On Equal Footing

Winter Break is one of the best occupational perks that comes with a teaching career. It's never truly a "break," but it allows me to step back to reflect on the year and develop a plan for next year. You may have noticed the slump in my writing output on this blog, which came as a result of a dramatic turn inward, along with the grueling end of fall semester and a dash of laziness. During this winter hermitage, I stumbled upon Chris Guillebeau's annual review process and decided to give pieces of it a go. The part of the reflection that most resonated with me included listing the major things that went poorly over the last year. It turns out that I'm great at thinking of all of the things that go wrong in my life, so coming up with a list was pretty easy. There were quite a few, and some of them felt monumental.

Over the last year I:

  • Had to cancel a new course, due to lack of student interest.
  • Finalized a workload policy for my organization, two years in the making, which was swiftly dismissed and discarded.
  • Applied for my dream job and lost in the final interview round.
  • Watched a ton of mindless Netflix and wasted several hours a day flipping through my phone, while laying on the couch. This included reading a lot of "articles" with titles containing "You Won't Believe What Happens Next."

It's very easy for my mind to focus on the negative. In fact, that short list of the things that went poorly dominated my mind in 2016. I internalized the failed course as a sign that I didn't know what I was doing and had finally been discovered. The charade was over. I felt guilty for wasting so much time playing with my phone and consuming media mindlessly. This self-produced anxiety led me to do even more mindless browsing. I spent several months in the dumps over the lost dream job. Fortunately, the review didn't stop here, as it also required me to come up with a list of all of the things that went well in the last year.

Over the last year I:

  • Published my first refereed paper of my career and had to present it by myself, when the primary co-author was unable to attend the international conference due to a lost passport. It received almost unanimously positive evaluations.
  • Successfully surpassed the one year mark of writing for A Better Desk. This is the longest that I've ever stuck with a writing project.
  • Started writing a novel and finished the first 100 pages over the summer.
  • Read six books in December alone, which is more than I've read in the other months of the year combined, by an order of magnitude. One of these books had been in my "To Read" stack since 2005.
  • Received a $5000 grant to develop a new course in Ireland.
  • Developed an entire strategic plan for international program growth within my organization, with the help of an amazing group of people.

My "Things that Went Well" list turned out to be much longer than expected, and the items on it were much more meaningful to me than anything on the negative list. While I fixated on the negatives, my unconscious apparently moved on to bigger and better things. Sure, I wasted some time, and some things didn't work out, but I was truly surprised by how most of the successes eclipsed, or were even born from, the failures. I used the knowledge gained from the failed course to develop a successful grant proposal for a new course. The failed workload policy project allowed me to develop my leadership skills and taught me how to guide a group of very differently-minded people through a complex project. This experience helped me to lead the development of the international strategic plan. Even the excessive phone usage led me to spend December reading and digging to the roots of my self-soothing media consumption. These realizations left me energized.

In The Obstacle is the Way, Ryan Holiday writes:

It takes skill and discipline to bat away the pests of bad perceptions, to separate reliable signals from deceptive ones, to filter out prejudice, expectation, and fear. But it's worth it, for what's left is truth.

At the heart of Ryan's point is the idea that events aren't inherently good or bad. We assign value to them, and Ryan argues that this is a choice that we're not obligated to make.

In practical terms it's difficult, if not impossible, to decide to think differently; it takes practice and rewiring. It takes a habit, and I realized that I had already taken the first step to forming one with the annual review. All that I needed to do was to make this a daily practice. What didn't go well today? What went well today? What am I looking forward to tomorrow? These are a few of the simple questions that I try to ask myself daily, and most days the positives outweigh the negatives. Most importantly, this practice forces me to put my achievements and failures out in the open, where my brain has to look at them objectively and can't select what it wants to remember. It also reminds me that many of the negatives lead into the positives, exposing my brain's unrealistic judgements.

My daily practice is admittedly unstable at this point. Some days I write the answers to these questions in a journal, other days they go into a digital note, and sometimes I just think of the answers on my drive home. Other days I forget completely. Either way, I've already noticed the mental benefits of this practice. This is not to say that it has turned me into a bouncing optimist, rather it has stabilized both my view of my accomplishments as well as my overall mood.

PS : Since this is primarily a pen and paper blog, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that there's actually a physical journal designed to establish this daily habit with a bit more style. It's pricey, but I've hovered over the Add to Cart button a few times now. I'll be sure to review it on the site, when my resolve inevitably wears thin.

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