rewrite.

I would encourage all of you to embrace your failures, your mistakes, your shortcomings, your missteps and your errors and see them as part of a process and not an endpoint. These stumbling points are the key points of growth- the key moments for us to learn and to redirect our actions to better suit our intentions. To err is human, but to learn from our missteps is surely something greater.

What next, after graduation?

A question that recent graduates are often asked is “what next, now that you’ve graduated?” This is a different question for graduates in different stages of their lives. When I finished my bachelor’s I could answer with the types of jobs I was applying to and my plans of where to live next. In fact, I wasn’t one to leave these big questions unanswered: I moved and began a full-time research position within a few weeks of my last set of finals. I was eager to begin my life without school. Nine months later I began another research position, chosen because of the shear intensity and rigor of the interview (I had two interviewers firing questions at me, and I loved it. Crazy, right?). At this point, I’ve been at the second job for about 14 years.

What keeps you at a job for 14 years? This is an important question, because keeping with a job when everything is not fresh and new is a special sort of challenge. There have been a few keys:

1. Stay in the moment. There are quite a few different projects that I juggle at once, and I work on each project across multiple stages. For each of these stages in the research process, I have elements that I particularly enjoy. I try to focus on these key elements while I work on each project.

2. Know yourself. As a worker, I know that I have little patience for repetitive tasks. I tend to be very hardworking and productive, but when tasks become repetitive I quickly get distracted. If I can, I always delegate these tasks away. If I can’t, I juggle them with other projects that complement them, such as tasks that I need to spend more time thinking strategically about or tasks that either have a deadline or can be given a set of short term goals. This way, I feel productive and maintain my morale.

3. Feed yourself. I’ve also learned that I hunger to learn new things. I take advantage of every opportunity to learn new things, to share the new knowledge with my coworkers, and to integrate the things I learn into my work. This keeps my projects fresh. In addition to the standard, core reports that I produce, for example, I add new kinds of analyses or data. This makes the reports more interesting to produce, and it probably keeps them fresh for the reader as well.

4. Maintain relationships. I’ve been lucky enough to work with people I genuinely enjoy and to see them through marriages, graduations, births, deaths, as well as the silly packages they recieve at work. This helps to make work an enjoyable place.

5. Keep moving. Go to the gym, if you can. Go on a walk, if you can. Get up and stretch. Drink a lot of fluids.

Now, back to the question. “What next, after graduation?” For me, this is not a question with a clear, obvious answer. School disturbs the equillibrium of every day life. Juggling work, school and family left me on a constant cycle of challenges and [mostly] successes. How do you come down from that? What happens to that level of productivity? As a mom, there is a looming stack of laundry, dishes and other household tasks always waiting at the ready. In the past week alone, I’ve spent over 6 hours doing make-up gymnastic lessons (with another 2.5 hours coming tomorrow!). Life expands to fit any empty spaces. But given a trade-off between reading Blommaert and folding laundry…

I read a commencement speech by Daniel Foster Wallace that addressed the monotony of life and the power of being alive through the seemingly routine moments. I plan to do just that, but I was shocked to see it laid out in a commencement address. To be a student is to be saddled with the potential of what life could be, and that stands in such contrast to the smaller, daily joys of life without school. I often wondered how well prepared the students around me who hadn’t yet left academia were for life “on the other side.” Now I can see why some people choose to stay in school! If it weren’t for the many sacrifices my family made in order for me to go to school, I probably would have already enrolled in a PhD program.

The transition is surprisingly difficult, and I haven’t yet figured it out.

Instagram is changing the way I see

I recently joined Instagram (I’m late, I know).

I joined because my daughter wanted to, because her friends had, to see what it was all about. She is artistic, and we like to talk about things like color combinations and camera angles, so Instagram is a good fit for us. But it’s quickly changing the way I understand photography. I’ve always been able to set up a good shot, and I’ve always had an eye for color. But I’ve never seriously followed up on any of it. It didn’t take long on Instagram to learn that an eye for framing and color is not enough to make for anything more than accidental great shots. The great shots that I see are the ones that pick deeper patterns or unexpected contrasts out of seemingly ordinary surroundings. They don’t simply capture beauty, they capture an unexpected natural order or a surprising contrast, or they tell a story. They make you gasp or they make you wonder. They share a vision, a moment, an insight. They’re like the beginning paragraph of a novel or the sketch outline of a poem. Realizing that, I have learned that capturing the obvious beauty around me is not enough. To find the good shots, I’ll need to leave my comfort zone, to feel or notice differently, to wonder what or who belongs in a space and what or who doesn’t, and why any of it would capture anyone’s interest. It’s not enough to see a door. I have to wonder what’s behind it. To my surprise, Instagram has taught me how to think like a writer again, how to find hidden narratives, how to feel contrast again.

Sure this makes for a pretty picture. But what is unexpected about it? Who belongs in this space? Who doesn't? What would catch your eye?

Sure this makes for a pretty picture. But what is unexpected about it? Who belongs in this space? Who doesn’t? What would catch your eye?

This kind of change has a great value, of course, for a social media researcher. The kinds of connections that people forge on social media, the different ways in which people use platforms and the ways in which platforms shape the way we interact with the world around us, both virtual and real, are vitally important elements in the research process. In order to create valid, useful research in social media, the methods and thinking of the researcher have to follow closely with the methods and thinking of the users. If your sensemaking process imitates the sensemaking process of the users, you know that you’re working in the right direction, but if you ignore the behaviors and goals of the users, you have likely missed the point altogether. (For example, if you think of Twitter hashtags simply as an organizational scheme, you’ve missed the strategic, ironic, insightful and often humorous ways in which people use hashtags. Or if you think that hashtags naturally fall into specific patterns, you’re missing their dialogic nature.)

My current research involves the cycle between social media and journalism, and it runs across platforms. I am asking questions like ‘what gets picked up by reporters and why?’ and ‘what is designed for reporters to pick up?’ And some of these questions lead me to examine the differences between funny memes that circulate like wildfire through Twitter leading to trends and a wider stage and the more indepth conversation on public facebook pages, which cannot trend as easily and is far less punchy and digestible. What role does each play in the political process and in constituting news?

Of course, my current research asks more questions than these, but it’s currently under construction. I’d rather not invite you into the workzone until some of the pulp and debris have been swept aside…