Self Insight

Growing older doesn’t always guarantee you’ll grow wiser, but experience does offer its unique benefits.  I found that around the time I turned forty, I realized several key things:

1. I was my own harshest critic, and if I was waiting around looking for praise from others, I could wait a very long time.

2. If you want to get a medal for a job well done, do something where medals get awarded, like running a half marathon.  Your kids are not going to show up after you finally complete the unending piles of laundry and give you a medal for completing a continuous loop task, or for matching all the socks in the house.

3. Understanding yourself and what you bring (or don’t) to any situation is important.  Do what you can and do it well, but take yourself out of situations where you may just be the complicating factor rather than part of the solution.

4.  Self-insight is critical, but it’s hard to acquire.  We spend so much time in our youth looking for external approval from others, sometimes it’s hard to remember that your own judgment of a job well done is really the most important-.  You honestly know if you’ve done your best, and have to live with that knowledge, even if to the outside world, whatever you’ve done is perfectly acceptable.    The burden here, of course, is knowing that perfection is an illusion, and sometimes, good enough is really good enough.  Rarely does anyone have the time, funds or manpower to achieve “perfection”.

5.  Since absolute perfection is an illusion, it’s time to stop trying to say “It would have been even better if I had just ….” when people compliment whatever it is you have done.

6. Part of being an adult is that you have a little more latitude to hang out with people you really like, and avoid the folks you don’t.  The adult world and many groups still operate like high school, as much as we may wish they did not.  But the good news is you get to choose friends from a much wider array of people, and you will find more and more people who like you just for who you are.  You might even have different groups of friends who reflect different parts of your personality, and you can enjoy them all.

7. Asking for help is okay, and it’s often freely given.  We all really want to feel needed, and if you are the sort of person who likes to pitch in and help where you can, it’s amazing how many people will come out of the woodwork to help you.  Sometimes you just need to ask, because not everyone may notice you need help, and that’s not callousness on their part, but just that we all tend to get wrapped up in our own lives.  You do need to reach out and ask, because people tend not to be clairvoyant, or they may think you want to handle it on your own, for whatever reason.

8.Listen to your trusted friends and family- they really do have your best interests at heart, and they know you, including where all your blind spots are.  Trust their judgment, especially if you are questioning your own.  They are like little guardian angels, trying to give you a heads up before you hit a brick wall.

9. Admitting your weaknesses and quirks to others is actually one of the best things you can do.  It’s like giving people a manual to your own personal operating system.  By disclosing your imperfections (one of mine is looking at an email, but sometimes putting off an answer until I can sit down and compose a good answer, but then forgetting that I did not actually respond…) people learn how to work around those quirks (please, just send it to me again or ping me- I’m not trying to be rude…I just sometimes get distracted- it’s me, not you).  Most of the time, being upfront and vulnerable sets expectations and improves the relationship, where lack of disclosure might accidentally harm it instead.

10. Confronting your fears and trying new things is not always easy, but almost always worth the results.  Recognizing when you are avoiding something, and asking the next question, “Why can’t I seem to get to this project?  Why can’t I make a decision on this issue?” will often lead to an answer that you can address and get beyond the blockades you are constructing for yourself, often unintentionally.

11.  Approaching as many things as possible with being kind as the first priority will lead to a better result than approaching with hostility.  My husband often wonders why I will try to be kind to telemarketers, and I say that these folks have people hanging up on them all day long, a few seconds of “No, I’m sorry, I’m not interested or can’t talk right now, thank you” is simply good karma.  Working at a student loan call center in college taught me how dealing with stressed people every day can follow you around afterwards.  A minute of kindness is usually a pleasant surprise to everyone, and is worth the effort.12.

12. I know I am a geek, a gunner, and I’m always looking for that proverbial A on my report card.  I might not close the deal, win the election, bake the perfect cake, etc. but I know I will always be putting my all into trying.  Just don’t pair us “overachievers” with folks who are more relaxed or self-paced, and don’t make us dependent on them completing their part of the project first.  We’d rather take on the whole thing and finish it than wait around for someone else to do it at their own speed.  Yes, it’s annoying.  But let us go and do what we do best.  Otherwise, we’re just chomping at the bit and getting restless.

