Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Eleven Answers

Awhile back, Tragic Sandwich pinged me to answer 11 questions. She's had a stomach flu, so now seems a good time to write a post that is specifically a distraction for her! Also, I want to write a post, but the other topics I have in mind feel too exhausting right now- I am at the tail end of goals and budget season at work, which has left me feeling a bit mushy-brained.

Anyway, here we go- answers to Tragic Sandwich's 11 questions:

1) What was your favorite after-school activity?
I didn't do many in elementary school- I remember one cooking class and one sewing class, and almost taking a Mexican dance class but wimping out because my two best friends wouldn't join me. Mostly I walked home with my older sister, we let ourselves in, and then watched Gilligan's Island and Three's Company and other educational programming.

My main extracurricular in junior high and high school was orchestra, which was during school hours (except for the concerts).


2) What’s one fact or skill you remember learning from your favorite teacher?



Hmmm. I got my favorite quote ("Everything works out well in the end. If things aren't going well, it is not the end yet.") from a college physics professor, but he wasn't really a "favorite teacher."

I really liked my high school chemistry teacher. What skills did I learn? How to use units cancelling as a double check on your work when solving problems. That was a useful thing. He also gave me some really good advice about college- namely, to take the honors classes if I tested into them, because they would be smaller.

3) What’s the most valuable piece of criticism you’ve ever gotten?
That I needed to work on making sure I didn't get too far ahead and lose slower team members work. I still struggle with patience in this regard- but I have gotten better, and try to remember to slow down and explain things to people who might be a little lost.

Actually, the person who gave me this advice- on a performance review, no less!- sometimes reads this blog. Hi, Susan! I don't know if I ever told you how useful that feedback has been. I guess now I have.

4) If you could only eat one vegetable for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Oh boy, I hope I get to eat some meat and starch, too! I am not a big veggie fan. If I had to pick only one, it would probably be spinach, for salads. I like a spinach salad with a nice balsamic vinaigrette!

5) Who is your favorite fictional character?
Elizabeth Bennet. What can I say? I am an Austenite and Elizabeth is the best heroine. Although I also like Anne Eliot. I look forward to introducing my girls to the joys of Jane Austen.
 
6) What color shoes are you wearing right now?

Black flip flops. What little lobsters on the band. I bought them in Newport, Rhode Island, when the shoes I had with me rubbed a blister.

7) What is your favorite vacation spot?

Muri Lagoon, on Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. Which is also where we got married.




Mostly, though, we don't do return visits. We like to see new things. If I picked the place we returned to most, it would actually be Costa Mesa, in Orange County, because that is a favorite spot for a quick night away from the kids.

8) What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done to your hair?

I got an asymmetrical cut in junior high. About the same time, I used to perm it, too. It was the 80s.

9) What time do you usually eat dinner?

6 p.m. This has started to creep later now that I have two separate pick ups to do before I come home to make dinner. And when it is my husband's turn to cook (on weekends), it is always later- he sucks at estimating the amount of time it takes to do things. No one's perfect, I guess.

10) What’s the best moment of your day?
Day care pick up. Petunia comes running over with her arms out for a hug, yelling "Mommmmeeeeeeee!"


Second best moment is picking up Pumpkin and hearing about her day. She's not quite so demonstrative these days, though- no running, yelling hugs!

11) What’s your favorite breakfast food?

Ooh, I love breakfast. Favorite is probably really good pancakes. Most frequent is oatmeal.

That's it! I am supposed to write my own list and tag other people to answer my questions, but... it is time to start the morning routine. Budget spreadsheets await me....

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Weekend Reading: The Sci-Fi Videos Edition

This week's links are more viewing than reading. I have two short sci-fi videos for you. I'll embed them, but you should really blow them up full screen to watch them.

First up, Plurality:


Next, Tears of Steel:


I do have one thing for you to read, found via @CodingHorror's twitter feed. It is an interesting article about the Randian leanings of some tech entrepreneurs.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Identity Crisis

I've been having a low key identity crisis over the past few months. No- I'm not having a mid-life crisis. I'm trying to decide under what name I should publish my upcoming children's book (and probably any other future writing I choose to publish in a non-blog format). I had generally assumed that I would publish under a pseudonym, but lately I've been considering using my real initials and last name.

I've been thinking about showing Pumpkin my book- which is her bedtime story- and explaining why it is not my name on the front. What would I tell her? Would I feel good about my explanation and what it said to her about me, her, and our place in the world?

