All posts by Sarah Lang

What to make of the Online Cult of ‘Ultra-learners’

Yet another post which always became a book review but ended up becoming a reflection! I really wanted to do something else, like a tutorial along the lines of “Transkribus for Dummies”, but since that’s already done and Scott H. Young’s Ultralearning popped up on my screen, I just had to review it. It has received praise from Cal Newport (Deep Work, So good they can’t ignore you & Digital Minimalism) and James Clear (Atomic Habits), two authors who are definitely among my inner circle of personal development books. And it also treats a subject which has fascinated me for a long time – Ultra learning. That is the art of ‘aggressive self-directed learning’. To early-modern-ize the title a little bit. (Yes, the fellowship left its marks, but I’d do it again any time!)

 

Preface to the Readers

But first, let’s not get carried away. I have a word of caution to go with this (a real review will follow some time later). Ultralearning is a book promising techniques for self-learning. That is, especially self-learning to reach ‘amazing’ spectacular results, like – of course -the author has achieved. This, in my opinion, is problematic. By putting all of this down on paper in a very ‘meta’ way, Scott H. Young epitomizes a whole generation of online ‘superlearners’ who market their own learning results. While the empowerment is great, this can also easily frustrate people: Especially imposter syndrome prone PhD students might end up feeling belittled by these marketers’ apparent lack of humility. So let’s get to it. And, if you haven’t already noticed, the theme of this post is ‘early modern’ 😉

 

Liber I: On Sensationalism

Since I myself have gone through a period of phdlife-induced imposter syndrome just now, I also wanted to point out that listing amazing feats like “Pass a Maths/Analysis one semester class in 10 days” can also end up frustrating people. Especially if you have high standards. After all, to do our position as a Humanities blog justice and put the critical into thinking, essentially, these so-called ultralearners do nothing but capitalize on sensationalism in the end. If we break it down to the roots. Which, I am sure, they don’t really want us to.

Just like extreme athletes have to break one breathtakingly crazy and dangerous world record after the other, ‘learning gurus’ on the internet will tell you about one crazy intellectual feat after the other. About how they ‘hacked’ skill XY. And you, as a dutiful Humanities person with sky-high standards, might end up feeling inferior because your definition of mastery is quite different from the goals they have set for themselves. You will know this and still feel inferior. You catch yourself wondering how it is that these people are able to learn all sorts of great skills with apparent ease in no time while you’re still not done with your thesis. It can’t be that hard, right? Wrong. Don’t let internet personalities pretending to be real-life superheroes make you feel like an idiot. After all, they earn money from making you feel like they are better than most others, regardless of their frequent assurances that “really anybody can (learn to) do what they did.”

 

Liber II: The Art of Marketing

This is a dangerous trap, one might say. So I can’t give a 100% positive review, because I dislike this tendency behind it all. Tim Ferriss, Benny Lewis, Steve Pavlina and what all of their names are. They all fashion themselves as the greatest ‘meta-learners’ ever (self-fashioning also was a big thing in the early modern times, if you wanted to know. I happen to have read multiple papers about it over the last few days 😉 ). And, I get it. Meta-Learning is important. I totally acknowledge their achievement of making the public more aware of this. I was even deeply influenced by some of them. But at the same time, I can’t help but notice – in my capacity as your very Enlightened (with a big E) Humanist – that essentially, they don’t primarily learn to accomplish those amazing feats because they really want to learn them.

 

Liber III: Modern alchemy

The main outcome is that they make money from sensationalism, just like extreme athletes or any kinds of people who make money online nowadays. But that means that they don’t learn a skill to learn that skill, but rather: to blog about it. Because they make their living from that blog and the coaching business built around it. The skills they learn are sales proposals. Just like early modern alchemists would give sensationalist demonstrations of experiments and (some) tried to make people believe they knew how to make the philosopher’s stone and were perfectly able to reveal this secret to others.

Just like our ultra-learners do. This technique of promising greatness and riches taps into all those very human longings we can’t seem to shut off, even at a time when most of us don’t believe in the philosopher’s stone anymore. But in reality, we still do believe in it. Because we want to believe in it. We just call it differently and it comes in disguise. But essentially, it’s still the same thing all over again.

