Monday, February 5, 2018

On Priorities, Time, and My Best Work: A Motivational/Business Psychology Reading Spree

One of my classes earlier this semester hosted a panel of professors that were invited to come talk to us (all graduate students) about what it was like to pursue tenure track as a career. During the Q&A, another student asked the panel about their work/life balance, and all of them laughed as if such an idea were hilariously ludicrous. Then one of the female professors proceeded to share how she had never attended a single one of her children's soccer games (presumably because she's too busy on Saturday mornings?), and shared what she evidently thought was a hilarious anecdote about when her five-year-old daughter asked if they could occasionally, like maybe once a month or so, eat a home-cooked meal. She shared this story with evident pride, as if to say "Yes, I have put my career above my family, but this is what success in this career looks like!"

I was suuuuuuper annoyed with this professor's response. I wanted to raise my hand and refute the message she was sending, that her career is so demanding and her life so busy that she had to sacrifice things like family dinner and attending her children's games. I wanted to say, to her but especially to the other student who had asked the question in the first place, that work/life balance is all about priorities and choices.

I know this from personal experience (more about that in a minute), but I'm also backed up by all the reading I've been doing recently on topics like work, motivation, and success. In the past month or so, I've read five books that have all talked about some aspect of "success," what it looks like, how to define it, and how to achieve it. There are plenty more out there on this topic, but the books I've read recently were Deep Work by Cal Newport, Originals by Adam Grant, Grit by Angela Duckworth, Multipliers by Liz Wiseman, and Essentialism by Greg McKeown (for short summaries, see my last two monthly round-up posts here and here). While all of these books have there own (sometimes widely different) focus and message, there were a few common themes and takeaways that I found repeated throughout them.

The biggest takeaway for me is that work, and especially good, deep, interesting, and successful work, does not have to consume life. In fact, much of the reading talked about studies that confirm people are usually "busy" doing things that don't actually matter, and if we could strip away all the unnecessary stuff, and learn how to do just the essential, deep work in an efficient manner, then we could accomplish twice as much in less time, opening up the rest of our lives for relationships and rest and things that make life worth living. In one way or another, all of these books talked about figuring out what is most essentially important in life, what our core goals are, and then letting everything else go so we can just focus on those goals and use the time we have in the best way possible.

I've been fascinated and encouraged by these ideas, because I think by anyone's standards, my life is "busy," but that doesn't mean I don't have time for the things that mater most. For better or for worse, this is the path my life is on for the next five years or so (and potentially beyond, who knows what the future brings). I am a working mother, this is my reality. And because this is my life right now, because I am teaching two courses a semester and taking classes and working toward a PhD while raising three rather young children on less sleep than I'd like, I need to figure out how to make this work. I need to figure out how to live a life that is busy but is not frantic and survival mode all the time. I need to figure out how to thrive.

So I've been thinking about what my core, essential priorities are, and what else I can strip away. And here's what I've decided. My family is first, always and forever. What this looks like for me is family time. Family dinner that I've cooked every day is a priority (and unlike that professor, I've managed to cook dinner for my family nearly every day since starting school last August). Play time with my children is a priority. FHE is a priority. Date night (mostly at-home date night, but whatever) is a priority. Story time at bedtime is a priority. Violin practice is a priority. Family movie night is a priority. These things happen, and 95% of the time I am there for it.

But school is also a priority. I'm a bit afraid to call it a career, because I still have no idea if this PhD thing is going to lead anywhere, but at least for now, I'm allowing myself to lean in as if my end goal is a career (why go to all this trouble if not to treat it like it's leading somewhere?). One of the things most of these people wrote about is the importance of finding meaning and passion in your work for it to be worthwhile, and that gave me a little pause. I've admitted before that I don't find much greater purpose in academia. I mean, what good does it do the world to study reader marginalia notes in early printed play texts? These feelings are why I never would have pursued academia as a career if left to my own devices, but do you know what does give me purpose? The unshakable faith that this path is my calling in life. For whatever reason, God wants me to get a PhD, and I know this almost more certainly than I've ever known anything. So school gets to be a priority. What does that look like? It means that when I have childcare time to do schoolwork, I dive deep. I get my homework and lesson planning done, but then spend extra time doing research for the sake of research. I write conference abstracts and apply for funding. I try to get something published. I'm committed, 100%.