I do not kid myself and think that I am truly anonymous here. Far from it- anyone who knows me in real life and finds this blog will recognize me, and I am aware that it would be trivially easy for someone who wanted to find out my real name to do so. I have two main reasons for writing pseudonymously: (1) I worry about potential employers googling my name and finding the blog and reading something that makes them not want to hire me, (2) I worry about having something I write about the kids come back later to cause them problems (e.g., teasing at school).

In short, I've thought that by blogging under a pseudonym, I am protecting myself and my family. I have started to rethink that.

On the first issue, what is it that I write that could potentially sour an employer? I used to joke that I didn't want someone who was considering hiring me to find a bunch of posts about how sleep deprived I am- but I am not sleep deprived anymore. The more likely scenario now is that the potential employer disagrees with my more feminist posts or doesn't like my assertion that working long hours is unproductive. I rarely blog directly about my work and never blog anything even close to proprietary. In a fair world, nothing I write would cause me any problems with my career. But we do not live in a fair world, and I know that, so I worry.

Still, I find myself thinking about the worst possible career outcome- namely that I get fired and/or cannot get hired someplace else because of something I write- and find that I don't care. I would not write anything where such an outcome would be justified, so if I did suffer any career repercussions for anything I write, I think I could live with that. I have money in the bank and other ideas about what I could do to make more money. Perhaps I should reject the idea that writing honestly about my life as a mother in the workforce might jeopardize my place in the workforce, not because it couldn't do that, but because it shouldn't do that. I have long felt that the safest course for me in my career is to avoid being linked directly with feminism. Perhaps it is time for me to stop being safe and do my small bit to help make it safer for women in science and technology to be outspoken.

The second issue is trickier. I still would not name my kids on my blog. I don't have the same last name as my children, and my last name is a fairly common one. So realistically, by the time my kids' friends are old enough to find this blog, they would be old enough to break through the thin veil of anonymity I have now- but it isn't likely that they would do so by accident. The more likely concern is that I could pick up a troll who becomes scary, i.e., who figures out who I am in real life and threatens me and my family there. This is very unlikely, but sadly, not impossible. In a sane world, nothing I write here could possibly spur someone to take such hateful steps. But we do not live in a sane world. We live in a world where the outcry and discussion around the outing of the man who created and moderated disgusting and harmful Reddit sites is more around the fact that someone outed him than around the fact that his sites were a safe haven for men who engage in predatory behavior towards women and girls. We live in a world where all young women have to worry about the ever present camera and what an inopportune photo can do to them in the hands of the wrong person. We live in a world where Kathy Sierra can be hounded offline by trolls issuing death threats. We live in a world where Facebook allows disgusting hate speech aimed at women under the guise of "humor" and "satire." And in this world, women are just supposed to shrug and ignore all of this because of "free speech." (Note: most people do not understand what free speech really means.)

But as I've been reading all of the recent news, and reflecting back on the Sierra story (which occurred right around the time I was first becoming active online), I find that my primary emotion isn't fear. It is anger. I am angry that this is the world I have to explain to my girls someday. I am angry that I'll have to coach them to be careful about pictures, and that I'll eventually have to explain about sexists and misogynists and the happy home those people have found for themselves in certain corners of the internet. I am angry that I have to pick my way past that sexism and misogyny online, and that my daughters undoubtedly will, too.

And come to think of it, I am angry that I have to worry at all that writing under my own name about being a working mother and being a feminist could have negative repercussions on my career.

I am sick of this stuff. I want it to get better. Maybe it is time to revisit my old adage to "never give them a reason to disrespect you" and acknowledge that the people who are going to disrespect me and try to hold me back will always find a reason, no matter what I do. I do not kid myself that my reach or importance are anywhere big enough to mean that my decision will make an iota of difference to the rest of the world. But it will matter to me, and to the example I am to my daughters, and that is reason enough to think this through. What message do I want to send them? And how, exactly, do I best protect them from the ugliness that is in this world?

My decision is made, but I am not going to tell you what it is, because I want to hear what you think in the comments. Tell me, please.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Up and Down

Parenting is sort of kicking my butt these days- we are definitely muddling through. I am always tempted to let these rough times go unremarked- why dwell on the hard times?-  but occasionally one of the kids will do something that I want to remember and I'll feel compelled to write a post about it.

Case in point:

This was a good weekend, but a trying one. Petunia got to bring the class stuffed animal Pete, a penguin roughly 2/3 the size of Petunia, home from day care. She was very excited to have Pete with us. Unfortunately, so was Pumpkin, who almost immediately started to whine about how she never got a chance to play with Pete. This wasn't really unexpected, but it was fairly annoying and resulted in a few timeouts and a few dramatic flounces down the hall, complete with slammed bedroom door.