Conclusio: Redefining “success”

A big part of what they do is redefine “super-human success” and “mastery”, more or less achieve it and then sell to people the idea that they are not special: Everybody can achieve what they did and here’s how. (And input your credit card number below, of course). So, let’s have no doubt about that this is not only and not innocently about learning. Another component of their magnum opus pointing at this conclusion is the fact that they hardly choose boring projects. The projects they choose mostly also make for a great sales proposal, are apit to cause quite a stir, and yield the possibility of going viral &c. Alchemists sometimes did that, too.

 

These are my reflections for now 😉

Best,

S

Book review: Essentialism. Part II

A while ago, I wrote a book review on Essentialism by Greg McKeown. Today I wanted to follow up with a part II. “Why?” you might ask. I gave the book to my dad for his birthday (as an actual book this time). He loved it but when we talked about it, I noticed that he had remembered completely different things than I had. So I decided to listen to it again and this time, other things stuck with me. I always find that the really good books can be read millions of times and every time, you will find something you hadn’t previously noticed. Essentialism definitely is one of those books.

 

Essentialism is the disciplined pursuit of less but better

But what does ‘disciplined’ mean anyway? The author gives the following example: the normal state of the closet is to get more and more cluttered if a conscious effort is not made to get rid of non-essentials. Consciously making this effort over and over again is what he calls ‘disciplined’. You need to re-do it all the time even though you might feel like you just did it. But the clutter piles up again and everytime it does, you need to act even though you don’t want to. You need to know where the next thrift store is and when it’s open. You need to have a plan in case somebody drops off their clutter in your closet.

 

Do less than you want to do

This might be known to some of you as “Leave one in the bar” from working out. McKeown realized that it would be difficult keeping up a journaling habit every day because people tend to write more and more every day. This ends up making the habit harder every day and one day will come when you won’t stick to it anymore. So he asked himself how he could overcome this limitation. And he decided that the solution was to always do less than what you want to do. This helps to ‘keep the fire going’ and stops you from losing motivation.

I have this problem with my own routines, be it exercise or translating some of this Latin text every morning aside from my actual PhD writing. I tend to think “Well this went well today. I might just to two pages of translation tomorrow, then I’ll get done earlier.” But the text is 250 pages long. And after three days of translating two pages every morning, I lose motivation. Apart from the fact that two pages takes away enough energy that I am not very effective with my PhD writing anymore. I decided that I need to do less than I feel I could. That’s what makes it sustainable. I have been much more successful doing one page per day now. It’s for this reason that some ‘habit formation philosophies’ like Mini Habits (Steven Guise) or the Japanese Kai-Zen have become popular. In order to make it sustainable, do less than you could. This also goes for working hours, in my opinion, though I’m still trying to figure out what works best for me and is most sustainable.

 

Protect the asset and have more fun

This is kind of self-explanatory. But probably worth mentioning again here: One of the main reasons high-functioning people sabotage themselves is by not getting enough sleep and not taking time for fun, play and rest. For me personally, I have decided I need more active rest (=play/fun), not passive relaxation like binge-watching 😉 Otherwise, my work-life-balance project is going ok: I never work evenings anymore (at least until this week where I succumbed twice already) and I take one day off completely every weekend. However, without some more prioritization on what I work (not only taking into account how long), I feel that I am still not doing as well as I could.

Also, by the way, did you know that being tired and dehyrdated both reduces your brain capacities as much as being a little drunk constantly? It’s sound cheesy and simple: But I think we could all do with some more sleep and water. Also, getting enough rest helps you prioritize which is one of the most important skills ever in this busy world full of distractions. Which leads me to the next point:

 

What’s important right now?

If you don’t know what’s important right now, what’s important right now is to find out what’s important right now. This is my new credo at the moment. Over the last stressful weeks, I have noticed that the biggest factor in me sabotaging myself, except for procrastination probably, is not knowing what’s the most important thing and thus, wasting time on non-essentials. Your time and energy will be gone no matter what you do. Your dissertation will only get written by you writing your dissertation.