But other things are a priority too. This is my life, and so sleep is a priority. I go to bed at 10, and get up at 5:30, and sleep in on the weekends. Health and exercise are a priority. I do yoga in the mornings, I eat vegetables for every meal. Friendship is a priority, so I go to book club. My spiritual life is a priority, so I read my scriptures, and meditate, and write in my journal, and prepare my lessons for Sunday, and go to the temple. Pleasure reading is a priority, so I listen to audio books when I can. Pleasure writing is a priority, so I write here when I can.

But do you know what is not a priority? What is not taking up my time these days? Television. A clean house (although this one makes me sad). Social media. Play dates with other moms (although this one also makes me sad, maybe this summer?). Attending all the interesting guest lectures on campus. Serving on the PTO at my son's school. Grocery shopping (my husband now does 100% of the grocery shopping, although I make the lists). And probably a million other things that would be so fun, or fulfilling, or good uses of time. They just aren't essential right now.

I still have my issues, my pinch points, and my things that are out of balance. I need to find time to get my hair cut, go to the dentist, fold the laundry, and a thousand other small things that I still consider "necessary" but that I haven't made the time for. But I firmly, firmly believe that my life is better for having had to make these decisions about my priorities.

And I also firmly believe that if that professor at my school had different priorities, she could have made it to every single one of her children's soccer games, and still been at this same point in her career. I am learning this about the work I have to do, as I compare myself to the grad students and professors around me. Work expands to take up the time you allot for it. My childless peers spend eight hours a day in their offices, work nights and weekends too, and tell me how frantic and busy they feel. I spend two hours a day in my office two days a week, and work after my children go to bed at night, and yet I get the same homework load done, teach the same number of lessons, write the same number of papers. In fact, I think my work is better for being condensed. I must work more efficiently, but I have learned to work better because of it.

All of these thoughts and experiences I've had with my work and defining my priorities over these past few months have made me view my husband's work differently. He spends eight hours at work every day, regardless of whether he actually has work to fill up those eight hours. His job is a little bit famine or feast: some times he has more work than he can handle, other times the projects are a little more scarce. But regardless of how busy he is, he's expected to be in his office eight hours a day for the sake of "face time" and looking busy. Regardless of how hard he's worked during those eight hours, he's expected to be on call all night long (and all weekend too), checking his email incessantly just in case something comes in. And even though in his line of work absolutely no one will die if those contracts aren't reviewed until Monday, he's expected to work all weekend just to keep everyone happy. In his culture of billable hours, efficient work is not rewarded. In fact, the longer it takes you to do a task, the more busy and "productive" you look. It's a ridiculous culture that I have many frustrations with (as does he).

But like I said, January is a notoriously slow month for him. As I've compared our work loads recently, it's been especially frustrating. He still goes to work for eight hours every day, but spends much of his time working on personal things. He finished our 2018 budget, worked on our taxes, and researched some home renovation projects. He took two afternoons off to go to the dentist (cavity). These things are all fine and good, but he also spends a lot of time checking pointless email, scrolling the internet, just filling his time up.

There have been days when I won't deny that I've been jealous of his time. Why does he get the luxury of eight child-free hours to essentially scroll Facebook? Why must I be the one trying to cram eight hours worth of work into two? Why am I the one feeling pressure to hurry through my homework and lesson planning so I can rush home to be with the kids, while he feels no such pressure to be home despite having far less work than me right now?