Self-insight lets you operate so much better in the world in general.  It’s a gift I wish I had had more of, sooner, but we really only gain it with experience.  It eventually leads to having a much more realistic view of the world, and how to avoid drama before it starts.  I still get caught up in silliness from time to time, but I’m getting much better at recognizing it, and adjusting accordingly, at least I hope so.


The Demise of Google Glass

I was invited to be a Google Glass explorer a year ago December.  Despite the mafia-like invitation (you have seven days in which to accept this or tell us why you won’t), I decided to give them a try, thinking it would be an adventure if nothing else.

Recently, Google announced it is taking Glass back to the laboratory, and handing it over to Tony Fadell,  a fantastic design guy in charge of the iPod at Apple, who left Apple to start Nest, the thermostat/home sensor company.  This leaves me, one of the folks who paid $1,500 for this piece of gear, feeling hopeful for the future of Glass.

The problem with Glass was multifold.  First, the price tag made me question my own sanity, but I justified it by thinking of the possibilities and where the future of wearables was going, and there was no better way to understand this than by really giving Glass a test run.  Plus, with Google constantly telling everyone that Glass was going into wide release sometime in 2014, with new frames debuting at CES, it seemed like I would be a step ahead of the curve, always a good thing in the tech world.

As it turned out, Glass was a bit of a disappointment, and I was left feeling that not only was the device not yet ready for prime time, but that it was still far ahead for true feasibility in real life.

Glass was a bit like having to care for an elderly relative.  It did some things quite well, but it was often fussy, and not nearly as functional as it promised to be.  One update bricked the Glass entirely, requiring Google to send out a new pair to me altogether when the firmware update caused them to go into an infinite non-bootable loop.

Here are the main problems Glass faced:

  • Connectivity.  While they finally got Glass to work fairly well when paired to iOS devices and not just Android, it was nearly impossible to hook up to dual-security layer wifi systems, such as those at Universities and schools. Even trying to hook into a hotel’s free wifi was a real pain.  Without wifi, the major usefulness of Glass goes away entirely, and you are left with a camera and video recorder sitting on your face.
  • Connectivity, in the bigger picture.  One of the neatest features to me was the ability of Glass to let you look at a sign and get the translation, automatically, in your field of vision.  What a great thing for travel!  What a great thing for someone like my husband, who often travels to India, where so many signs use a different script alphabet.  Think how it would work for NGO’s, and ease translation.  But of course, in order to get this to work, Glass needs to ping the ‘net, which isn’t available in rural areas all over the globe, and if it did, it would cost you a fortune in roaming charges, making it not worthwhile financially as well as practically.

So without ubiquitous, open internet/wifi connectivity, so many of the great features of Glass were just useless.  Even for doing things like recording my son’s band concert, the video was great and far more stable than trying to hold a camcorder still without a tripod, but the sound capture was mediocre at best.  I thought it would be great to “simulcast” events like a child’s performance to his Grandparents, but again, the lack of a broadband wifi network that’s easy to get on makes this use impossible- it can only capture the video for upload later on.

  • Point of View (POV) vs. Narcissism. There are times, looking at the world through someone else’s eyes is fantastically useful.  Using video captured through Google Glass for showing Residents how to perform special surgical techniques; watching them on a monitor and seeing what they see can be critical.  Watching a student use a new tool, work on a problem, or even monitoring a group’s progress could all be aided with Glass as a relatively unobtrusive POV tool.  I used Glass a few times while cooking, so show me recipes and techniques while I performed them, but I think seeing the same video on an iPad in the Kitchen would have worked just as well.  Looking, and sharing, selective POV video and pictures can be fantastic and moving, but  it can also devolve to “look at me, I am special, isn’t everything I do worthy of capture” narcissism, as we saw in the early days of video blogging.  This is a human problem, not a Glass problem.  Glass just magnified the issue with a smaller, less obtrusive way to film everything, rather than devices like the Go Pro which can give a similar experience, but tend to announce their presence to everyone, so no one is caught off guard by being taped.
  • Individual Sizing issues.  Unlike a watch, eyewear has a larger problem.  Not only do you need to customize the frame to the variations in an individual’s size, etc., Glass was very awkward to use if you already wore glasses or had age-related eye issues that make reading more challenging as we get older.  Glass was very hard to readjust when trying to show it off to new users, due to the natural variation we all have in our eyesight, focal range, and just the architecture of our own skulls.  As a result, getting Glass to fit and work well required a bit of fussing, making it even less social and more difficult for people to share and help it catch on as a new idea or product that would make it a “must have”.
  • The Weirdest Product roll out ever: The whole Glass Explorer program struck me as really interesting from creating a club of folks who could not only help beta test a whole new product category, but also form a community to share ideas and new potential applications,  Before Warby Parker came out with frames to adapt prescription lenses for Glass, folks in this community were already trying to find hacks to make glass more useful for them with their eyesight.

