Wednesday, October 23, 2013

We All Fall

Once a year, my advisor holds one-on-one "strengths-weaknesses" meetings for everyone in the lab.  We are supposed to come prepared with a list of our individual perceived strengths and weaknesses, those of the lab, and those of our advisor.  It's a meeting that I think most of us dread going in (candid discussions can be really awkward) but are pleasantly surprised by coming out (it's not actually as bad as we envision it will be). 

Well, my first year of this, I sat down nervously, heart pounding (as usual), with my list in front of me.  I recited what I had prepared (mostly trying to avoid eye contact) and then waited for my advisor to respond with his thoughts.  He told me

My strength is that I fail.  Gracefully.

He said it a little bit nicer than that, but the gist was that I had several projects go wrong and somehow I hadn't quit and my morale wasn't demolished.  (Oh, to be a young, enthusiastic grad student.)  Perseverance. 

That comment has really stuck with me.  I didn't quite make it through the 5 stages of grief-- there was no denial; after all, I had definitely failed multiple times-- but my internal response to this comment has come in stages.  At first, I was kind of disheartened (I've been here for over a year, and my most notable strength is that I fail?) but as that feeling dissolved, it was replaced by acceptance and understanding.  Not everyone fails gracefully.  

Now to be honest, I hate failure.  There are few things I hate more.  I think this is part of the reason that I don't see myself as a full-time researcher for a career-- too much failure.  With as many self-help, business management books I've read and TED Talks I've watched, I "know" that failure is the key to success and growth.  But still, my knee-jerk reaction to failure is to cry.  Of course, I tend to learn something from my failures, but in the moment, it sucks.  I'm working on improving that.  

Ironically, this was a strength of mine in gymnastics as well.  Only, literally.  Our coach used to tell us that if we fell, we had to make it pretty.  Act like you mean it.  Pose.  Pose.  Pose.  Smile.  I took that to heart.  

My strength was that I fell.  Gracefully.  

Oh, and did I fall.  On beam, on floor, on bars.  Pose.

The first time I went skiing with my friends in high school, they ditched me to hit the slopes, and I was left on the bunny hills with my friend's dad.  When I was finally ready to move to a green circle, I was so terrified of falling.  It was such a stressful experience.  Stressful because I didn't want to fall.  It wasn't so much that I was afraid of getting hurt, but more the fact that a fall meant that I failed.  Of course, inevitably, I fell.  My friend's dad told me it was the most graceful fall he had ever seen on a ski slope- a kind of one-legged twirl in an arabesque with an arm in the air, gently settling on the ground.  Skiing.  Pose.

And then in 8th grade I tripped over my own feet doing the shuttle run for the Presidential fitness test.  Shuttle run.  Pose.  In front of my entire class.  Epitome of an awkward middle-schooler?  I think so.  One leg propped, hand in the air with pretty fingers.  Yes, that was me.

Oh, those dirty four-letter F-words.


We all fall.  We all fail.  But the story doesn't end there.  That's only where the story begins!  Too often we focus on that fall.  On that failure.  Really, the climax to the story is how you pick yourself back up.  How you pose.  How you cope.  What you do next.  That's where your true strength is.  If you never fail, you'll never know how strong you really are.  I'm grateful to have an advisor recognize that strength.  

Check out this video that's been shared on Facebook by a few of my gymnastics friends.

Do you fail gracefully?

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Pearl Earring

A funny thing happened to me yesterday: I was rewarded for following through.

As I brushed my hair in the morning, I noticed one ear was missing its pearl stud earring.  I pretty much always wear earrings- when I sleep, when I shower, when I exercise.  Honestly, I think my ears look funny without them.  I hastily glanced around the bathroom floor but didn't see anything shimmer.  "Oh no, it must have fallen down the drain while I was showering," I thought to myself.  "I guess that's going on the Christmas list."  I was pretty bummed.  I've had these simple earrings for about 5 years, and they were one of my few pairs that still had both of their backs (impressive, I know).  Plus, pearls match every outfit.

As I was showering, I made a mental list of the few chores I wanted to complete that evening.  Specifically, I planned to do 1 load of laundry, put away dishes, and try (for the second time) cleaning the shower tile grout with bleach.  The bleach helped significantly last week, but the grout was still dingy in several spots, so I decided to try again.  