We still had fun with Pete- we took him to a merry-go-round and Mr. Snarky strapped him onto his very own horse, much to Petunia's delight. She insisted that both she and Pete should ride on horses that went up and down, so Mr. Snarky had to stand there and ensure Pete held his seat. It was pretty amusing, really.

But by this evening, I was tired. I was tired of refereeing disagreements between the girls. I was tired of explaining things to the girls- they are both in explanation-intense phases, I guess, and both Petunia's incessant asking of "why?" and Pumpkin's less frequent, but more complicated questions sap my energy. I was tired of paying attention to Petunia's potty needs and cleaning up potty accidents- we've decided to get serious about potty training, which may be my least favorite parenting task, and one that I readily admit we suck at. (On the plus side- this is the last time we'll have to do it!) And I was annoyed that we had managed to get through a rather impressive list of household chores, but that I when I'd finally gotten the chance to sit down at my computer to do the work I needed to complete this weekend I had been interrupted in 15 minutes. To be fair, Mr. Snarky had tried to take Pete and the girls out for a walk with our wagon, but it had started raining and they'd had to come home. That extenuating circumstance is completely irrelevant to the state of my bug database, though.

After bath, I was trying to get the girls dressed and on to snack- I was definitely in the "just plow through until we're through bedtime" mindset and not in a playful, "let's make this all a game" mindset. And Pumpkin just would not cooperate. She was bouncing around on the sofa half-dressed, giggling and cavorting and not listening. I snapped and gave her an ultimatum, which she ignored, and then Mr. Snarky marched her down the hall to her bedroom, wailing. Petunia started crying, too. Neither girl likes to see the other upset, unless, of course, the reason for the upset is that one is being punished for an infraction against the other, in which case the observing child tends to think that the wailing is just the natural course of justice. In this case, Pumpkin's shenanigans had not disturbed Petunia, so she added her protest to her sister's.

I finished getting Petunia into her PJs, and then I went after Pumpkin. She was contrite, and gave me a long hug. I've been trying to give her more of those, since I know that kindergarten is harder than she expected it to be, and the hugs seem to help. I told her I was tired, and we just needed to go have snack and get to bed. She agreed and said "I don't know why, Mommy. I'm so tired, too. I don't know why my body made me bounce around like that."

How could I not smile?

So then I told her that was OK, but that I'd tried to tell her that I was getting mad, and she didn't seem to hear me.

"Oh, I heard you Mommy. I just wasn't listening."

Indeed. 

But it cleared the mood, and we went out and had snack, and then headed to bed, all in a good mood. Until, that is, Petunia insisted I come in and finish getting her down. It was Mr. Snarky's turn, but I am often the required "closer" these days. Luckily for Petunia, I remember when Pumpkin was about the same age, and I was also the required closer for her bedtimes. This may have been what eventually led me to break Pumpkin of the habit of needing company to fall asleep. I suspect a similar fate is in store for Petunia soon. I'm debating whether or not to wait until potty training is further along. Regardless, tonight I just went in and snuggled her, and tried to appreciate the quiet time and the chance to snuggle.

And now I'm off to bed, roughly 30 minutes later than I should be. But I feel better for having written this. Perhaps I should take the time to capture the tough days more often!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Weekend Reading: The Hodgepodge Edition

I have another hodgepodge of links for you. Maybe I should just give up and admit that most weeks, I have a hodgepodge of links... but no, I think I'll cling to the fiction that I do themed links posts a little while longer.

First, I have a couple of work related posts: First Generation American has an awesome post about networking, and my friend @smbaxtersd send me a link to a great post about how there really isn't a shortcut to  learning the skills required to be a data scientist. I think that last one is broadly applicable to many fields- as we discussed last week, you have to put in the effort to build the skills.

On a completely unrelated note, I love the recent article in the Guardian from Ariel Meadow Stallings, which completely captures why I dislike the almost reflexive calling of privilege that I run across sometimes, particularly on feminist sites. You should go read the whole thing, but here is one particularly good quote:

"My priorities with online discourse are dialogue and respect. In my little corner of the online world, I keep my focus on constructive critique and articulate, compassionate communication. Shouting down people who disagree with you (even if I agree with your argument) simply doesn't feel productive or helpful. If I had a dollar for every time we have to delete a blog comment that I personally agreed with because it was stated as an attack … I could shift my whole business model. Being an asshole: it's not just for the GOD HATES FAGS people any more."

She also ends with a great checklist to use before writing a comment. Really, go read that article. It is great.