But after reflecting on what I've been reading, I've come to the conclusion that I do not so much wish I had my husband's time, as I wish he had mine. I do not wish for eight child-free hours, I'd miss my kids too much! I do not wish to spend eight hours on my work when I've been able to get it done in two. Why would I want to spend a single minute longer than is necessary on my work? And would I be working at the depth and level I'm working at if my time crunch didn't demand such complete and utter focus? I would rather be forced to get my work done as efficiently as possible, so that I can spend the rest of my time building Legos on the floor with my boys (while trying to keep them out of the mouth of my baby girl). I wish it were acceptable for my husband to spend his time like mine, to work efficiently when he has work, and to spend the rest of his time at home on his other priorities not worrying about "face time" or whatnot. But that is not the culture of his work place, or our society at large. For most, the longer hours you spend at work, the busier you look, the more successful you must be.

I do not believe this to be true at all.

Other take-aways I've had from this motivational/self-help reading spree:

-Business books are repetitive. Not just in themselves (though some of them are that), but between them. The same studies kept getting mentioned over and over and over. Honestly, I don't ever need to read Carol Dweck's Mindset because I've already read so much about her theories of growth mindsets vs. fixed mindsets. The other studies that kept coming up? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's work on flow was mentioned in almost every single book (although, I've got to give a plug here for Grit, because Duckworth's discussion of how "flow" works with the concepts challenging practice in learning a new skill was the most interesting and insightful discussion on the topic). There was also some study about dogs getting shocked that got mentioned a couple times (something related to the concept of fixed mindsets, and how we lose hope when we don't think we can change our circumstances). I found the repetition to be more interesting than annoying, actually, because it felt like seeing a larger pattern and identifying what ideas are resonating right now.

-I came away from all this reading feeling really positive about corporate America. This is very different than the feeling I get from my reading in the Humanities department, where everyone is a liberal or socialist, and capitalism is the greatest evil of all time (I once mentioned to a class mate that my husband was a corporate lawyer, and he visibly shuddered and said, "Wow, so, basically he's the devil incarnate," ...). Anyway, all of these books made me feel like it could actually be extremely personally rewarding to have an executive corporate job. All the motivational jargon just made it seem like you can find your best selves in these jobs and really become a dynamic and innovative leader who can change the world. Go team corporate capitalism!

-Mormons rule in business. So, I didn't realize that the last two books I read were written by Mormons (Liz Wiseman and Greg McKeown) until after I'd read them and looked up the author bios, but I think Mormons were quoted or mentioned in every book I read but one (Mitt Romney, Steve Young, Clayton Christensen, and others all got shout outs). So go Mormons!

Okay, so now I'm kind of burned out on this genre, but I still feel all sorts of motivated to conquer the world and live my best life and do my best, most creative, deepest and most efficient work. I honestly recommend all of these books, for different reasons, but if you don't want to read all of them then I think Deep Work and Essentialism would be my two top picks for general readers (followed by Originals, if you like pop psychology Malcolm Gladwell stuff). I have lots more thoughts about all of these books (especially Deep Work), so I may write more about this stuff in the future. But enough for now. Have you read any of these? What are your thoughts?

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Books I Read in January

Well, hello there! School started almost three weeks ago, therefore the sudden silence around these parts. I've been trying to write a post for the past week, but I've only had 5 -10 minutes per day to work on it, thus it's still languishing in my drafts folder (hopefully I'll get it finished this weekend, I think I'll have some time). But I decided to spend my free time today pounding out this post, because while my writing time has been severely limited by homework and lesson planning and whatnot, January was a fabulous month on the reading front. Audio books are just really working for me right now.

I finished ten (!) books this month, which might be a new record for me (I'd have to check). If I keep this rate up all year (not likely), I'll read well over 100 books! Which means this is way, way above my usual pace, but fine with me. My goal is to read 75 books this year (still a stretch, given that I've not read that many books in a year since I started tracking), and while I don't necessarily ever want to be consumed by meeting some arbitrary numbers goal, or place quantity over the length and quality of the books I read, I'll admit that I love the way tracking my numbers inspires me to stay on top of my reading game. I've been able to find all sorts of pockets of time to listen to and read books that used to go to mindlessly scrolling social media or whatnot, and I much prefer this use of my time. I'm still kind of shocked that since starting my PhD program, my pleasure reading numbers have only gone up. A huge part of that is the audio books on my daily commute, but I'm finding other pockets to listen/read too, and that is making me feel a little bit more like I'm living a normal life, not a crazy busy insane one where I don't have time for my favorite things.