Then there was the whole “celebrity” angle, where all the cool people, and even fashion models during NY Fashion Week were wearing Glass, to try to make it look like a forward thinking, Judy Jetson product, very avant guard and au courant, as they might say.  I think that approach further helped people see Glass as toys for rich privileged narcissists rather than something people would use every day in normal life.  It was an interesting way to go, but I think it also created social as well as economic barriers to adoption.

I’m hoping wearables like the Apple Watch will have fewer problems.  I think the relative ubiquity of sizing of a watch vs. glasses will make it much easier for a watch to succeed, if merely from a production, inventory and customer service point of view.  There may be two sizes of watch faces and choices of wrist bands, but no one is going to need an appointment and custom fitting like they needed with Glass.  However, since we still don;t know the true price, it’s possible the Apple Watch will also have its own set of adoption problems related to the expense vs. utility matrix.

In the end, I only partially regret buying Glass.  It’s been interesting to be part of the wearables learning curve, and I can only hope they will give those of us who bought the early versions some sort of rebate/early access to the next version, if they do manage to crack the Glass Ceiling and make it something fantastic.  I know if there’s anyone I would trust to put in charge of this sort of product, it’s got to be Tony Fadell.  I never thought I could even care, let alone love, something as mundane as a thermostat, but the Nest has been great- we save money, track our energy usage, and can even control it remotely, which has been useful more times that you could possibly imagine.  It’s the FitBit for our house, and I only hope Tony can do something equally as great with Google Glass.  And hopefully, without the near burn marks from the overheating temples this time.

Google Glass- in the end, too much, too soon, without the overall infrastructure to support it and make its potential shine.  I’m disappointed but not surprised they shut it down this quickly.

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It is so easy to criticize and vent these days.  Snark has developed into its own art form.  You probably are inundated with it in your daily Facebook and Twitter feeds.  It is always tempting to join in, and complain or take cheap shots at others.  For example, a GOP staffer recently wrote a pretty nasty post about President Obama’s daughters who were rolling their eyes a bit as their Dad went through the ceremonial Turkey Pardon.  (Feel free to take a look at the article, but basically it comes down to the girls looking less than fully thrilled to be there for this event, which may have been fun the first time, but after 6 years in a row, is probably tiresome for everyone involved.)

Let’s take a few brief moments to deconstruct this issue.  Firstly, the annual Turkey Pardon is a silly tradition, but it’s become an expectation. I think many Americans do a collective eyeroll at this, so why should the first daughters be any different?  Secondly, taking a shot at teens so you can also take a cheap shot at the parents is simply unacceptable behavior, regardless of whether or not they are public figures.

This same sort of snark and unnecessary criticism pervades social media and the way people interact these days.  The news and every magazine at the checkout stand is filled with comparisons of who wore what dress best, who looked less than fully glamourous at what event, and who decided what undergarments to wear or forego.  I ask you- why is any of this even slightly worth the ink and time we waste on it?

Critique is supposed to be a detailed analysis or evaluation of a situation; ideally it should be accompanied by suggestions on how to improve a situation or avoid any mistakes in the future.  Critique as a sport has a mean underside, making the receiver feel diminished or less than.   Perhaps my current sensitivity to this is because I just finished running for office, and the past weeks have been filled with low level fault finding and analysis of what to do differently.  This process can be incredibly helpful, but it can also be incredibly painful.  The non-helpful, just mean-spirited “What were you thinking when you wore THAT?” sort of critique just gets under my skin right now, because it seems like an audience throwing things at a performer.  Being critical is easy, but actually putting yourself out there on a public stage takes guts, and there are consequences whether you win or lose, that the audience doesn’t have to deal with when it goes home.