 

This is it for now. But actually, there were many more takeways, so I’l probably do a part III at some point 😉

Best,
S

 

(PhD) Life Wisdom Learned from Bouldering. Part I

At some point recently, us to Epigrammetrists were in the boulder gym bouldering and we realized that bouldering actually teaches you quite some insights for life. And not only life in general, but also the PhD life in particular. When I started typing the blogpost, however, I realized I had material for way more than just one single post. So you will get a little series now to which I’ll add every once in a while 😉

 

You don’t have to take bad holds

In life as in bouldering, we often feel obliged to take all the footholds, handholds, opportunities and possibilities we are offered. But in bouldering, at least on routes where there are more than enough holds, you always have the possibility to avoid some of them. Often, with bad holds just as with opportunities we feel we have to take but don’t feel comfortable with them, we don’t even realize that we have the possibility to just not take them. I often find that I can climb routes much better when I find a way of leaving out the dubious holds. Then I don’t need to be fearful about it and usually, you realize:

 

There is more than one possible path

There is more than one possible solution. In bouldering, this quickly becomes visible because people just tend to do the same climb in hundreds of different possible ways. But they don’t remember this in life. Also related:

 

You don’t need to reach the top the way the others did.

Getting inspiration is a good thing, of course. But often, we end up putting pressure on ourselves afterwards. Unlike in bouldering, in real life we often feel that we need to do it exactly the same way as the others. In bouldering, it quickly becomes obvious that we just have different strengths and prerequisites and thus, what works for someone else might not work for us. Then we just find another way. Maybe the other person is already at a higher skill level, is taller or has more strength – of course they can pull off other ways, even more elegant ways of doing things. But maybe you can’t. Then deal with it. Get over it. Remember you can find your own way. This is definitely something to apply to life.

 

Sometimes it’s a leap of faith

 

Sometimes all that is needed to succeed is for you to take that leap of faith. To trust in your ability. To just do it without worrying, maybe you even have to shut your brain off. When you hand in that paper, when you’re standing in front of that big audience to give your paper (maybe not so much then), or when you need to let go of both handholds so you have a chance at throwing yourself at the next one.

 

This is it for now. But there are many more bits of bouldering wisdom to come your way, so stay tuned 😉

Best,

S

Don’t check your phone first thing in the morning

Since many of you enjoyed my post on procrastination, I thought I’d follow up with a tip already mentioned here in more detail. It’s her tip to not check your phone first thing in the morning. I have tried this and these are my experiences.

How to do this

I didn’t actively plan on actually implementing this tip. But when I woke up in the morning and was about to grab my phone for the usual checkup (which usually ends up taking much longer than the intended 2 minutes), I remembered Oakley had said to not do this but to first do 10 minutes of work instead. So I thought, I need to get through these bills anyway. And I did that. And I had the first achievement of my day. Then I checked my phone and still lost a lot of time.

10 minutes of productive work instead

Now this doesn’t work every day for me and I’m not enforcing it either. But this morning, I realized I broke the habit of having to check my phone first thing in the morning. I still do sometimes. But I don’t have to. And when I don’t all the effects she described really set in: you are primed for a productive day. After those inital 10 minutes of work, you often continue working because it’s so rewarding. And after the initial urge is past, I sometimes don’t feel the urge to check my phone for hours. This has downsides too, of course. Yesterday I didn’t know our first meeting had been canceled because I hadn’t checked my phone (or at least my work email) since after 5 pm the day before. It was a small setback in the moment. But it’s really a victory. I feel like I’m gaining back my freedom.

The “priming effect”

I also really feel like the “priming yourself for a productive day” thing really works. It’s easier to exercise willpower during the day or at least to overcome the barrier to start getting work done. It’s easier to resist the urge to check the phone. (In some situations I still want to procrastinate, of course, but hey – it’s ok to leave some improvement for tomorrow, right?)

It triggered a chain reaction of positive change

Sometimes things are urgent. But when they are, people tend to try to call you or reach you more aggressively anyway. So you won’t miss anything crucially important. But you gain a few good early morning hours where you can get work done. And after I got work done during the day, I feel that I don’t need to punish myself in the evening by working long hours or checking email constantly. This little mini-change actually triggered a chain reaction of positive change.

Next step: Write down todos the night before so your brain can pre-process them

Another one of those tips I more or less subconsciously implemented is to write up todos for the following day the night or evening before. This lets your brain work on it overnight and you’re more ready to get going the next day.

Maybe the next thing I implement will be to prepare my things for the next day or to tidy up before going to bed. I am really motivated to step up better routines right now 😉

Hope to pass on the motivation,

Best,
S

Devices and productivity on the go

Today I want to share some reflections on productivity on the go since I just returned from an archaeology and ancient history sailing excursion (inofficial) summer school (it was great and will probably happen again next year as an international summer school on “The Maritime Ancient World” or something, so watch out if you’re interested). The point is that on and before the trip I was, of course, confronted with a difficult choice: Should I bring work devices at all and if yes, which ones are best?

