Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Decision Trap and Creativity

Every day we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to make the right decisions.  Eat healthy, save money, say the right thing.  As women we face the unrealistic societal expectation expressed by my boss' favorite comedian of going to work, taking care of the kids, and then coming home to cook a great meal, and be multiorgasmic.  Life is a series of decisions, and the unrelenting pressure we place on ourselves to make the best ones.
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At least most life decisions are easier
than  solving this glittery rubik's cube
Yet research indicates the human brain eventually suffers from decision fatigue. Making good decisions  is easier when you can make fewer of them.  That's why Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg where the same outfit every day.   To paraphrase Barack Obama you don't want to have to worry about what you are eating or wearing when you have so many other decisions to make.   Smart women can do this, too.

I don't wear the same outfit every day, but to the extent possible, I've tried to automate the things I don't care about, and focus my energy and attention on the things that do.  I want a cleaner house, but I don't actually want to clean it so I read Living a Simple Life and The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up and got rid of stuff.   My husband and I live where we can walk downtown so we get our exercise without having to motivate ourselves to get off our couch to do boring mindless laps around a suburban block.   I want to write and be creative, but I realized some months ago most of my creativity was going into cooking and choosing what to wear each day rather than my writing, so I made some adjustments.  When my life seems most off track, I will make a list of my values and priorities, then make a list of how I actually spend my time:  there is nothing like comparing the two to see where an adjustment is needed.

Seeing the results of how you spend your time and the life you live contrasted with the life you actually want for yourself, and the ways you currently spend your time can make achieving your dreams seem impossible.  How did you end up here?  Why should things be any different?  Maybe this is who you really are.  All of these thoughts make the life you want seems so far away.  But the reality is that you can use the fact that life is a series of decisions to your advantage, too:
Terence J. Tollaksen wrote that his purpose became clearer once he began to recognize the “decision trap”: “This trap is an amazingly consistent phenomena whereby ‘big’ decisions turn out to have much less impact on a life as a whole than the myriad of small seemingly insignificant ones.”
You don't get where you want to be by making one big choice.  Life is made up of the smaller choices we make every day.  So don't sweat it if you aren't where you want to be.  Spend some time thinking about where you are, and what you want.  Then start spending time doing what you want, and look for the small decisions that can help you get there.  All these little decisions will make it so when you do have a big decision to make, you'll be ready.  And if you are still overwhelmed, just remember the 85% rule:  You don't have to be 100% certain, or even 100% ready. In fact, you probably never will be;  content yourself with being 85% certain, and when you get to 85% give yourself permission to act.
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Cross posted at YoungDirectionless.com

Friday, May 29, 2015

Gratitude Adjustment

My husband came home from a trip a few days ago, and when we had our first fight he said "Being away for all these weeks I really forgot how negative you are." We said a bunch of other stuff, too, but that statement really stuck with me.  Am I too negative?  Do I criticize too much?  I had been in a pretty spectacular mood.  "You are not a miserable person," he reassured me.   "I just think you spent too much time with your mother while I was gone."
As annoyed as I was with him, when I tuned in to my own frequency I realized he might have a point.  Yes, I was having a streak of particularly bad work days, but I also caught myself in what seemed like a metronome of negativity: the steady, rhythmic beat of annoyed this and muttering that.   "This person is an idiot," I thought while driving.  "Move your ass, lady, you're standing in line wrong." It wasn't just my negativity but my Germanic sense that there was an exact right way for the world to do everything, and the world just wasn't up to the task.
stand back
Ok, we're laying down the marker.  Knock it off. 

"What if I stop complaining for 24 hours?"  I thought to myself.  "How about making like Oprah and practicing gratitude?"  Except the more I thought about strapping myself into a monastic system of habit change, the more I started to worry that cultivating perfection was in fact the last thing I needed.  What does it mean to practice self-help when you are an unhinged control freak?  Is the paleo diet really about eating like my ancestors, or my need to control everything on my plate?  Does not complaining for 24 hour silence the negative tape in my head, or is it just another more socially acceptable way of suppressing myself?  Do I need to restrict, or obsess anymore than I already do? Isn't the obsessing what is causing all this in the first place?

So I decided to keep it simple. I gave up complaining for 24 hours. It was one minute after my decision when I sent my first snarky tweet questioning the whole project, and 10 hours before I came up with a coping mechanism borrowed from my Southern relatives that involved saying something that sounded nice, but was really a passive aggressive dig.
I don't think I was very successful at not complaining, and realized I really don't want to add "bless your heart" to every other sentence out of my mouth, but at least I've slowed the negativity somewhat.  In fact, instead of avoiding the negative, I decided to focus on the positive and start a gratitude journal.  Every day I will write down things I am thankful for.  It may not seem like much at first, but each positive thought can build on the last.