And of course, there have been lots of posts about Mitt Romney's unfortunate binders full of women. Here are some of my favorites:
And finally, I end with dolphins, who can apparently sleep half of their brain at a time. (Found via this article, which I found via slashdot.) How cool is that? I want to do that! But alas, I cannot. So I should go do the dishes so that I can get to bed and let my whole brain sleep. Happy weekend, everyone!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Imagining How It Could Be

I've written before about how much I liked Mother Nature, by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. It really helped me see how much of the narrative about what is "natural" or "biological" about motherhood in our society is actually cultural. It also raised some interesting thoughts about why our culture has evolved in the way it has. These thoughts are far from fully formed, but I'm sure that the entirely natural male desire to ensure the survival of their genes played a big role. She has an interesting, if a bit disturbing, section about why women might go along with these arrangements, too, in the interest of furthering their own genes' chances. (I'm speaking purely about the biological influences on our behavior, and ignoring the extent to which we can overrule those impulses.)

The book also includes sections that show glimpses of a different way- for instance, in her discussion of the Canela, whom she describes as a "mother-centered" society, and in her discussion of the matriarchal non-human primates. I don't think biology is the whole story, but it is certainly part of the story. And the fact that different species and different human societies have found different mechanisms to meet the same biological goals should help us shake off the stale idea that the reason mothers typically struggle to integrate children into the rest of lives more than fathers do is purely due to the different biological roles of mothers and fathers.

While I was reading Mother Nature, I could almost imagine how we could arrange a society that would let all members- mothers, fathers, people without kids, people whose kids are grown- pursue their interests and ambitions while also ensuring that our kids have the care they need to thrive. Hrdy spends a lot of time discussing the role of allomothers (child-minders who are not the mother), including some fascinating stuff about older women that merits a post of it own. She also describes various ways in which mothers can and do integrate their kids into their "other" lives. Those two things together sparked my imagination, and I started to think about how we could remake our society if we weren't constrained by our patriarchal roots and the fact that so many people have a vested interest in seeing our traditional gender roles stay intact.

After my first daughter was born, I felt the strong urge to care for her that many mothers talk about. This urge truly does have biological foundations, albeit foundations that are quite different than what we often assume- the act of caring for the baby in those first days and weeks appears to be the trigger for the impulse, and not the act of giving birth. Hrdy's discussion of what we actually know about the "maternal instinct" is both in depth and fascinating, but that isn't what I want to discuss in this post. Instead, I'd like to focus on the fact that I did not feel an urge to abandon all my other interests and engage in a single-minded pursuit of caring for my offspring. Judging by the many impassioned posts and comments I've read from new mothers looking to reclaim their sense of self, this was certainly not a unique experience, although it is not one our culture really embraces. For me, the other interests I wanted to maintain were my professional ones. I wanted to go back to work.

My desire to work didn't mean that I didn't want to spend time with my daughter and care for her. I wanted to do both, and I feel like I have found an arrangement that allows me to do both. My arrangement is not perfect, though, and as I read Hrdy's descriptions of how mothers in other societies and even other species do indeed do both, I realized that a lot of the imperfections I see in my own situation are due to the fact that our society as it is currently structured expects most of us to make an either/or choice- or at least, it tells us that we are making that stark either/or choice, when in fact, even with the limited wiggle room available to us now, most mothers do not do that, but instead find ways to combine mothering with other things.

As I said, I think that I am still caring for my daughters- and my time logs support that opinion. I'd argue that a stay at home mother who devotes time and energy to economizing around the house is also making a choice to do both care-giving and other work. It is just that her work is unpaid. I can't actually think of any mothers I know or know of who do nothing but mother their children. And yet, we have largely accepted that the choice as it is currently presented to us is The Way it Has to Be, and we fight amongst ourselves about which choice is The Right One.

If we try to free our imaginations from the constraints set by our current system and think about how it could be if we designed a system from scratch, we can perhaps catch a glimpse of a better way that doesn't force a rigid choice- or the illusion of one!- on us. We can imagine workplaces that accommodate our families and our lives, instead of competing with them. We can imagine a society that celebrates and rewards allomothers instead of distrusting them and trying to convince the  mothers who rely upon them that we are giving up some portion of our childrens' affections. We can imagine being allowed to find new ways to combine work and caring for our children.

Doors: Effective Baby Blocking Technology
Sadly, I can only catch a glimpse of this world. I cannot describe it, I can only describe ideas that might be part of it. Perhaps we could integrate child care with some work places, so that mothers could work when our kids were happy with their allomothers, but be there for the times when they are not. I'm not thinking of the current rare office with a day care center on site, hidden off in some corner of the building and perhaps visited on lunch breaks, but of an environment where the kids and their carers were more integrated with the rest of the office. You may think that this would never succeed- the kids would be too distracting. And you'd probably be right for some types of work places. But a lot of jobs involve mainly sitting at a desk and typing on a computer. Some babies are quite content for long periods when worn in a sling, and most toddlers can be distracted by fun activities. Maybe we'd need to move people out of cubicles and back into offices. You remember- the work spaces that had four walls and doors. Or what if we freed ourselves from our obsession with counting hours and instead focused on measuring productivity, and set up work/play rooms where mothers could work while their kids played and some allomothers helped entertain the kids? I think that the appeal of this sort of arrangement is what attracts a lot of mothers to the idea of working at home- but in many cases, there are no allomothers present, and so the result is a mother trying to squeeze work in during naptimes.

