I Don’t Believe in Talent

The field of Computer Science is filled with people who believe there’s some sort of CS or programming gene.  Some people have talent for computing.  Others don’t.  I don’t believe it.  I don’t believe it for CS, and I don’t believe it for anything else one might pursue.  If such a thing existed, if people were born with a talent for say, biology, what would we need schools for?

I believe, as many psychologists, educational researchers, and neuroscientists do, that skill in a field comes from practice and hard work.  I would say I’m pretty good at writing.  I’ve been practicing since I was 8 or 9.  I wrote stories and poems in my spare time.  I read lots of books (which are models for writing), and even now, I still read and write a lot.  I ask for feedback on my writing from others, so I can improve.

I approach teaching and mentoring the same way.  I never look at someone and think, “they can’t do this.”  They may not want to do what I’m asking them to do.  They may not put in the work and practice necessary to get better, but I always believe that if they did, they could get good at anything they wanted.  The hard part is figuring out how to practice effectively and being motivated to do so.  For a teacher, this means putting the right kinds of activities in place that will truly build skills, and it means having activities and incentives that motivate students to put in the work.  While, yes, the student bears responsibility for putting in effort, the teacher needs to figure out how to structure a class such that the student sees the pay off fairly clearly.

When I’m on the learning end of things, I find ways to motivate myself.  Games often work for me.  Or gamification.  Structured work like telling myself I’m going to do something for x amount of time and then have a cup of tea will often get me through things that are challenging.  Applying what I’m learning to real things is also motivating.  If I can take something I learned and use it almost immediately, I’m compelled to learn more.

There are certain things I’ve never been good at because I’ve never tried to be.  But there are lots of things that I’ve gotten a lot better at because I work at them.  We may all have different skills, but it’s not due to natural talent.  It’s due to hard work, and saying it’s talent devalues the work that we all put into building our skills.

Utter Exhaustion

The last week or so I’ve been flat out beat.  I’ve been coming home, putting my feet up and digging into ice cream and/or wine.  It’s not healthy, I know, but it is what it is.  Earlier this week, the whole family was gone for the evening, so on the way home, I picked up a BBQ sandwich and a six-pack of beer.  I came home, set myself up with my sandwich and a beer, put the tv on what I wanted to watch and just chilled out.  I was asleep by 9 or 9:30.

The next morning, I got up, got dressed, headed out to the car, and noticed that it was unlocked. Weird, I thought.  Then I looked down, and my keys were still in the console.  That’s how tired I was.

It didn’t help that I had a cold last week, but mostly, I’m just plowing through all those things that have to get done at the end of the year.  My colleagues are feeling the same.  The teachers are knee-deep in grading final papers and projects and are headed into exams.  Plus, they have other things to wrap up for the year.

I didn’t plan as well this year as I had wanted and it’s been busier than I expected, so a few things that I had wanted to wrap up earlier I’m just now getting to.

And that’s just the work stuff.  In a little over a week, my parents (both sets) and Mr. Geeky’s parents will show up to celebrate Geeky Girl’s graduation.  The house situation is not good (See ice cream/wine situation above).  I’m planning to dig in this weekend and I’m taking a day off next week to work on some things.  Keeping house has never been my forté (or Mr. Geeky’s), so when big events come around, we both go into a bit of a panic.  It’s not pretty.

June 12th it will all be over, and I might get some respite.  Until then, I’m just plowing through as best I can.

Winding Down and Gearing Up

The school year is wrapping up.  Today is the last day seniors, including Geeky Girl, will be on campus.  Exams begin in a couple of weeks and then begin the various celebrations.  Awards day, moving up ceremonies and graduation.  The last few weeks have been incredibly busy, and given that my own daughter is graduating this year, I don’t see things slowing down until the very end.

I have taken exactly one day off this whole school year, and that was to recover from foot surgery, so I’ve decided to take next Friday off for a long Mother’s Day weekend camping.  It may be a little chilly, but I thought before the end of the year gets into full swing, I’d needed to take a break.

I’ve been especially close to this year’s seniors, of course, so graduation is going to be full of emotion, more so than it would be if it were just my daughter.  The girls in her class have been great friends to her and I’ve taught many of them since sixth grade.  I’ve literally watched them grow up.  A couple of years ago, my first advising group graduated.  This year, my youngest class graduates.  I’ve already had students stop by to thank me for things.  I got to chaperone prom and see how grown up they all look now.