Tonight, I'm thankful for this blog. I am thankful I am writing again, even though no one sees it.  Most of all, I'm thankful for my voice--which has been too silent, too hidden, and ignored for too long.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Stress of Being a Breadwinner

I know it may seem hard to believe when you are living in poverty as a graduate student, but one day you will leave the University and you will have a job.  You will be getting paid. And you may or may not find yourself getting paid more than your partner.  Notice I say getting paid 'more than your partner," and not "getting paid a lot." You may or may not get paid a lot. But if you find yourself in the breadwinner position, you better hope you are getting paid a lot.


Just Another Day at the Office

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Follow Me Over to YoungDirectionless.com!


I've always been interested in keeping Permanent Head Damage up for graduate students thinking about leaving school.  But it's been several years since I left my PhD program, and I find myself wanting to expand my blog and write about other topics as well, so I've started writing on YoungDirectionless.com as well. Looking back at the last 10+ years of my career and work life, I realize there are a lot of challenges young people face in navigating these difficult years between college and figuring out the adult life you want for yourself. 

And figuring out your adult life is an ongoing process that I am realizing is less a destination than a continual calibration as things change and evolve. 

So I will keep this blog up, but you can find me posting more regularly at Young Directionless.com 

Don't worry--it's anything but directionless, but I do tailor entries to grad students and non grad students alike. 

Hope to continue to see you online! 

Monday, March 30, 2015

Still Standing By the 85% Rule

If you are finding this blog late at night, I know exactly what advice you need--the 85% Rule. Stop fretting, worrying, googling the same keywords so many times you realize you have read everything on the Internet ever written about your problem.  

Most of all, stop worrying about making decisions with 100% certainty!

Step One

Quiet your mind.  Meditate, take a break.  Read Zen Habits. 

Step Two

When you feel 85% confident about your decision, act on it.

Life is not about certainty. If you wait until you are ready, you will be dead. It will never happen.  So stop letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, and let the good be good enough.

Step Three

Let the synchronicity begin...

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Can't Figure Out Your Future? Maybe You Don't Want a Job or a Career

When I quit grad school back in 2012 I did a lot of soul searching regarding what kind of job and career I wanted for myself. There was a significant amount of time spent taking aptitude tests and finding careers that would be the right fit. I left for a policy job that involved a significant community outreach component. It was great for me on so many levels because I got to use what I learned in grad school, but I also felt like I was out in the world making a difference.  Only I was massively overqualified and after a year and a half I was recruited to another job that is for all intents and purposes a massive step up: better pay and benefits, better hours, no weekends, better title, much more responsibility, and a great learning opportunity and resume booster. This new job catches me up career wise for all the years I missed out on when I was in graduate school and not working.  This new job is hands down leaps and bounds better. Like a gift that fell in my lap.

And yet, after eight months I am bored.  Bored, lonely, and depressed about the fact that I am stuck at a desk all day, grinding out reports and budgets and projects. I feel like I am not able to be myself, and that I have lost track of what I want out of life.  I feel like I do not fit in, and that I don't really want to.  I recognized these feelings.

I started looking at job postings, and surfing listings, and I went back to my therapist who I hadn't seen since I quit graduate school.  Every session we would talk through job possibilities and what my ideal career looked like. Nothing felt right. Suddenly, one day she looked at me: "You have spent the last few years intensely focused on your career: do you still want that to be your main focus?"


She was right. I realize I don't actually want a new job, or a career right now. I've been so focused on leaving grad school and getting a J-O-B and getting my career back on track, when really what I want to focus on now is being happy and getting a L-I-F-E.  

Grad school and work can feel so all consuming. But life isn't only about grad school and work.  Life is about family, and friends, and having experiences and making sure that you are doing what makes you you.  Life is short and when you look back on it from your death bed what you did for a job is going to matter less than if you feel what you did mattered, and that you lived the life you wanted.

So I know that right now my solution isn't simply to find a better job: instead I need to find a better life. Maybe that is with this job, maybe it is in another.  Regardless, what job I have is secondary to what life I want to live.