Or maybe we could better institutionalize part time work. In my ideal maternity leave arrangement, I would have taken 4 months off, and then worked the rest of the year part time, starting out at about 24 hours per week and gradually ramping back up to full time work. This was not an option I felt I had open to me for a variety of reasons, although I got reasonably close the first time around, with 3 months off, 1 month at 24 hours, and then working 35 hours/week until I changed jobs. Yet even that amount of flexibility is a rare thing, and people are amazed I managed to set it up without incurring a career penalty. The sad fact is that right now, going part time for a long period often means accepting less interesting or meaningful work, and there is usually a sharp career penalty to pursuing this option. But there is no fundamental problem with part time work that requires it to be this way, as long as the arrangement includes enough hours to enable productivity. I currently have two mothers working as part time contractors on my projects, and we are actively recruiting two more. Why do we accept their limitations on hours? Because they are damn good at what they do and they won't work otherwise. (This ties in with discussion about focusing on skills in my post about So Good They Can't Ignore You.) Not all managers are willing to consider part time workers, though, and even among those who are, there are limitations that would not have to be there. My job, for instance, could not be part time in my current company's culture. This is not because of the nature of what I do- I could easily fit the core functions of my job into four eight hour days, for instance, and with a little more work, I could carve up my responsibilities and make it possible for me to job share. If I wanted to pursue these options, though, I'd have to negotiate for them and I would frankly be taking a large career risk. It does not have to be this way.

Or we could keep our 40 hour work week and really make it a 40 hour work week. We could teach productivity and reward efficiency rather than face time. We could arrange our school days to better match work days. We could fund our schools so that art and library are covered by paid staff and not parent volunteers. We could lengthen the school day and include more "enrichment" options so that parents don't have to arrange before and after care, and can let their children get all of their education at school, rather than shuttling them to various classes. We could have more preschools and day care centers, and subsidize them so that quality options would be available to everyone, not just those whose incomes allow it. We could integrate day care centers into schools, so that parents with more than one child do not face the dreaded double drop off problem. In short, we could stop treating two-career families as an inconvenience on everyone else, and fund programs that actually make their lives easier.

Or we could do something else entirely, that I can't free my mind enough to imagine. Think of the solutions we might find if we stopped arguing about artificial constraints on the system and instead worked to truly solve the problem.

I am a pragmatist, so I recognize that we all must try to find the best solutions for our families out of the options currently available, and not the wild musings of some random blogger. I have made compromises in my own life, and I refuse to judge other families for the compromises they decide to make. But I want to at least recognize the compromises I am making. I want to hold on to that glimpse of how it could be, and try to see the possibilities more clearly. I want to find ways to move us closer to what is possible. Maybe if we can do that, we can start a process that really changes our society, and gets us off our current track of flipping through culturally approved compromises that mothers must make: one decade, the approved option is to sacrifice all outside interests for your kids, the next it is to ignore your caregiving instincts and focus on your career, then it is to "do it all", and then it is "you can't have it all".... and all of it pushes the issues onto mothers and sometimes their partners, without ever questioning the constraints and cultural assumptions that are making the problems in the first place.

Yeah, I know, it is unlikely that we'll make much progress. The forces pushing back are strong. But still, a girl can dream. Right?

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Productivity Shorts

Laura Vanderkam has a post up asking for stories/tips for successful workdays. I've been meaning to write some more productivity posts, but haven't been able to, because I am so swamped at work that I have to work at home and instead of blogging. Ah, the irony!

So I've decided to post some short tips/ideas.

1. I use daily to do lists that I write either before going home the night before or first thing in the morning to make sure that I focus on the most urgent things- as well as the longer term things that I need to do before they become emergencies. Basically, I make my strategy for each day in my to do list, with a goal of not ending up either focusing too much on immediate issues or too much on the more fun things at the expense of more mundane issues that will turn into emergencies if I don't deal with them on time.