You should not bring productivity devices to your time off at all

First of all, I probably shoulnd’t have brought any device. I had a tablet (my old Lenovo Yoga Tab 2) but I hardly used it – thankfully. I had only brought it in the first place because I hadn’t finished this article, which I ended up not finishing anyway. So that was actually a success, work-life-balance-wise. But on the return journey, I spent a few hours on the bus web browsing options for productivity devices which are suitable for situations where you don’t want to bring the laptop (like on a sailing boat).

But if you really have to, these are my requirements

A device like this should be small and portable, but also not too expensive since I really don’t use it except on holiday. It should comfortably allow you to work effectively in a moment of need (command line utilities and LaTeX inevitably needed for that; also decent RAM).

I am generally a very non-tablet kind of person. I think tablets cannot be used for productivity. I am probably not your average user, but I really want a commandline, LaTeX and some computing power, even on the go. I don’t need Microsoft Word (Learn how you can live happily ever after without it here). On the other hand, I don’t really want apps which I find to be generally very un-usable and non-productive things. A fully functional keyboard is absolutely necessary but since I have small hands, I am much less picky with keyboards than most people.

Also, since I have migrated to Linux completely (by now actually that long ago that I can officially say “years ago”), I ever since am less and less able to tolerate anything else. Insisting on Linux really massively reduces your choices on the mini netbook or ultra-mobile pc (umpc) market. However, on the umpc market, Linux alternatives seem to be taking off recently, so maybe this won’t be an issue anymore a year from now.

But at the moment, most tablets firstly don’t even have a “desktop mode” at all (thus only apps) and secondly, if they do, don’t have a Linux option. Such as my Lenovo Yoga Tab 2 where the keyboard only works with Windowds which is becoming less and less acceptable for me. Of course you can always just install Linux, but tablet-like devices have so many features (like touch screens and stylus support, etc.) that you really miss out on half of the features and I am not really willing to pay for tons of features which I can’t even use. So that makes things kind of complicated.

 

What I found

Despite my non-conventional needs, I have found some possibly interesting options which I wanted to make you aware of. Also, if you are interested in small netbooks or mini ultra-mobile pcs (umpcs), Liliputing generally is a great resource to find reviews of mini computers. They are available as blogs as well as on Youtube.

Many Kickstarter projects feature such mini computers. However, the problem with Kickstarter is that projects might not end up working out, there are huge delays in delivery and you don’t know if there will be any customer support later when the product prematurely exhales its last breath. But if you’re in for cool products which not everybody has and don’t need one delivered to you rightaway, like me, you might consider keeping an eye open on Kickstarter.

Since I am only really interested in products which feature a native Linux option, I will not go into detail with Windows ones. If you are ok with Windows, congratulations, there are many more interesting products out there for you.

The Gemini PDA

The Gemini PDA Android & Linux keyboard mobile device is meant as a smartphone with a keyboard and comes in Android or Debian. However, Debian is supposed to be patchy and it doesn’t really work well for the intended use. The keyboard is too wobbly to be really productive (according to my extensive review research). It looked really promising at first, so I was a bit disappointed by the mediocre reviews.

The Topjoy Falcon

The Topjoy Falcon seemed perfect to me but I missed the Kickstarter campaign and you currently can’t buy it regularly. Also, a general problem with cool gadgets coming out of Kickstarter projects: If they do take off and lead to a regular production, the post-Kickstarter prices are so high that the product really isn’t all that attractice anymore. (Remember, I wanted a relatively non-expensive product for holiday use only.) This sadly is the case with most Kickstarter tec gadgets. But it also features Ubuntu.

 

GPD products

The Chinese GPD company specializes in ultra-mobiles devices. They are much smaller than what you regularly would get because they specialize in this niche.

They have the GPD Pocket 2, the MicroPC (like a 6 inch toughbook), a new ultra-book project going on (GPD P2 Max) and a range of gaming devices. They have a history of successful Kickstarter projects and the prices are great when you get it from a running campaign. The only downside, in my view, is that they aren’t exactly cheap anymore in the regular price and then again, it’s a risk buying from a smaller, less established brand (possibly less customer support, etc.).

They usually release and ship with Windows 10 but they collaborate with Ubuntu Mate for UMPC, so a customized Linux version becomes available shortly later. Which, personally I think, is pretty damn awesome.