If you find yourself struggling to figure something out, maybe you need to pause and ask yourself if the question you are asking is even one to which you need an answer.  Maybe you need tostop, and ask a different question.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

What I Really Learned in Graduate School (Even Though I Quit)

When I was a graduate student I was convinced that I was learning absolutely nothing. The biggest reason I quit was my concern over the opportunity costs of staying since I didn't feel my program offered me any relevant real world skills.  Being able to read a methods section, debate the epistemological underpinnings of the social sciences, and embrace a construct and theory did not seem like particularly relevant life skills.

Yet as I entered my first job after quitting graduate school I was amazed at not only how much I had learned, but what I had learned. The most valuable lessons are not the take-aways that I or even my advisor and committee members envisioned.

1) Teaching is management experience. If you have run research team or TAed you know how to explain assignments, break them down into manageable pieces that are appropriate for the skill levels of your staff, and hold people accountable. As a manager, you are uniquely suited to developing your team's writing skills, giving constructive feedback, and providing training and development. You can also schedule out projects and calendar them, and work backward to determine due dates and start dates.  Handling sensitive information, and identifying the kinds of problems HR wants managers to be aware of (sexual harassment, conflict of interest, etc.) is second nature.

2) Public speaking.  You can present concepts and explain them, provide context and point out limitations and nuances.  All that teaching has totally prepared you for anything, including filling time in front of an audience.  You can answer questions and think on your feet.

2) Mad (and super fast writing skills).  Research and churn out thorough, concise memos faster than any of your coworkers.  Just don't work too fast or they will dump a lot more work on you ;)

3) A high tolerance for stress.  Seriously, you have juggled teaching, research, publications, grading and coursework, all while trying to make it on 16-20k a year.

4) An even higher tolerance for crazy.  No one does neurotic like academia, but be warned that the workforce is full of crazy people.

5) No concept of what it means to have a weekend or weeknight free. Working long hours isn't unusual, so you will have the stamina and pride of work to put in the extra effort when you need to, and with most jobs the new found freedom of not taking work home all the time is awesome. Even jobs with long hours will seem great by comparison to your old life.

6) A low paying job probably doesn't pay as badly as being a graduate student. Seriously, employment law makes it very hard for you to find something lower paying than being a graduate student.

Of course, some of your skills may hold the potential to cause problems.

7) The ability to critique and destroy just about everything can really piss of your coworkers.  Academia trains us to debate and spar verbally in a way that may be extremely inappropriate depending on your work place, so be careful with this one.

8) Theory and past experience in initiating, planning, and scheduling projects can help you predict when something your organization is doing is going to go terribly wrong.  You can warn them, but your coworkers likely won't listen.  They really don't care about or understand the role of vigilance in decision making, the risks of group think, or how bona fide groups may suggest their initiative is going to fail spectacularly.

9) Face time and Freedom. You are going to hate not being able to set your own schedule, and decide which ideas and projects you want to pursue. Being indoors all day also makes you really miss the sun.

For me the hardest part of leaving graduate school was trying to silence my inner know-it-all, and adjusting to an environment in which not everyone was aggressively analyzing everything all the time. My managers in my first job had a hard time managing me because they didn't have much feedback to give me.  They had never manager or taught, and they were frankly in over their head, Being in the workplace after graduate school sometimes felt like my undergraduates were running the joint, but with no one around to point out what they were doing wrong.

Look for strong, experienced managers and mentors who you can learn from.  I lucked out in my current job--I'm actually working for another former graduate student who quit just like I did many years ago.



Advice for Foreign Graduate Students Considering Quitting

This blogs gets viewers from a number of countries, including Switzerland, Australia, Poland, Germany, Canada, and India.  Being a foreign graduate student adds an additional layer of angst when it comes to deciding whether you want to stay or quit your program.  Cultural differences, language barriers, homesickness, and financial considerations can all make an already difficult decision even more challenging.

While I have never been a graduate student in a foreign country, as an undergraduate I spent a year studying in Goettingen Germany at George-August Universitat (Politikwissenschaft).  I also studied abroad in Paris for a summer, and Italy for three months after I graduated (I guess this makes me a fairly atypical American).  The graduate student and undergraduate experience are not the same, but having been a foreign exchange student and having quit graduate school I can anticipate some additional issues that foreign graduate students may want to think about, and I offer this advice in case it is useful.  If it isn't useful, I would love to hear from you in the comments section (which I now actually check).

Some of this advice may also be useful for graduate students who are in programs out of state, away from family, or even find themselves in a different department then where they did their undergraduate work.