You see, when I come home from lab, I normally konk out on the sofa.  I find it hard to motivate myself to do anything productive (hence the reason I switched to morning workouts).  Yesterday, before even letting myself sit down, I popped in a load of laundry and started spraying down the shower.  As I let the bleach sit, I emptied the dishwasher.  Then, it was time to scrub and rinse the shower.  For this, I grabbed the scrub brush and gloves located in a bucket under our bathroom sink.  Wait, what's that nestled in the rag in the bucket?  

My earring!  

I have no idea how the earring got in there; the bottom of our sink is open (it was designed so that a wheel chair could fit under it), but the bucket is normally completely under the sink so that it can't be viewed without looking underneath the counter.  Maybe it's chance.  Maybe it's a small smile from God for following through.  I dunno.  All I do know is that there is no way I would have found that earring if I didn't follow through on my planned chores.

For once, I completed all my evening chores!  And in return, I got back my earring (and the satisfaction of having motivated myself to do something productive).

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Oct-Nov exSPIREment: Read the Newspaper, episode 3

I'm just over two weeks into my exSPIREment to read the newspaper every day.  At this point, the novelty has worn off, and it is an obligation.  I feel like I am reading the same things over and over, and maybe it is just particularly frustrating in light of the repeated articles on the government shut down and the circular negotiations that seem to be taking place.  I find myself completely skipping the Marketplace and Investing sections to more thoroughly read the main section.  I still have not found an adequate online source for my weekend reading (this past weekend I happened to stumble upon the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal in a hotel).  All that said, I do know that reading the newspaper has improved my knowledge of current events.  I just wonder whether I could be getting this information in a more efficient manner.  I'm not sure the whole reading-and-walking thing is the greatest idea as I'm going into work in the morning.  

Does anyone know of any news streaming apps that I could listen to as I walk to work?   

Find all episodes of the newspaper exSPIREment here.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Oct-Nov exSPIREment: Read the Newspaper, episode 2

Today marks the 9th day in the journey of my first exSPIREment to read the newspaper every day.  To recap where I left off:

The objective of this exSPIREment was to improve my knowledge of current events.  I hypothesized that reading the newspaper every day would 1) help me feel more comfortable participating in discussions about politics and world events, 2) improve my ability to navigate a newspaper and skim articles, and 3) teach me something new or inspire a new idea.  

So far in my journey, I've encountered 3 themes:

The Wall Street Journal presents one perspective

I decided on the "methods" of this proposed study based on available resources.  The Wall Street Journal is delivered to our door every weekday morning; therefore, I chose to read the Wall Street Journal.  Nothing to it.  Except... there is a lot to the Wall Street Journal.  It's a pretty dense newspaper that is obviously written for a readership interested in finance and business, neither of which is my forte.  Apart from its main section on top national and international news, WSJ also has "Marketplace," (really?) "Money & Investing," (yawn) and "Personal Journal" (my fav!) sections, along with some other sections that come and go.  Even the top national/international news is told from an economic twist (doesn't help that the main story since I've started reading has centered around the U.S. economy and the government shut down).  Maybe WSJ was not the best place to start for a novice newspaper reader, but go big or go home, right?  This paper really lays out numbers and stats, so fortunately I'm a numbers girl.  That engineer in me kind of loves some of the dryness of the articles.  Other times I get bored.  Regardless, I must keep in mind that the Wall Street Journal presents just one perspective of the news, as does any source of "news."  They say there's two sides of the story and then there's the truth.  The stories that WSJ chooses to report and the way that they choose to present those stories are unique to this newspaper (just as they are unique to any other news source).  The researcher in me strives to read critically, take away as much valuable information as I can, and stay honest with myself about the biases and limitations.

I'm really turned off by politics (and other things)

Thankfully, the Personal Journal is the very center section; otherwise, I'm pretty sure I would never read the "important" stuff.  The goal of this exSPIREment was to improve my understanding of current events.  So far, I think I have made a few small improvements.  Whereas in the past, I would have had no idea why the government shut down or maybe I wouldn't even realize it was shut down (except for PubMed telling me with every article I search that they are maintaining their website with minimal staffing), at least now I know it's because some of our elected officials seem to be acting like stubborn little brats.  In all seriousness, I do feel like I have a better grasp of some important current events, including the negotiations underway with Iran.  I'm not expert.  I don't claim to know all the facts or even most of the facts.  Actually, I really know very few facts or probably no facts.  But, I at least am aware of these situations.  Awareness is a huge step away from apathy.  