Anyway, as you'll see, I went on a bit of a kick this month. I seem to do that occasionally (remember my Austen kick last fall?), but this kick was of the motivational/social science/business-y variety, and I have lots of thoughts about it. The post I've been working on is actually about this collection of books, so I'll save some of my deeper thoughts and conclusions for that post, and just stick with brief summaries here. Let's dive in!

Originals by Adam Grant

The first (this year) of my social science kick. This one is pretty similar to Malcolm Gladwell's stuff, which I love. Very well written and a lot of interesting tid-bits, but I came away not quite convinced I actually want to be an "original." There's a statement or quote by somebody towards the end of the book that talks about how you have to wake up every day and choose between being content with the world, or wanting to change it. He spends a lot of time talking about how "originals" are not content with the world, they see a way to make things better and are relentless at trying to change it. And I think this is a valuable thing to be and to feel, but most of the time I think I'd prefer to feel "content" rather than always feeling angry and upset and motivated to change the world. So I guess I'm not an original. Oh well.

I've been wanting to read The Once and Future King by White for a while, but it's proved a bit tricky to get my hands on an audio version of that. When I discovered my library had an audio version of The Sword and the Stone, I decided I might as well check it out. For reference, White, wrote a bunch of King Arthur books, starting with The Sword and the Stone, but then he edited them down and compiled them all into one novel, The Once and Future King. Reading this earlier, not-edited version was enjoyable, but my thought the whole time was "Yeah, this could use a good edit." I still really want to read The Once and Future King because I'm hoping it's just the good parts, not all the rest. I will say that I loved the Britishness of this book. The writing had a very dry humor and nostalgia about it, and it was just lovely. It was also nice timing, as I'm taking a Medieval class this semester and we're reading a lot of the original King Arthur stuff. It's fun to compare to this more modern retelling.

Most Dangerous by Steve Sheinkin

I loved Bomb by Sheinkin, which I read a few years ago, and I've been meaning to read more by him ever since. I finally got around to it. I can't say I've ever been super interested in the Vietnam War or Cold War politics, but Sheinkin knows how to make any historical story edge-of-your-seat good. This was no exception. I found this book fascinating. It was really kind of a downer, in that the U.S. government and American politics do NOT come out of this one looking shiny clean. In fact, after reading this I pretty much loathe President Johnson and President Nixon (not that I had any love for them before, but man, they were just awful people and really terrible leaders). Also, my conclusion is that the Vietnam War only happened because of this screwed up pride about these men refusing to be the first president to lose an American war (and yes, we definitely lost Vietnam). It was also so depressing to see how history seems to have repeated itself with Afghanistan and the Iraq war. Anyway, this is not the book to read if you want to come away from it feeling all warm and patriotic, but it was still a very, very good read, and made me ask all sorts of questions about what it actually means to be a good and loyal citizen.

The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

This is Book 2 in a trilogy (the first one is The Bear and the Nightingale, which I read a few months ago), and I've got to say this is one of the rare, rare times that I've liked a second book more than the first. The first book was a little weird for me, because I couldn't quite pin it down. It doesn't fit neatly in the genres I was expecting it to fit in. It's a historical fiction fairy-tale retelling, but it's not YA, and it's unlike any other fairy-tale retelling I've read. For one, it's way heavier on the historical detail. I mean, Arden did her research, and it shows. This is actually the part I liked the most, because medieval Russia just comes to life in these books, and it feels so real (in a bitterly cold, dirty, depressing kind of way). And there's Christianity, and monks and priests, but then there's also the old gods and spirits. And there's kind of a romance, but the book is way less concerned with the romance and way more concerned with exploring how a head-strong, fiery, independent girl deals with the oppressive patriarchy of the time, and I just really, really liked it. It's very well written, relatively clean, and I highly recommend it if good, detailed historical fiction is your thing, or if you just like a good story with compelling characters. You will learn a lot.