1) Getting clarity on whether you are actually unhappy.  If you are living in a foreign-to-you culture (let's get real, this is probably all graduate programs anyway) you need to discern whether you are having a bad time adjusting, or if you are really truly unhappy. For some people this will be obvious--so obvious in fact they don't need to read this blog.  For the rest of us, we feel conflicted because on any given day we may have a tough time sorting out whether we are unhappy because we truly don't like our program and graduate school is not a good fit, or if we are simply in the painful process of stretching and learning to do something new.

This is where the two week rule comes in.  This advice came to me by way of the two hour (that was it!) training that my university did for foreign exchange students, and was probably not standard so much as the advice of an eager to help and super awesome speaker. I wish I knew her name, but I don't, so good Internet vibes where ever you are for giving me one of the most useful tools ever.

Over a two week period, mark how many days you are unhappy. Put a big X on the calendar and record that day as having sucked.  When I told my grad school friends I was doing this they freaked because they assumed every day would suck.  In reality, I was surprised to see that it wasn't every day that was horrible.  At the end of the two weeks evaluate whether you are truly still unhappy, or if you are just fixating on a few bad days.

2) Connect with resources to help you get past any cultural challenges. Most universities in the US  now have fantastic programs for students on study skills, stress management, and counseling. Use these resources. They can be particularly useful for overcoming language barriers, navigating the stress of school, and figuring out what you want.  One limitation is that most of the programs are aimed at undergraduates, but I took full advantage of these and they were extremely useful.  Of course at a certain point if everything you are doing requires a coping mechanism, you may be doing something that you really shouldn't be.

3) Understand the limitations of the US system.  The US University Industrial Complex System is one of the best in the world.  However, like any systems there are certain things it is good out, and some things it is terrible for.   As a student of both the American and European University System there are a few things that you really need to understand and accept about graduate work in the US:


  • Heavy focus on grades and evaluation, with frequent assignments and deadlines. This can be extremely stressful, as well as limiting as you often don't feel you have the time to explore ideas. 
  • Big emphasis on attendance and participation. 
  • Extremely competitive nature of the American system. Some programs the students are incredibly competitive with each other and not helpful toward other students.  
  • Obsession (at least in my department) with normative progress and how quickly you are going through the program. This is likely due in part to the high cost of tuition. 
  • Expense.  My goodness it is expensive to go to college in the US, and there are not a lot of aid opportunities for foreign students. You are usually looked at by a University as a source of $$$$ in the form of out of state tuition. 
Deciding whether to stay in your program or leave is a big decision made even bigger by the distance you may have traveled to get there. Just know that even if you leave without your degree doesn't mean you haven't gained valuable experience and understanding that you would never have had without your time spent as a graduate student. 


Thursday, March 12, 2015

Hiding Your Emotions at Work

I'm not a big fan of hiding or suppressing your emotions, because I think emotions serve as important guides, and they are just going to eventually leak out anyway.  But sometimes when we are going through the difficult process of figuring out what we want we stir up a lot of feelings and emotions that don't come out at the most opportune of times.

About six months before I quit my grad program I ran into one of my committee members at a coffee shop.  All he said was "hi, how are you doing?"  It was just a toss off social pleasantry, but I became an unhinged sniveling ugly cry mess. Granted, I had a friend dying of cancer at the time, but I was also doing a lot of soul searching about whether I should stay. The mere suggestion that I check in with how I was doing emotionally was enough to unleash everything I had been holding back. I apologized, but couldn't stop weeping and ended up walking off crying.   It totally freaked him out, and I was slightly mortified, but by the end of my program I had cried in front of just about every Professor I had. That should probably have been a sign, because I am normally not a super easy to cry person.  Eventually we laughed about it the next fall when I finally quit, but I try to pay attention to emotional outbursts because they tend to indicate something is not working for me.  

So what to do?  Sometimes you just have to let it run its course. It's not the end of the world if your advisor or a fellow grad sees you crying, because it let's them know there is an issue. Plus, I guarantee they've seen worse (we do teach undergrads after all). Even if it is socially uncomfortable you have a right to excuse yourself and leave to find a safe space. You can minimize the after affects of your crying jag by remembering to breathe, dabbing (not rubbing your face with cold water), and for flair you can always fake a sneeze as you reenter a room to hide your red eyes.

If you are really a hot mess you might want to review these more extended tips, which include faking reading a magazine (though I tried this and tears and snot are pretty hard to control when you are looking down), or pretending to nap if you are on the bus (this happened to me).  I ended many a session in the bathroom where I splashed some cold water on my face, reapplied some make up, and slipped on my sunglasses.

