Determination Through Sleep-Fogged Eyes

Clock on East Montague (photo by South Charleston via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)

I’ve been referred to as stubborn, but I absolutely refuse to accept this despite evidence to the contrary.

Let me set the stage a bit.

I recently made a career change. I make websites (yes, I know, this one needs a face lift, and it’s on my to-do list, I promise). As I make my living doing a mix of contract and freelance work, I go to several professional networking events. I also do applied theatre work. I’m also still a writer…no, really, I even published something recently…and we have a beautiful two-year-old daughter. The end result is that I’m always, always stretched for time.

Now, I don’t pretend to be any more stretched for said time than anyone else out there. We’re all way too busy for our own good. Over the weekend, I stepped out onto our balcony into a brisk Autumn morning with a steaming cup of coffee in hand to breathe in a relaxing few breaths. I used to spend 20-30 minutes doing this, especially on weekends. This was the first time in weeks, and it lasted about three minutes before I was called back into action as Daddy. I tried to get up early to do some reading and praying…it lasted for a week or so. Mostly, I find that the only way that I accomplish what I need to accomplish with my day is to force myself to stay up late, even though I know that I have to rise early tomorrow morning to negotiate an always-interesting commute into Boston.

Thus, I am always, always tired.

Now, the most logical thing to do would be to go to bed and catch up on some sleep. Unfortunately, nothing gets done when this happens: I let client deadlines get dangerously close, I allow my writing to languish (as evidenced by the digital sagebrush that’s blown across this space for the last week or so). Of course, eventually I’ll become so tired (I’m yawning as I write this) that I won’t be able to do anything well, and my hand will be forced as I collapse into the beckoning covers of our most-inviting bed.

It’s not just about finishing what I have to do, though. It’s about doing what I want to do. I want to spend time with our daughter, so I’m intentional about that. I want to spend time reading books, and maybe watch an occasional movie. If all I do is work, come home and crawl into bed only to repeat the cycle the following day, then I don’t think that’s living. I guess I’m radical in the sense that I think employment is there to serve the person working rather than the person existing to serve the employment.

So, is that being stubborn? Or are my intentions, at least, if not my practical applications, in the right place?

Or am I just suddenly very horrible at time management?

Time will tell…

Image attribution: North Charleston under Creative Commons.

Crunched by the Numbers

I don’t understand business.

Really, I don’t. Besides the fact that I experience serious nausea brought about by ethics whenever I see business working from the inside, I also don’t get it when it’s me doing the business. How in the world does one calculate what one’s time is worth? Isn’t it more important to get the job done well than quickly and cheaply? Isn’t it more important to get the job done than to bill every hour?

Part of this is because I’ve spent most of my professional life working in or with the non-profit sector, so working with people whose goal is to sell things strictly for profit…well, I just don’t understand it. I don’t understand it any better when it’s my own professional services that are being invoiced.  Even when they’re being invoiced by me. A colleague once said that he had lost out on a significant amount of money in his life because he wouldn’t confront clients when they didn’t pay what was agreed. I’m not sure I wouldn’t confront if someone contractually owed me for my time, but I think I understand where he’s coming from.

All that to say, I hear people talk a lot about this concept of “return on investment.” It’s self-explanatory enough, and I understand it when we’re discussing things like products. If I buy a pair of jeans, I expect a certain lifespan out of them in order to justify the price. I use Macs (partly) because they go forever, and I get my money’s worth out of the device. I believe in “you get what you pay for.”

Except…

I don’t for a second believe that you can apply that concept to education. Years ago, I was at work talking with some colleagues about future educational plans. I mentioned that I wanted to do an MFA in writing, which was my academic goal at the time. This was as I was finishing my graduate degree in religion. The response I received was, “You don’t like going to school for things that will make you money, do you?”

This immediately brought to mind my parents’ questions (raised on multiple occasions) about what exactly that degree that I just sacrificed years for as gotten for me.

You see, I think that the education and life experience are reward enough. I think that studying the humanities and the arts have a “pay off” for us that are at least equal to the “pay off” from a narrower, more scientific or technical field of study, just in a different way. I don’t think that studying the humanities should be an endeavor motivated by earning income. I don’t think that pursuing any academic pursuit should be approached with that in mind.

Which is why this study, “8 College Degrees with the Worst Return on Investment,” which I spotted as it made its way around LinkedIn last week, really leaves me unsettled. In fact, it just leaves me disgusted. I know that someone needed to generate some copy for the site on this particular day, but if this represents our mindset about education, then the so-called “free market” really has poisoned our perspective on everything.

Let me lay aside the fact that the number one worst degree on their list, communications, was what I graduated with from undergrad. Let’s consider their other bad degrees: Fine arts, theology (both of which have been other disciplines that I’ve studied…fair enough). How about education?  Or nutrition? Do we really want fewer professionals becoming teachers because they don’t make enough after college? Perhaps people who would be wonderful educators to our children? Do we want fewer nutritionists in favor of more medications? Fewer sociologists to study the potential dangers of our actions? Really?