Lenovo Yoga Tablets

This is also more like an honourable mention. As I said, I still have a Lenovo Yoga 2 Tab from my pre-Linux era a few years ago. It’s nice and all but the keyboard – which is the essential part for me if it’s supposed to be a productivity device – only works with Windows. (Also, not that I have tried with anything else because I really just want a new device right now.) 

But it’s actually quite a cool product. The bigger one has a beamer function included which might come in handy at some point. I still use mine for watching films sometimes. And I am a big fan of Lenovo. It’s a bit sad that they don’t offer a great Linux umpc. I would totally get that. 

Honourable mention: Paper tablets

ReMarkable

It’s not a netbook, it’s not a tablet either and it’s also way too costly if you’re not going to use it regularly, but I just love the ReMarkable paper tablet. I have never owned it myself but I have tried it out and found it quite awesome. You can use it to read and annotate PDFs, take notes or even make drawings. However, people also have some criticisms on the software and it’s really quite an investment (around 400-600€ depending on whether you can get a special offer). Paper tablets are interesting for academia people because classic ebook readers aren’t great for PDFs but papers mostly come in PDF form. Many colleagues use ‘normal’ tablets for this exact purpose, but that’s another screen your tired eyes have to look into. When I work a lot and want to get reading done, I am usually quite glad to not have to stare into another screen. Also, there’s the thing that the blue light wakes you up at night, etc. etc. etc. So the ReMarkable doesn’t have as many features as a tablet, but in harmony with the Digital Minimalsim principle of non-multipurposing, it thereby also comes with many less temptations for drifting off.

E-Pad

Also, during my research for going more digitally minimalist, I came across the E-Pad 10.3″ E-Ink Android Tablet & eReader with Pen (also a Kickstarter thing) and it sounds really good. But I actually has apps which was a reason for me to reject it at the time since I didn’t want to many options for distraction. Now, looking back, it doesn’t seem so bad though. (I found this review really interesting. A plus is that it as access to full Android and not a proprietary system.)

 

Conclusion

So, that was it for now. It maybe wasn’t an overview over the more common products. But then again, you can get that from somewhere else. Maybe this was helpful to some of you.

Best,

S

 

Procrastination and the PhD life

For once, this is not a book review. At least not really because I will discuss some concepts I read in Barbara Oakley’s A Mind for Numbers, NY 2014. The book’s about how to learn more effectively in math and science and I thought it might help me learn new computer science concepts more quickly. But it’s really a book highly recommended for anyone. It’s a book about learning how to learn, about how to master procrastination and your work process. Highly relevant to the PhD life, obviously, so I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on it with you 😉

 

Defining the problem

Well, where to start? We all know what procrastination is, of course. The idea of having to start a task we find daunting, our brain lights up with pain. Procrastination offers a quick relief. It doesn’t seem too harmful in small doses but, like Arsenic, if consumed in excess the consequences are not fun.

Interestingly, for the most part of my life, I have never had a single issue with procrastination. It’s not that I had never felt the need to procrastinate. But during my schooling, I found most classes utterly boring and useless. So I ‘procrastinated’ on paying attention by completing other boring tasks which were dull but didn’t require a lot of focus. That way, I hardly ever had to do any stupid homework at home. By completing all my homework in class, I never even had to use my willpower at home and had enough left to focus it on the important stuff.

Even during my university studies, this method still worked, because sadly, I still found myself in a situation were most classes were shit and a waste of time, to be quite plain. So I did my homework, assignments, research for seminar papers and even some paper writing during boring lessons. At home, I had a consistent routine of spending 1-3 hours in the morning on some deep work and learning, for example like practice for Latin grammar, learning Ancient Greek and the like.

Having read some of Oakley’s tips now, this sounds like it was a freaking great idea because not only did it work really well, it also fits quite well with the learning theory (apart from the fact that you should avoid multitasking, but then again, I’ve never been a greater follower of rules, to quote Dumbledore from Crimes of Grindelwald on the matter).

 

The anxiety and procrastination inducing PhD life

But didn’t I just claim that we all know procrastination all too well and then followed up with how I never had a problem with it? Well, not thus far. For me, problems with procrastination only started once I started work and thesis writing. Now that I didn’t have frequent classes anymore I had to show up for, I lacked the hours to get those boring tasks done. Nobody controlled if I showed up for my work as long as it got done somehow. Also, had I not felt so well one day when I still used to ‘procrastinate’ during class, I could just sit there and do nothing while still “getting something done” in the way that I at least completed my attendance to the class.