Edutopia frequently posts an acronym I think we all need to remember before we shell out criticism to anyone in our lives: THINK

  • Is it True?
  • Is it Helpful?
  • Is it Inspiring?
  • Is it Necessary?
  • Is it Kind?

The kind of criticism doled out by this particular GOP staffer I would argue is really none of the above, although she might think it was a “helpful” reminder to these young ladies that they are on the public stage, all the time.  But until this staffer wants to take that kind of critique every day herself, maybe she should keep her thoughts to herself.  My critique here is meant to be helpful and a reminder that we need to start with kindness.

Listen, we all have those thoughts.  The “What was that fashion choice about?” or a “I cannot believe they thought that was a good plan” moment.  Many times a day in fact- I have teenagers in the house.  I think a lot of things that are not always reflective of my best self, and I try, sometimes unsuccessfully, to keep that crap to myself.  No one ever appreciates the “I could have told you that” response to a mistake.

Instead, when there has been a particular moment that makes you want to slam your head against your desk and cry, I am making an effort to try to look for ways to fix the problem rather than heap a ton of “What were you thinking?”  venting on top of what’s already a bad situation.  Number one, the venting doesn’t really make me feel better, and it always makes the other person, already in a scrape, feel much worse.  In fact, this sort of reaction is the main reason teens don’t tell their parents 75% of trouble they face- they don’t want to see that look in your eye or deal with the lectures.   Dealing with the problem itself, and finding ways to solve it, together, allows everyone to keep their dignity while learning lessons at the same time.

I come from a family of yellers.  Learning not to yell, not to vent, is really hard, and I don’t always succeed.  I have a temper.  But I know it’s not okay to do this stuff, and I also apologize to my kids afterwards, so we can try to make it better.  I’m not perfect, and they need to know that even adults screw up, and can admit it when they do.    It took me a very long time to realize that the yelling might feel like releasing frustration to me, but the receiver just felt punched in the gut.  That moment of outrage was not worth even a second of the pain I caused my kids, even if it was done in service of some sort of lesson.  There are simply better ways of handling and dealing with anger.

The next time we’re tempted to make some unkind remark, especially online, about someone else, let’s try to remember that they are human, and try to start with kindness.  If we can build kindness as a habit, we’ll all be much better off than making our default setting one of snark and ennui.  No one needs more of that.



Distrust in the System

A friend of mine from St Louis wrote a post about the recent issues in Ferguson, and eloquently deconstructed them as coming from an underlying distrust in government and systems.  Having just run for public office, I have a deeper understanding of this than ever before.  I was asked, multiple times when knocking doors the following:

“Why is a nice girl like you running for office?”

“You seem like a smart and articulate person- why would you want to be part of that mess in Harrisburg?”

“Are you sure you want to do this?  Why would any sane person get involved in politics?”

“I like you, but do you have the “cahones” to get something accomplished?”

“They are all horse thieves and pickpockets.  Government is hopelessly broken.”

My answer was often simple and straight forward. Running for office was about being hopelessly optimistic that we can be better and make change.  It was about believing that we have a choice- sit back and watch things continue as is, or try to make a difference- and making a difference means stepping up and running.  It means not being content with business as usual, but willing to do all the hard work necessary to try to improve things.

That said, there are plenty of entrenched interests in the system.  We have a political system that encourages candidates to “binge raise” money- raise as much as possible in the shortest period of time, and then “purge” by spending it all.  And then we wonder why our government is not always fiscally responsible.  The system itself trains people to look at money as an end in and of itself rather than as a tool that reflects our core values.

Add to this the party system where you have to choose the R or D team in order to have the support you need to run for office.  Add in the special interest groups that look to the party for recommendations on which candidates will win or lose- and those decisions are often made before the actual candidate is actually in place, because it is pre-determined  by the voter registration numbers and gerrymandering of districts.

It’s no wonder why people are fed up.  It’s no wonder why they don’t trust the government or the system at all.  Frustrations run deep.