The seniors will be off doing externships for the next three weeks, getting a feel for work and seeing what it will be like to be away from the school.  And then it will start to hit them, start to hit us all.

The summer will be unbelievably short, I know.  We have a couple of trips planned and at the end, of course, we take Geeky Girl to college.  She’s going all the way out to California, which has me a little worried, but I’m proud of her for doing what I think you should do with your college years, explore a whole other area of the country.

I like change, but this is going to be the end of an era.  We’re not done as parents by any means, but our kids are both truly on the road to adulthood, and that feels a little weird.


Sustaining change

As I’ve been making some changes, big and small, in my personal life (as outlined in my New Year’s post), I’ve been thinking a lot about how to maintain that change over time.  So, for example, I vowed to work on my finances, and one of the things I promised myself was to check all my accounts daily.  I did that for 30 days, and it was helpful to give me a sense of the ebbs and flows of my balances.  But I didn’t need to continue doing that forever.  So now, I’m scaling back to something more scalable.  I’m checking about once a week. A long time ago, I tried to set a specific day for this, but that didn’t really work since other things in my life regularly get in the way.  So now, I just try to check that item off once a week.

I’ve also been working on getting my house back in shape (goal #2 from the post above).  I started over spring break by tackling the kitchen.  I spent a large chunk of time getting started and then a little bit every day after that.  And then, I’ve been diligent about taking 5 minutes when I get home to straighten anything that’s out of place.  I started tackling the basement a couple of weekends ago.  Originally, I had planned on tackling this a little bit every day, but it’s really dirty down there, so I’ve decided it’s okay if that’s a weekend project.

I’ve had success in the past in starting new habits and sticking with them.  But real change is hard.  I read somewhere (or maybe saw it in a TED talk) that in order to really change behavior, you have to be able to say, I’m the kind of person who . . . fill in whatever action you want.  So, I would like to be able to say, “I’m the kind of person who has a clean house.”  But I don’t think I really believe that.  I know people with clean houses, and I’m not sure I identify with them or aspire to be them.  No offense to those of  you out there who have perfectly neat houses, but some people I’ve met with really neat houses seem to have nothing much else to do except clean.  And some, of course, just hire others to clean for them.

Other changes I’ve been contemplating have to do with how I spend my free time–too much tv watching, not enough book reading.  Or too much tv watching, not enough exercise.  I used to be the kind of person who read lots of books, so going back to that wouldn’t be that hard (I still read a lot in the summer; it’s the school year that gets me).  But I’ve never been the kind of person who gets up at 5:00 a.m. to exercise, or who throws on gym clothes right after work.  If I want to become the kind of person who exercises regularly, the latter scenario is more likely because I’ve never gotten up at 5:00 a.m. regularly for anything, not even something I wanted to do.

So sustaining change, ultimately requires changing who you think you are.  Your habits, what you do day in and day out reflect who you are, so changing those things does change you.  I think I’d need to find a way to seamlessly incorporate the change into my life.  Dealing with the finance stuff, for example, has been easy, thanks to technology.  I can just log in periodically, move stuff around, and I’m done.  Exercise is harder.  No 5:00 a.m., and after work can be unpredictable.  Some days I’m home by 4:30.  Other days I’m stuck until 7:00 or later.  And that’s often enough that I can’t create a pattern.  But if I can find a way to exercise regularly and that becomes a habit, now I’m a person who exercises regularly.

Also, I need to see some real benefit fairly quickly.  I do often feel better after exercise, and I have lost weight as a result of sustained exercise.  But that’s not quite enough to make it feel worth my while.  It’s not quite part of who I am and what I do. Likewise, I like seeing the basement start to look better, but I don’t have to go down there and see it–good or bad–so I’m not inclined to work on it.  The areas I spend time in are mostly neat.

So, change in my life needs to fit in with what I’m already doing–at least at first–and I need to see some immediate benefit.  The latter, I think I have to trick myself into a little, because most of what I want to accomplish takes longer and most have no end date–I will always need to exercise and always need to manage finances. Though, maybe the basement will eventually be clean.  Ultimately, change is pretty hard.  But I’m not giving up yet!