Whatever you do, don't beat yourself up.  Promise yourself you'll let it all out when you get home, and recognize that you may need to spend some extra time paying attention to your feelings.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Quiting is Underappreciated

Ever stop to notice how little emphasis we as a society place on quitting?  Quitting is something that just happens, a black box, with very little attention paid to how to quit properly.  Historically, we look down on quitting.  What's the saying?  Winners never quit and quitters never win.

It's nice to see quitting get its due, or at the very least a little more attention.  Quitting is actually a really important life skill, and essential to learning what is important, respecting yourself enough to go for it, and actually achieving it.  One of the most important things a young person can do for their career starting out is to quit jobs and move on.  It's the easiest way to bump your salary when you are getting started, and it helps provide opportunities to learn and grow your skills.  Quitting and starting something new also helps you figure out what kind of job you want.

So don't feel bad about quitting!  Just make sure that you are quitting the right things, use the 85% rule, and when you do quit, make sure you really quit.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

What Graduate School is Like

As a recovering graduate student I suppose it made sense for me to include a survey on this blog.  Not very many of you have taken it in the few years it's been up, but thankfully I included some open ends (qual nerd here!) so I at least have some entertaining answers.

My favorite question:

Forest Gump said "Life is like a box of chocolates." What is graduate school like? 


Some of you compared graduate school to a cult.  One of you said you felt like a mouse in a maze.

Then there was this great quote:

Grad school is like a searching for gold in the 1800s. The promise of a better life only leads you to hardship and living in squalor, and all you get out of it is a few nuggets that are actually useful.

#Burn. 

I always loved metaphor analysis. Stories are universal to the human condition and our brains seem uniquely suited for metaphorical descriptions. Metaphors reveal fundamental assumptions and understandings that might otherwise remain obscured.  That and they are hilarious.  

Metaphors are also about perspective.  The person who described graduate school as mice lost in the maze also helpfully pointed out that "there is always a way out."  It might be graduating, or it might be quitting, but a maze by definition has an exit. 

What do you think graduate school is like?  Your response may be the answer that helps guide your path out. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

Should you Leave or Stick it Out?

Graduate school is an intensive experience of socilazation that involves breaking you down and rebuilding you into a scholar.  That process is painful, stressful and involved.  You will stretch in ways you never could have imagined, and will literally find that you will come to see the world in a different way.

Sometimes it can be difficult to sort out whether you are expericing a period of stress, or whether you really are burned out because this isn't the path for you. If you are reading this because you can't decide, here are some steps that may help you step back and analyze:

Where are you in the program?

If you have a major milestone like a thesis due, you just need to make sure that you will have the energy to get across the finish line.  You may also want to consider whether you are tired of graduate school beaucase of where you are in your program, or whether this really just isn't for you.

Talk to other graduate students.  Is it normal for people to feel this way around Comp exams/Coursework phase/insert other milestone here?  Depending on your program, there may be milestones when people tend to evaluate what they are doing and where they are going.

Sometimes we need more help in determining stress and burn out.  I can't recommend enough the use of a good therapist (which is often covered through your graduate student fees), or a good book like Finding Your Own North Star or the Artists Way.



Two Years and Counting...and No Regrets!

I don't check this blog but every six or twelve months, but I find it incredibly important to leave it up as a guiding beacon for those going through the painful transition of leaving graduate school. The advice I gave several years ago was raw, timely, and very much driven by my lived experience as I decided that staying for my PhD wasn't for me. I thought it might be helpful to know that years later I have no regrets, and still feel my decision ranks among the best choices I have made so far.

This is not to say that I don't have regrets, but none of them center on finishing grad school. Instead, as someone struggling with fertility issues I wish I had tried to have kids earlier.  I wish I had run for city council like so many people in my community encouraged me to--especially now that I am working I have to worry about getting my boss' permission and conflict of interest concerns. I wish I had pursued more of my artistic projects, including stand up comedy that I feel would be potentially problematic now that I am working in a more sensitive job. If anything, I wish I had been braver.

As you think about whether to stay or go, think carefully about what you really want out of life. But know that regardless of what choices you make now, you will have more choices to make in the future.  I can't recommend again the importance of doing some real soul searching now.  Maybe that involves a therapist (which I highly recommend), or maybe it's just some great books like Finding Your Own North Star or the Artists Way.  Even if you leave for a fabulous job, you'll likely be leaving for another job in the future.  So think about that 85% rule: don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good, but take your time to figure out what you really want.