When people would ask “Do you think our government is too big?”  I would have to ask “What do you think is the right size?”  No one knows the answer to that question, because “size” is not the parameter we need to measure, but instead, competency and efficiency.  Much like looking at Google analytics, if we could start measuring performance accurately and hold people in government more personally accountable, I think we could make great strides in improving government function overall, and do it at a reasonable and rational cost.

I understand the underlying distrust in the system.  But I also understand the answer lies in each one of us, not only showing up to vote, and hopefully having done a little homework to decide who to vote for, but also to take the risk and get more involved in making things better at a local level.  Go to a city planning meeting.  Attend a school board meeting.  Know the folks in your area, and talk to them about what matters to you.  Donate to local candidates and show up and talk to your local representatives.  If you aren’t involved, but sit passively on the sidelines, nothing will change.  Injustices will occur.  Frustrations will mount.  Bad things will happen as a result.

The bottom line is we have to try to be the change we want to see, or end up being consistently frustrated and dissatisfied.  Not everyone has to run for office, but each of us does have to take some responsibility for being engaged, or we will simply end up with the most craven and self-centered people serving in order to bolster their own sense of power and self worth, rather than folks who are truly dedicated to making our communities stronger, long term.

Monday morning quarterbacking the system will never lead to change.  Getting involved will.


A Brief Explanation of Common Core and all the Hub Bub

There has been a lot said about Common Core and it has become a political football for folks regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum.  Coming off a political campaign, I got to see how issues like this get used as a proxy for many other ideas, and the reality of the situation gets lost.  Since I will be returning to my volunteer role working as a community manager with Edutopia, and I thought I would take a moment here on my personal blog to try to demystify Common Core.  (Disclaimer: Edutopia does not take a position one way or another on Common Core, so this piece is mine and mine alone.)

The Common Core is a set of academic standards that is meant to make sure kids in every grade have a common set of skills in place before advancing to the next grade.  For example, the Common Core writing standards for the fourth grade includes the following:

Write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons and information.
Introduce a topic or text clearly, state an opinion, and create an organizational structure in which related ideas are grouped to support the writer’s purpose.
Provide reasons that are supported by facts and details.
Link opinion and reasons using words and phrases (e.g., for instance, in order to, in addition).
Provide a concluding statement or section related to the opinion presented.

So by the end of fourth grade, kids should be able to write an essay expressing their opinion, that is organized and is supported by relevant facts and details.  This is the standard format of almost every 5 paragraph essay and/or blog post.  What’s wrong with this?  By meeting these standards, kids in fourth grade in New York or Florida or Utah will all be expected to have the same skills.  Even if their families move across the Country, kids will be able to pick up at the same place at the beginning of the 5th grade school year, regardless of whether they read the same novels the previous year or not.  It won’t matter as much whether or not your teacher got all the way through Chapter 10 in the reading book, as long as you have these skills in place, everything is great.  The fifth grade teachers know what kids should be capable of doing, and there’s less time spent re-teaching material kids forgot over the summer.    It sounds great on paper.

Now we get to implementation.  Teaching kids these skills will require them to do more than memorize or recognize the right answer on a multiple choice test.  It requires deeper learning, and deeper teaching.  It’s going to take some time to transition existing curriculum and lesson plans to meet these new standards, and this will require additional professional development.  It’s going to be bumpy, as most changes are.

But wait!  An administrator goes to a conference.  There’s a shiny new box of books and computer programs produced by Company ABC which promises each lesson is Common Core Aligned.  Which is easier- buying the new books or actually training your teachers to teach differently in the classroom?  Those new books are looking like a great short cut.

Let’s talk about all those crazy math problems posted on Facebook that are attributed to Common Core. ( I will also remind those of us who were in grade school in the 70’s about the way we had to learn how to solve problems in Base 8 or Base 3 as well as Base 10, and to remember this before getting bent out of shape about not understanding your child’s math homework.)  The point of the math standards is to begin to make kids as fluent in Math as they are in reading.  We want them to understand more than how to calculate, but how to think in “math”- learning logic, a sense of measurement and proportion, and to be able to reason with numbers as well as words, and be able to combine the two as needed.  The standards are asking kids to show their work more and articulate how they are thinking about the problem.  This is a big change and is often difficult for kids who have stronger analytical skills but weaker verbal skills.  My kids can’t stand it, because they have a very intuitive sense of numbers and can do calculations in their head, but explaining how they got to a solution is absolute torture for them.  However, it doesn’t mean that they should not be able to explain their thinking and also have any mistakes corrected along the way, to prevent issues later on down the road when algebra and calculus come along, and mere calculation may not be enough.