I wonder what lessons might exist in my own personal journey toward making change and how change happens in organizations and cultures.  It’s sort of about ritualizing something new. Or about having organizations believe (can organizations believe?) that they are the type of places where x happens. Something to think about.

Spring break

I’m halfway through spring break which so far has been about 40% productive and 60% complete sloth.  I completely took Friday off and went shopping with Geeky Girl.  Saturday, I dove into a bunch of house projects.  I think that was a mistake because although I had planned to do more projects on Sunday, I couldn’t bring myself to do them.  Monday I returned to partial productivity, but Tuesday it rained and well, what else do you do on a rainy day?

As I type this, though, I’m sitting in my workout clothes about to head to the gym.  So I’m an every other day productive person. Sort of.

When I had summers off, and wide open days, I managed pretty well getting things done.  I usually split my day between things I needed to get done for school and things I needed to do around the house.  But these shorter bursts of free time I’m finding are more likely to be filled with Internet surfing and tv watching.  My Puritan genetics are causing me guilt over that.

My school work will be waiting for me when I get back.  While there are things to do, there is nothing pressing that needs to happen before I get back.

Around the house is another story.  I’d like to do some decluttering and the busyness of my schedule over the last 6 months has also meant that basic maintenance takes time.  I’m easily overwhelmed.  Saturday, when I tackled a project, I thought it would take an hour or so.  Three hours later, I wasn’t close to finished.  That kind of thing keeps happening.  It’s disheartening to jump into something and think you’re going to see a great end result and then you can’t even get to the end.

So I’m focused on smaller chunks, and I am thinking about ways to tackle those smaller chunks daily, even once school gets going again.  I might have to do a little design thinking project on myself.  Could work.

For now, I’m going to the gym, trying to kick start something at least.

Every time I’m down

Something brings me back up again.  The cookies, they kind of worked.  There were a handful of people in the lounge when I brought them in, and we chatted, which felt great.  At the very end of the day, I swung by an office because I saw people talking and I had a fantastic conversation.  We tossed around ideas, complained about how we have to shave our legs (gender norms suck sometimes!), and talked about a bunch of random other things.  And that was the last conversation of the day.  I had a number of other spontaneous or planned conversations that reminded me how great some of my colleagues are.

I do know that most of my colleagues care a great deal about what they do.  I just think that we all get bogged down sometimes and don’t have the time to talk to each other and share what we’re thinking about.  As one of my colleagues said of my plans to create more opportunities for just this kind of thing, these things are organic, you can’t always control them or make them happen.

But like my classroom, I can at least make sure conditions are in place for that to happen.

How Might We


I’ve been taking an online class offered by IDEO on Creative Leadership.  It’s been interesting, and of course, because it’s IDEO, Design Thinking is part of the process.  I have to admit I’ve gotten a little stuck in my thinking at points as my “How might we” questions have hit the wall of constraints.  It is true that adults, including me, have a tendency to shut down ideas by thinking about how they won’t work or why they can’t be tried.

So, for example, I wanted to create time and space for faculty collaboration and conversation around teaching, but my colleagues and I kept coming up with reasons why we couldn’t do that.  It had to be during the school day, not after.  It couldn’t feel cheesey.  It couldn’t involve too much work on anyone’s part.  What I ended up with was putting cookies in the faculty lounge.  And then hope for the best.  Which, well, didn’t sound as fun as what I had in mind.

I know I’m a little on the extreme–okay a lot–when it comes to generating ideas and learning about my work.  I really don’t spend 24/7 doing this.  Any reader of my blog knows there’s video gaming, binge watching, and pleasure reading aplenty.  But it is true that I spend some of my off time–not every day–thinking about and doing things work-related that aren’t “tasks” to be accomplished.  I have class prep and grading and emails to respond to and sometimes that has to be done outside the parameters of the day.  No, I mean following a Twitter hashtag or reading education-related blogs.  I do that most days.  And my department members do too.  But I don’t know how many others do.

But I do know most of my colleagues think about their work a lot.  They have ideas.  They’re struggling with lessons.  And my idea was to try to create space for them to share and learn from each other and for those who might be doing what I do, perhaps space to share what they learned on Twitter the night before.