Before, if I didn’t do anything, class still progressed. Now, when I didn’t do anything, nothing would get done. Also, tasks used to be much smaller than “Complete PhD thesis”. Even if you divide that one in smaller tasks, it’s still huge and daunting, there is no way around that. And all of a sudden, I had those bursts of anxiety related to procrastination. In the good old days where there was no procrastination issue in my life, I was so much less stressed. (It’s actually proven that procrastination causes stress and takes at least as much time and energy than just doing what needs to get done.)

We procrastinate on things that make us feel uncomfortable. […] The dread of doing a task uses up more time and energy than doing the task itself.

This has been going on at least since 2016 in my life but it seems to have been a mystery to me until I read Oakley’s book today. I haven’t really found the cure to my own newly discovered procrastination problem yet, but I wanted to share some tips Oakley provides in her book.

Don’t let your procrastination habit get the best of you

First of all, procrastination is extremely detrimental if you have big tasks ahead of you which require deep work and understanding, such as learning math (Oakley’s example) or writing that great peer-reviewed paper. If you ever only cram at the last minute, your brain has no time to form any firm connections, leaving you with superficial only. Not good.

First things first. Unlike procrastination, which is easy to fall into, willpower is hard to come by because it uses a lot of neural resources. This means that the last thing you want to do in tackling procrastination is to go around spraying willpower on it like it’s cheap air freshener.

  1. Use the Pomodoro technique (25min timed work sprint without distraction, reward and break after each session). Working on a little time constraint also has the added benefit of teaching you to function under pressure.
  2. Train ignoring distractions like you would work on meditation. In meditation, it’s all about recognizing a thought and actively deciding to discard it. Applied to procrastination, that means that you need to first become aware when the impulse to procrastinate comes in (not always easy!), then train yourself to ignore it.
  3. Use this little “digital minimalism” challenge to practice: When you notice the urge to open social media, don’t. Acknowledge the impulse, maybe reflect why you had it and what the reward from it would be (are you expecting a mesage or just want to avoid working?), come up with a way of substituting the reward or delay the gratification (“I’ll work another Pomodoro, then I can have a social media break as a reward”).
  4. Don’t “reward” yourself with a bad habit when you haven’t done anything to deserve it. This is easier said than done, especially if the habit is already automatic. Then the first step is to un-automate it and re-route your reaction to the cue which usually triggers your routine habit behaviour. This new reaction, however, still needs to be rewarding or you won’t go through with it in the long run.
  5. Oakley suggests to stop yourself from checking your phone first thing in the morning and to set a timer for 10 minutes of work instead. This little willpower training will “prime you” to make better choices during the day. Other people also say that unlearning the snooze habit is really important. However, I feel that I don’t have a problem with snooze when I’m truly motivated. I only it do when I really dread the day.
  6. Only apply willpower to your reaction to the cue. 
  7. You are bound to fail sometimes. We all fail sometimes. Learn to control your reaction to failures. Have a plan B for when they happen and, most importantly, failures are a necessary part of the learning process, not an indicator that you’re incompetent or unable to get things done.
  8. If you want to be kept from your digital devices, give them to somebody to watch over during your pomodoro timers.

 

Leverage all the external factors you can get

Social pressure can be an effective means against procrastination. For example, I sometimes procrastinate on climbs I am a bit afraid of and never finsih them, thinking I can’t do them. Once in the last month, for example, I brought a fellow fellow to climbing and she watched me do my current ‘final opponent’ boulder which had eluded me for weeks and countless attempts. With a colleague watching, I did it on the first attempt.

Turns out all I needed was that little social pressure and encouragement to pull through. I’d probably had that one in me for weeks and only couldn’t do it because I bailed out of it again and again. So these tips are even valid for climbing: When you think you can’t do it, hang on just a little bit longer. Always train until you actually fall (hint: most times, you probably won’t at all, even though you dread you might) or you’ll never use your full capacities and won’t progress. If you never try, you’ll never know. Overcome procrastination now 😀

To rewire your reaction to a trigger, try developing a new ritual. In the case of procrastination, this rewiring is sometimes called learned industriousness.