I was amused to see Coding Horror rant against to do lists recently.  I was about to write a rebuttal post... but then I realized that the root difference is that we have very, very different jobs. He apparently has one big project and should be focused primarily on that. I have roughly 10 projects I'm trying to keep moving along (I am only doing management work right now, not technical work- I am actively trying to hire a junior project manager so that this balance can change). I also have my group to manage, and the random BS stuff that comes from working in a company of any size. If I used his method of coming in each day and working on the thing I most wanted to work on... well, I would probably be unemployed pretty quickly.

Neither of our ways of working is "the one true way." The trick to using any productivity advice- including mine- is to match the advice to your situation. 

2. I try to make sure that I do the right work at the right time. I do the more challenging stuff, like planning out a new project or brainstorming solutions to schedule or technical issues, at my most productive times, which for me are first thing in the morning or right after lunch. I do things like updating my project collaboration sites or the paperwork that comes from being a middle manager in a company during my most brain dead times, which are right before lunch and right before going home. There is no point trying to do something really hard when my brain is in need of a break, and using my most productive and engaged times to do something as mindless as paperwork would be a complete waste.

My other "right work at the right time" trick is to write policies, system descriptions, and similar sorts of documents at home with a beer. About 1/3 of a beer removes my corporate document-writing block, I find. I also often polish meeting minutes and update action item lists at night- I'm usually too mentally tired to do anything requiring deep thought, but getting these things done at night gives me a head start on the next day.

Do you have any tips and tricks to share?

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Weekend Reading: The Just for Fun Edition

I survived the storm and then got unexpectedly flattened by the storm surge- all the things that had been postponed at work and home came rushing in this week and I struggled to keep my head above water.

So, once again, I'm light on links. Here are a couple of things I read that I just think are fun:

Apparently, someone has done a correlation between chocolate consumption per capita and Nobel prizes. Bad Mom, Good Mom has a summary and some thoughts.

Are you reading What If? from xkcd? You should be. It is great fun.

Ok, this one isn't fun. But it is about TV and movies! And they're fun, right? But I really liked Alyssa Rosenberg's take on what is missing from the story when a TV/movie mom just quits her job.

We have guests here this weekend, so there are four kids bouncing around our little house. It is chaos, but fun. I'll be scarce around here... Have a good weekend, everyone!



Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Cal Newport's So Good They Can't Ignore You

I've enjoyed reading Cal Newport's Study Hacks blog for awhile. He and I are interested in similar things when it comes to productivity- I focus more on how to get your important work done in a reasonable amount of time so that your job doesn't take over your life and he focuses more on how to build a successful career and life that you'll love. I think that doing the first is usually part of doing the second, and from what I've read, I suspect Newport would agree. So when I saw that he had written a book about building a great career, I was intrigued, and ended up buying So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love.

As the subtitle indicates, his central argument is that if you want to love what you do, you should stop focusing on "finding your passion" and focus instead on getting really, really good at something. He cites research that shows that what makes people love their jobs are things like flexibility and autonomy, and argues that to get those rare and valuable attributes in a job, you need to have something rare and valuable to offer in return- i.e., some kickass skills.  He also looks at a third attribute that makes people love their work, which is the feeling that the work is part of a larger mission. He uses case studies to argue that you are more likely to find a mission from building up skills and expertise and then discovering a mission that uses those rather than identifying a burning passion de novo and dropping everything to pursue it.

I have long felt about the idea of having one true career passion what I feel about the idea of having one true soulmate- i.e., that it is a load of hooey and that there are multiple good fits out there for every person. So I am sympathetic to his arguments. It is also clear that he feels his generation (he is in his early 30s) has been done a great disservice by the "follow your passion" advice, and opens the book with a chapter blasting that advice as dangerous. He writes passionately and persuasively about this topic, and I found him convincing... to a point.

But the book has some limitations, and one of them is the fact that he glosses over the obvious counter-argument that it is easier to put in the effort required to build kickass skills in some field if you feel passionate about that field- or at least if you have a strong interest. While I agree that just telling people to find their passion and then find a job that lets them do that is incomplete career advice at best, I found myself frustrated by the fact that Newport's career advice is incomplete, too, but he didn't seem to want to admit that. Yes, building skills is important. But so is deciding which skills to build. Some skills go obsolete. Entire industries can go under, or at least move offshore. Not all skills are equally valuable (something he hints at but doesn't really tackle head on). Furthermore, someone can be really, really good at something and still hate to do it. I, for instance, am really, really good at most of the skills required to be a great administrative assistant. But I would hate that job. (Which, incidentally, is one reason why I have great respect for good admins- it is a tough job that I could not stand to do.)

Just saying "go out and get really, really good at something rare and valuable" is just as incomplete as saying "go out and identify your passion and follow it." If you ask me, the full career advice package has both pieces in it: figure out what sorts of things you like to do, figure out which of those things are valued by other people who will pay you to do them, and then get really good at doing those things.