But apparently, this can’t be done and cookies aren’t going to be enough.  Ideas I have now to accomplish this involve changes that are pretty dramatic.  Things like setting aside a half period where all faculty are free but students are occupied somehow.  Or starting school a little later once a week for students but faculty come in.

I’m sad that my well-intentioned “How might we . . .” has turned into “This is why we can’t.”

Believing in what you do

Often I think about whether what I do aligns with what I believe.  When my work aligns with my beliefs, it’s really not work.  I have a very complex issue to tackle right now that involves people, money, time, and other resources and I actually got a little giddy thinking about possible solutions.  And I thought, huh, well, that’s interesting.  I know some people who would run away from that.  But I got excited.  Yes, there’s something wrong with me.

I’ve been quiet here for the last week or so because I was working on a big presentation for the board.  It was quite the experience to put together, but again, because I really believed in what I was doing, it didn’t entirely feel like work.  Oh sure, there was the day I didn’t have time for lunch, but that’s totally fine.  And when I gave the presentation, I just thought about how much much I cared about my work and how important I thought it was.  Honestly, I could have talked for much longer.  I’m very committed and passionate about what I do and where I work.

It’s been a reminder over the last week or so that I need to tap into that more often.  Yes, I should take time away (and I have, trust me), but really, tapping into that core feeling of commitment has motivated me greatly to tackle even the most complex of issues.

Mistakes were made

I’ve been thinking about the nature of mistakes and failure. We try to encourage our students to take risks, not worry about failing in order to open up possibilities door greater success. We encourage them to aim high and then help them recover if they fall short or show them how they were still successful even when they didn’t get exactly where they wanted to be.

But I’ve been thinking about knowing the possible failures in any endeavor and about the things that look like a mistake or failure later on. Sometimes you make a decision or complete a project that looks successful at first, and then sometime later, weeks or even years, you realize that what you did wasn’t quite right or maybe even a total disaster.
I think it’s this kind of outcome that happens all. the. time. that often paralyzes people. The what ifs running through your mind are all negative, not positive. The thing is, we can’t see into the future. Conditions change. The assumptions you made turn out to be wrong. 

We have to be okay with the possible negative outcomes of any decision and be willing to pick up the pieces when needed  I had an aunt who once said to me when I was trying to decide on something to think of the worst possible outcome and if I could deal with that then I should just take the leap. If we don’t approach decisions this way, we’ll never change.

The Firehose

Down The Drain

Post-conference, there are two firehoses.  One, all the ideas generated by the conference that you want to try out right now. And two, all the work you have to catch up on because you were at a conference.  So yesterday, I tackled the latter and I’d love to tell you that today I’m going to tackle the former, but alas, I have more of the latter to deal with.

When I was in grad school, I sometimes struggled with working outside of “regular” hours.  My first go around in grad school when I was just out of college, that meant, generally about 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.  Maybe.  Sometimes I got up later.  For obvious reasons I had trouble getting everything done.

Later, after kids and regular jobs had molded me a little more, I got better at it, and actually, what I got better at was efficiently getting things done while my kids were in daycare.  Occasionally, very occasionally, I would work on something after they went to bed.  But I protected my time.

During the dissertation writing phase, when I was also working a 9-5 job, that went out the window.  Long-time readers might remember my chronicles of working in the morning before the kids were awake and working hours after they went to bed, and Mr. Geeky dealing with them on the weekends.  That lasted about a year and a half.

To deal with the firehose (which happens to be full force right now but is pretty much an every day thing), I combine these strategies.  I try to be as efficient as I can during the day and keep my head down and plow through what needs to get done.  But, when I still have work left over, or if I have a day full of meetings so that no work is getting done anyway, I work around the edges of my day.  I take time to have dinner, talk with my family, maybe go for a walk, but then I get back to work.  And I only work a little.  I have a time limit.  Unless I’m meeting a deadline, the email, the report, all of it, will still be there the next day.

I’ve also learned that a lot can get done in 10 minutes or 20, whatever you have between things.  And I’ve learned not to turn anyone away that shows up at your door, no matter how strong the firehose.  When you stop listening to people, you’ve lost the purpose behind the firehose in the first place.