Grit by Angela Duckworth

The second book on my kick. I started this one wondering what could possibly be so interesting about "grit" that someone could write a whole book on it. I thought I had the main message down after the first chapter, and was considering skipping out on the rest. But! I'm glad I stuck it out and finished it, because she had some super interesting things to say about a lot of different facets of grit. "Grit" is not one of those characteristics I spend a whole lot of time thinking about, or why it's important, but Duckworth is clearly very passionate about this concept, and she had me convinced by the end. I especially appreciated her parenting advice, and her family's policy that every day everyone must do one hard thing. There was some very thought-provoking stuff here I'll write more about in my next post.

Multipliers by Liz Wiseman

The third book in my kick. Once again, I started this one thinking it wasn't for me and maybe I should skip it. Wiseman's audience, after all, is business leaders and executives (which I am not), and again, I kind of thought I probably had the gist of her argument down after the first chapter. However, once again I was glad that I stuck it out and finished it, because there really was a lot of interesting information here (although this book had the unfortunate tendency these types of books often have of repeating a lot of their information in chapter summaries, and the like). The argument here is that some leaders act as diminishers, intentionally or unintentionally dampening the people under them so they are less motivated to work or contribute meaningfully. Conversely, there are multipliers who not only manage to inspire people to work at their full capacity, but actually seem to grow people's intelligence and abilities. While Wiseman focuses specifically on executive leaders, I spent much of the book thinking about how I could apply these principles as a parent and a teacher. Very interesting stuff.

Essentialism by Greg MeKeown

The fourth book in my kick, and probably my favorite. At this point, I was getting pretty tired of this genre. There'd been a lot of repetition of ideas, and this book had some of that too, but I really liked the angle he approached his advice from. I would call this book secular spiritualism, and while it is once again aimed at a more business/executive type audience, this one was far more universally applicable. Definitely recommend this one.

Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney

So, I've mentioned this before, but I always think twice before including a book I read for homework here, mostly because I end up reading a lot of obscure 16th century plays and poetry that I don't think you guys would be interested in hearing about. But like I said earlier, I'm in a Medieval class this semester, and we read this translation of Beowulf the first week, and I really, really liked it, so I thought I'd mention it here and let it "count." On the off chance that any of you are interested in reading this Old English epic poem, I'm going to throw a plug in for this particular translation, because Heaney did a fabulous job at making it both accessible and poetically faithful to the original. If you love The Lord of the Rings or any of Tolkien's other works, I highly recommend reading Beowulf if you haven't already, because it's very clear this was an influential text on Tolkien, and I really enjoyed seeing what he drew from this poem to create his Middle Earth world. It's very interesting.

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

This is my book club's pick for next month, but I read it early. I read The Red Tent by Diamant a few years ago, and remember liking it pretty well, but this one is very different in time period, tone, and style. That's not a bad thing, this one is lovely and sweet in it's own way, but I don't think it's quite as good as The Red Tent. That being said, if you're interested in a sweet second-generation immigrant coming-of-age story in the early 20th Century, this is a good pick. It's got a few hard topics and situations in it, but handles them in a way that doesn't feel super depressing or gritty. This is a general recommend.

Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon

This one's gotten a lot of buzz in YA circles for a few years now (they just made it into a movie, I think), and since it's been a while since I've read contemporary YA I thought I'd try it out. Ugh. Don't bother is the short answer. I nearly didn't finish this one. The writing is actually pretty good, but the plot is so stupid. I mean, just ridiculously stupid. I'm so done with this book I don't even want to write anything else about it.

So anyway, it was a bit of a bum ending to an otherwise fabulous reading month. Have you read any of these? I'd love to hear your thoughts about them!