I was also frustrated that the book didn't even offer a nod of acknowledgement to the fact that not everyone is treated equally in the workplace. Sexism and racism (and several other forms of discrimination) are alive and well, and can have a huge impact on a career. I think it would have made the book stronger to acknowledge that equal amounts of skill will not necessarily be rewarded equally. I particularly wanted this when he was telling the story of two different advertising executives. One quit and, as Newport tells it, followed her passion and opened a yoga business that ultimately floundered during the recession. The other doubled-down and build his skills and eventually was able to parlay those into an awesome career and life. In Newport's view, the difference is that the first was taken in by the bad advice to follow her passion, and the second wasn't. But another explanation could be that the first got so fed up with the subtle (and from what I hear, not so subtle) sexism in her industry that she decided she would rather work elsewhere. I don't know which explanation is right- and given the insidious, self-doubt inducing nature of the impact of subtle sexism, the woman who quit and started the yoga business might not even know. 

Of course, addressing sexism and racism and the like is well outside the scope of the book, so I can't really blame Newport for ignoring them. But it exposes what I think is the central flaw of the book: it is written by a relatively privileged, young white man whose chosen profession (computer science professor) rewards people for focusing on growing their skills more than most. There is a lot in the book that is applicable to other situations, but generalizing to them is an exercise that is left entirely to the reader.

For this to count as deliberate practice, the hoop needs to be higher
Despite that weakness, though, I liked the book, and found many useful ideas in there, even though I am an oldish- but still relatively privileged and definitely white- woman whose chosen profession requires a substantial amount of work that doesn't fit neatly into Newport's advice about how to build skills. In fact, it was his advice about how to build skills that may end up being most useful to me. He summarizes research that indicates that the best way to get better at something is to engage in a specific type of activity called deliberate practice. It is easiest to explain this by referencing the example of a musician: just playing tunes is not deliberate practice, but practicing scales, etudes, or even tunes in a more focused way (playing just a little faster than is comfortable, for instance) is deliberate practice. The former is fun, but only the latter will actually make you a better musician.

Reading the section about deliberate practice made me think of how I've stopped investing in growing my skills. I have three core areas in my job- science, technology, and project management. I have stretched myself in the technology and project management recently, but not in the science. And even the growth I have achieved in technology and project management has been haphazard- due to the luck of what the job needed rather than any deliberate effort on my part. Earlier in my career, I was much more systematic about growing my skills, and I think that perhaps it is time I get back to that.

Thinking about this has also helped me better explain the impact of having kids on my career. Simply put, since becoming a mother I have been cashing in my career capital rather than building it up. I have used the fact that I was already reasonably good at what I do to get the flexibility I need to make my work and mothering fit together relatively well. I think this is perfectly fine, and I'm glad I had the career capital to spend. But I can't stay in the career capital spending mode forever- eventually, I'll need to replenish my skills bank account.

Now that my kids are getting older (and I am less sleep-deprived), I can see the space to start building up some career capital again, albeit at a slower pace than I built it when I was younger.  Newport's book gave me some ideas for how I might focus more on building skills and expertise again, and that makes it worth the price for me. Despite its flaws, I recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who is trying to figure out how to have a great career. You might not agree with everything he says, but unless you've already read extensively on this topic, I guarantee you'll get some new ideas to ponder.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Weekend Reading: The More Work Stuff Edition

As I discussed yesterday, it was an intense week. So I don't have many links for you, because I didn't spend much time reading things. What I do have is work-related.

First up, a sort of depressing article in Forbes about how moderately successful women like me tend to assume that the pay gap isn't in play in our lives, but it probably is.

Then, an article from the Harvard Business Review about how to encourage deep thinking at work. This was also sort of depressing, because based on reading it I can only conclude that modern work environments are usually set up to discourage deep thinking.

Finally, I have a book recommendation for anyone experiencing career-related angst. Or just career-related uncertainty: So Good They Can't Ignore You, by Cal Newport. I've linked to his Study Hacks blog before. I'll probably write a full book review soon- maybe even next week if the waters stay calm enough at work and home. It isn't a perfect career advice book, but there are some interesting ideas and I think the advice he gives is good, just nowhere near complete. The basic premise is that we should all stop worrying about what our "passion" is and just focus on getting really good at something valuable, and then we'll be able to trade those skills for the sort of life we want. Like I said- some good ideas, but also some limitations to them. If you read it now, you can discuss it with me next week! It isn't that long and is a fairly quick read.