I do not force myself to read the paper like a book, from cover to cover.  Quite simply, I don't have time for that.  But I do make sure I at least catch all the headlines before letting myself find the articles that actually pique my interest.  I normally just glance through the titles of the articles in the Marketplace and Money & Investing sections.  I allow myself to not be interested in the politics and economics, but I do force myself to at least get an idea of the important stories.  If I let myself do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted, instead of displaying some discipline and self-control, I'd be eating ice cream for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and reading only articles about exercise.  Ironic, I know.         

You cannot predict inspiration

I thought after my first few days of reading I had down the general layout of the WSJ, only to find out come the weekend, that *surprise* they switched things up.  It was actually a breath of fresh air, knowing that I wouldn't know what would be in the newspaper each day.  I have found some hidden gems in WSJ.  To highlight, I've come up with a potential Christmas present idea for someone based on something I saw in the paper.  Today featured an entire section on Education, which was awesome (given that when I graduate with my PhD I want to teach at a university).  Yesterday, I was able to ask Nick his thoughts on the JAL contract with Airbus and what that means for Boeing.  I get excited when I see someone quoted or referenced from University of Michigan or University of Pennsylvania (which is actually somewhat frequently).  Opening the door each day to see the WSJ sitting there is a lot like the anticipation of opening up a present.  You never know what may lie inside or what little story will inspire you.      

In terms of my hypotheses, I have not yet participated in any discussions about politics or world events, I do feel that I am beginning to navigate the newspaper better, and I have learned many new things and been inspired several times!  

In terms of my expected potential pitfalls, I have had some trouble identifying a consistent time of day to read.  I have tried browsing the headlines while walking to work and then reading in the evening.  So far this seems to be the best method.  As I mentioned above, I do struggle convincing myself to read the articles that bore me, so rather than fighting it, I just get the headlines and a general concept of the story.  I don't read everything.  The worse part was trying to read a digital paper on the weekends.  Talk about information overload!  I started at the New York Times, but after simultaneously opening several tabs, I quickly reached the 10 articles per month limit without realizing.  I'll try something else this upcoming weekend.  Suggestions welcome.

How are you getting your news?

Find all episodes of the newspaper exSPIREment here.  

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Oct-Nov exSPIREment: Read the Newspaper, episode 1

Today marks the first day of my first exSPIREment!  The concept for exSPIREments stemmed from the unexpected success of my attempt to turn myself into a morning exerciser.  What started as a small self-study turned into a new, healthy, sustainable habit.  More than two months later, I'm proud to wipe the sweat off my forehead and fulfill an accomplishment before 7am.  Invigorated by my success, I wondered what else I could change about my lifestyle.  What other healthy habits could I adopt?  Where am I failing to meet my potential?  

And so I created the exSPIREment.  You can learn more about the concept on the exSPIREment page by clicking the tab or the link above, but in brief, an exSPIREment is a two month personal discovery experiment.  The first month is total immersion and the second month is applying lessons learned and adapting your lifestyle as you see fit.  

Upon reflection, I realized I do not keep myself very well informed on current events and relevant issues.  I shy away from politics and world news and feel like I'm the last to know about national or international events.  I often find myself without an opinion, or even worse- apathetic, because I haven't followed the news.  I'd like to be able to contribute to more engaging conversations.

Right as I had these realizations, we began receiving the Wall Street Journal at our door every weekday morning.  The newspaper is included in Nick's business school tuition.  What a perfect opportunity to use my available resources and strengthen a personal weakness!  

During this month of October, I will read the newspaper every day.  On weekdays, I will read the Wall Street Journal that is delivered to our door.  On weekends, I will browse digital newspapers.

I hypothesize that 
1. I will feel more comfortable participating in discussions about politics and world events
2. I will improve my ability to navigate a newspaper and skim articles
3. I will learn something new or generate a new idea inspired by my readings

I expect potential pitfalls to be 
1. identifying a consistent time of day to read the paper,
2. convincing myself to read (or at least skim) the articles that at first bore me, 
3. feeling overwhelmed by the wealth of information on various topics, and
4. settling on a digital newspaper to browse on the weekends.

Follow along or join with me as I embark on this journey!  I plan to post once a week about the experience.

Check out these follow-up posts:
Oct-Nov exSPIREment: Read the Newspaper, episode 2
Oct-Nov exSPIREment: Read the Newspaper, episode 3
Oct-Nov exSPIREment: Read the Newspaper, episode 4