So let’s examine a standard up close. The math standards for Fourth grade say:

Use the four operations with whole numbers to solve problems.

Interpret a multiplication equation as a comparison, e.g., interpret 35 = 5 × 7 as a statement that 35 is 5 times as many as 7 and 7 times as many as 5. Represent verbal statements of multiplicative comparisons as multiplication equations.
Multiply or divide to solve word problems involving multiplicative comparison, e.g., by using drawings and equations with a symbol for the unknown number to represent the problem, distinguishing multiplicative comparison from additive comparison.1
Solve multistep word problems posed with whole numbers and having whole-number answers using the four operations, including problems in which remainders must be interpreted. Represent these problems using equations with a letter standing for the unknown quantity. Assess the reasonableness of answers using mental computation and estimation strategies including rounding.

This means there’s a lot more language and word problems in math.  I would love it if we actually connected this up by doing real world projects that required using math skills, such as designing and then building something like a birdhouse.  It would start by calculating dimensions on paper and then actually building it according to the plans, to see whether the math “checked out” in the real world.  Even learning where the math did or did not work would be a valuable lesson in translating paper instructions and logic into real life.  This would help teach kids to look over a set of instructions, or even a recipe, and decide on whether the proportions seemed right before making it.

The point of all of this is that when we make any changes in a curriculum or in the way a subject is taught and learned, it’s going to confuse folks who learned it another way.  Each way may not be inherently wrong or right, and they each have their plusses and minuses.  But if we understand why changes are being made and what their long term benefits might be, maybe we could stop making teaching of courses in school such a political football, and get back to the important stuff, teaching kids the skills they are going to need to navigate an increasingly complicated world.

I love the idea of much of common core, especially where it focuses on building skill sets rather than rote memorization.  I think there’s great potential to do cross curricular inquiry-driven projects that will help learning come alive to kids, and put it in context, so it doesn’t always seem so abstract and pointless.  That’s exciting.  But when I see or hear of implementation that is essentially just reading a new script out of a new teacher’s guide, I go cold.  At that point, all we are doing is swapping one one-size-fits-all program for another, and the chance that teachers might actually start to customize the learning to the kids they have in their classroom goes right out the window.

Many folks have gotten upset because as the new “accountability” tests have rolled out, it’s become clear many kids were relying on recognizing the right answer rather than understanding why it was right, and that’s something that becomes apparent with the Common Core.  We’re now asking both teachers and students to work harder than before, be more engaged with their learning, and tackle harder problems.  It’s the right thing to do.  But it won’t be an easy transition for anyone, and we might find out, as many college professors will already tell you, students haven’t been as prepared for the rigors of college as they once were, and these changes are necessary to make sure kids are ready for college and career.

Yes, seeing test scores go down causes panic and worry.  But making a test easier so we can brag everyone got all A’s doesn’t automatically make them smarter and more successful- that’s just grade inflation.  Common Core is essentially asking more of everyone, and there will be some grade deflation until everyone is comfortable with the increased expectations.  Harder tests will mean having to work harder to achieve, and that’s not a bad thing.  Letting people skate by with minimal skills and a false sense of achievement is far more dangerous and damaging.

In the end, I think the essence and goals of common core are great.  I think their implementation and explanation to parents, kids and teachers alike has been, at best, ham handed and poorly communicated.  I don’t think we need to give up on Common Core, but much like the issues with the website around the Affordable Care Act, we have to retool and make sure everyone sees the map we’re using and where it’s headed so they can be more patient during the trip itself.  But until that happens, everyone will be sitting in the proverbial backseat, second guessing the driver and asking for the 400th time, “Are we there yet?  When are we going to get there?”

If we decide it’s too hard and turn the car around, we’ll never get to the destination. And that destination just might be the preparation of our kids for a more complex future where critical thinking and flexibility in approaches to problem solving will be key skills.  I want our kids prepared for that future.

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