I know that there are a lot of complicated pieces to this puzzle. I understand that faculty must be paid well for instructing at these colleges, but tuition prices are still out of control. Salaries for the most important professions barely stay afloat while salaries for professions like finance soar with no end in sight. And, being the pragmatic, quantifying Americans that we are, we begin thinking about which fields of study will make us the most money.

I’m not opposed to studying a technical field in order to make a living (I just finished doing exactly that). I’m motivated by Karen’s story of a friend that she knew in college. She told me that when he had finished high school, he apprenticed and became a master carpenter. Then he attended a liberal arts school for his undergrad degree, paying his way with the income that he earned from carpentry. I really respect that.

Yet, if we limit our educational pursuits to the things that make us the most money, then some of the most important aspects of the human condition…the arts, spirituality, the psychology of the human mind (all listed in this article)…receive less focus. The less focus they receive, the less we understand ourselves. The less we understand ourselves, the more we are doing things just to do them, just to earn more money, just to have more things…all of which leave us ultimately empty.

That’s a not a life that I want for our cultural future. That’s not the educational mentality that I want our daughter to inherit. Articles like this do nothing helpful for students planning their college careers. They are only there to earn ad revenue for the sites that waste pixels by putting them up.

And, incidentally, most of my friends were humanities majors. We continue to make our livings just fine.

Speeding Up, Dumbing Down

The first time that I heard of the concept of “speed reading,” I think that I was in elementary school. Being firmly in the realm of the imaginary at the time, I liked to pretend that I could do it (I also boasted of various super-powers at different times…ah, childhood). I wanted to be the superstar that could blow through the novel that everyone else was sluggishly complaining their way through for class.

In the real world of today, I’m a relatively slow reader. I read a lot in volume, but I still progress through books slowly, at least compared to my friends and to Karen, who devours a 300-page novel in a night. One of the reasons that I progress so slowly through books is that I pause periodically to digest what I’ve read. I like to think about it, reflect on it. For that reason, I tend to  only move through a few chapters at a time before putting a book down for the night. I would rather really know a few books than to be loosely acquainted with many. I guess I read like an introvert.

Increasing my quota by hastening my reading time was never really something that held any appeal for me. Whatever the pace with which one read, I reasoned, pausing to engage and think through what you’ve just read is important. That part of the process just simply can’t be rushed.

The idea of speed-reading is useless to me in my “old age.” I think that’s why I cringe when I hear of a popular app like ReadQuick, which is built for the purpose of teaching us to read faster. If history shows us anything, it’s that speed and quality are almost always mutually exclusive. When multi-tasking is a prized activity and there’s always more and more to accomplish on any given day, sacrificing our engagement with the written word is something that could carry very drastic and long-reaching consequences.

Perhaps I should take comfort in the fact that trends tend to be cyclical. Maybe slowing down will one day once again by all the rage.

Not-So Private Eyes

Last week I was having one of those random conversations with a colleague that occur when you both need to take a break from doing whatever task it is that you’re attempting to accomplish. Specifically, we were talking about Google Glass, because only days before I had experienced my second encounter with Google Glass “in the wild.” My experience had been during a professional networking dinner. During this dinner, I had been disabused of the notion that Glass requires a verbal command from it’s user to do things like record video or take photos. I had learned that, with a few taps on a connected tablet, images and video could be taken with no one else in the room any the wiser.

I still suffer a bit of a creep factor when thinking about Glass.

This led to a discussion of how often we are recorded each day. Which led to talking about the absence of the expectation of privacy in a public place, which is how traffic cameras and the like are both legally and ethically justified. Glass is different, though, because being with someone who is wearing it degrades our expectation of privacy in private spaces, something to which we have previously been entitled.

My colleague thinks that recording everything has positive implications, because video records are the ultimate historian. The camera, in theory, doesn’t lie (although it’s amazing what can happen to the truth with a few edits).  His perspective is that history would be preserved more accurately if everything were recorded at all times.

Well, theoretically, its difficult to disagree with him there, although one would have to wonder how history would account for the negative space (you could watch someone do something, but perhaps never piece together why they had done what they did).

Stepping beyond the theory into the realm of the pragmatic, however, I think that there’s another issue at play. John Twelve Hawks toys with the idea in his novel, The Traveler, the idea of the panopticon. In society, just as in Bentham’s prison, people will always behave as though they’re being watched if they believe that they are, or could be, watched at any given time.

My concern is that we are already languishing in a culture that is driven by appearance, eschews depth whenever possible, and brands and markets everything, including people.  With that level of shallowness already in place, what are the implications of feeling as though we are watched all the time? What would be our reaction? Could we ever be (to use an over-used expression) authentic with anyone again? The potential social damage of Glass goes beyond even more immersion in data from an augmented reality technology. It threatens to bring a decline to what are already tenuous human relationships that occur only on the periphery of our screens.