And now I'm going to go collapse into a semi-catatonic state on my sofa. Or perhaps assemble goody bags for Petunia's birthday party on Sunday. One or the other.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Weathering the Storm

In last weekend's links post, I mentioned that I was in the eye of the storm. Well, as predicted, the second half of the storm hit this week, and we've all survived so far. I think the peak was on Tuesday. I had a rough day at work, with several issues discovered and not yet resolved during the first couple of days of our vendor visit. Pumpkin had a rough couple of days at school- it was unusually hot (over 90 degrees in our coastal climate zone), and since the school does not have air conditioning, they canceled lunch time recess and instead showed movies. Pumpkin gets easily scared in most movies, and so that really upset her. The anxiety she's been feeling at school bubbled over again, and there were lots of tears. Tuesday was also Petunia's third birthday. She had a great day, but Pumpkin- who had been so excited to decorate the house and prepare the gifts for her little sister- struggled with watching Petunia open her gifts, and completely melted down. She almost missed the cake because she was so upset and crying in her room.

Luckily, Petunia didn't seem too bothered by the fuss, and still had a happy time blowing out her candles. I was struggling to hold it together, though.

Things eased up a bit on Wednesday, as problems started to resolve at work and Pumpkin's school routine returned to normal. But it was Back to School night, which necessitated both me and Mr. Snarky leaving early and rushing home to get the kids settled in with my sister (who also had to leave work a little early to come babysit). We enjoyed meeting Pumpkin's teacher, who seems very nice and good. She told us after her group presentation that Pumpkin is well-behaved but really anxious at school. I had hoped to hear Pumpkin was happier at school than she made out to be at home, but that was not the case. She is doing excellent work, but is clearly stressed out by school right now. And that gives me a bit of a knot in my stomach.

I also didn't enjoy the polite but pointed call for additional volunteers from the two "room parents." They are both really nice women, and I know they are sacrificing a lot to come and volunteer- they kept emphasizing how they are taking their vacation days and lunch hours to do it. But... how could we explain that the problem for us wasn't getting the right to take the time off, but rather that our work would still need to be done whether we took the time off or not? We both have very flexible jobs, and could arrange to take the time to volunteer without having to resort to taking our vacation time. But we are also both in massive crunch times. I will still need to guide my projects to completion even if I disappear for a few hours to go do an art activity with Pumpkin's class. I will still need to get my 2013 group goals and budget written even if I take a vacation day. Taking some vacation time will not relieve Mr. Snarky of the responsibility of guiding the software he is technical lead on to its first production release. Taking the time right now will just push work even further into our evenings and weekends, and neither of us feels that is a smart thing to do right now. So we said that we couldn't help during the day at this time, but might be able to do so in January. We took the list of supplies the classroom needs and we'll bring some of those things in next week. We've also already given a fairly large amount to the school's annual donation drive.

As much as I believe the world (and our school) needs both people who will give time and people who will give money, it is hard to hold that line in the face of obvious disapproval- or maybe just disappointment? I couldn't tell- from these moms, particularly since one is the mother of the little girl Pumpkin identifies as her "bestest friend." But I can't add more to my schedule right now, so here I am, holding that line.

Still, today, I can feel the storm fading away. We solved the remaining technical issues at work. I had to stay late to do it, and then I went out to celebrate a little with the vendor and my team- not a required thing, but something that experience tells me it is best to do. Mr. Snarky graciously agreed to pick up the girls, and they were fed and happy when I came home. Petunia was playing with the train set she got for her birthday and Pumpkin was working on her homework. Petunia's sharing her new toys with Pumpkin, who has gotten over the fact that she didn't get any new toys of her own. Pumpkin reported a much better day at school. And I'm actually feel like I have a few minutes to relax before jumping into my next task- which is preparing for Petunia's birthday party with her day care friends on Sunday.

Tail end of a cyclone. It blew through the night before our wedding. Really.
The more I think about it, the more I think the storm metaphor is the right one. We look at people living in hurricane zones or other areas prone to natural disasters and wonder why they do it. Why don't they just move? But where would they move that would be completely safe? No such place exists. And a lot of times, the beauty of the area or the quality of life makes it worth having to relocate to a shelter now and then.

I think the same is true of being a two-career family with kids. Is there really any other way to be a family that is safe from stress and worry? I don't think so. And the joys of the good times make up for the hassle and stress of times like the last few weeks. We're surviving on our emergency kit of routines and processes right now, but before we know it, we'll be able to take the storm shutters off and we'll clean up the debris in our yard and get back to enjoying the awesome view. We may wish our society would shell out for better seawalls- perhaps, for instance, funding our schools such that they didn't need to rely on parent volunteers for so much- but we don't want to move inland. We'll just weather the storm, and then try to build our house a little stronger for the next one.

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