Meeting times or even lunch dates can be used as mini-deadlines to push your productivity. I always find I get the most productive shortly before I have to be somewhere because I’m trying to cram in just a little more, to get just that little other thing done. This is quite effective productivity-wise, but also the reason I am notoriously late. Not a good habit either. But it was helpful to read Oakley’s tips to understand this behaviour for what it really was for once: a mini-deadline-driven productivity burst.

Remember, habits are powerful because they create neurological cravings. It helps to add a new reward if you want to overcome your previous cravings.

Identify cues which trigger routine behaviours. Try avoiding the cue alltogether, if possible, or if you have to. Or try to change your reaction to the cue. How does your old habit serve you or how did it serve you when you first started doing it? Is that even something you still need? Does it still serve you? Can you substitue the rewards or tweak it in any way, if possible, without resorting to require willpower? If you resort to willpower too much, you will ultimately give in to distraction and temptation in a high-stress moment of weakness. So try to build a system which doesn’t rely on it, making it anti-fragile to high stress situations (which are bound to occur).

Process, not Product

I’ve never really had a snooze issue on excavation days. And for good reason: Excavating is about the process, not the product. You don’t know what’s going to come out of the ground (well, more or less, but you know what I mean), so you just show up for work. That’s another main concept from the book. And it might be the solution to my work-related procrastination problem. Focus on the process, show up for your timer, don’t focus on the product or on which outcomes are due. This is probably the main problem I have with procrastination at work. I look at the to do list, see all the products and outcomes it asks for and I end up paralyzed. Had I just sat down for two hours, like I would have during a boring class, the most daunting thing would probably already be done. So that’s my homework for now. I will practice to not let myself think about the product. It’s the product which triggers the pain causing us to procrastinate, so get the product out of your head. The process itself is not daunting.

When we think about a daunting task, pain centers in the brain fire up. Shifting your focus to something more pleasant (i.e. procrastination), makes you feel better temporarily. In that way, it is like a drug addiction. Like with any addiction, you start telling yourself stories to explain it away. But in the long term, this bad habit is going to slap you in the face: Procrastinators have worse health, lower grades and report higher stress levels. So apart from the fact that dreading a task instead of doing it takes more time and energy than to actually do the task, it causes even more stress leaving you feeling even more incapable of getting things done. The vicious circle continues and spirals out of control. Sometimes, procrastinating and then still finishing right before the deadline can make you feel high and invincible. Just like the thrill in gambling or other bad habits which feel good only in the short term.

When you’re on auto-pilot during a habit or routine activity, it’s like zombie mode. You don’t make decisions which can be good because it saves energy. However, you need to monitor your habits very closely and make sure they serve you rather than destroy you. Because what you do every day accumulates, you become the product of what you do every day and if that’s procrastination, you might end up with a result you don’t like. Well, there would be even more info in the book but I’m not done with all of it yet and the post is already too long again.

So, that’s it for now, (might follow up)

all the best,

S

Bouldering Braunschweig II – at Fliegerhalle

Dear epigrammetrists,

it’s time for another post about bouldering in Braunschweig. As you already know, I spent my summer on a fellowship at Herzog-August-Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel and went bouldering in Braunschweig. The first month was spent at Aloha, the second one at Fliegerhalle. You already got a long-term (4 week) review of total immersion at Aloha. Now you get a review of Fliegerhalle (a bit less extensive though). This means that I got two of three bouldering spots of Braunschweig done (the other one would have been Greifhalle).  Yay to that.

The Review

In the case of Fliegerhalle, I don’t have as many little criticisms as for Aloha. I was a bit more expensive for the one-month-ticket but just a few euros. These were totally worth it seeing as Fliegerhalle held many less struggles for me. Fliegerhalle felt a lot like our home base (Boulderclub Graz). The difficulty is labelled white – yellow – green – blue – and a few really difficult ones. A fun thing is that there are purple boulders with the “joker” level which means that they could be insanely diffcult or somewhere middle range. I’d say they were between a difficult yellow and an easy blue one. They never required the technique of a blue one, but had some quite tricky spots.

Compared to Graz, white is a bit more easy than Graz’s yellow, thus yellow and green at Fliegerhalle are also a bit less difficult than Graz’s green and blue. However, I felt that this discrepancy in difficulty levels was kind of levelled out at the green stage. There were some easy ones, but the range was quite big. This is probably necessary because Graz has many more distinctions for very difficult levels (purple, red, white, black) whereas, I think, Fliegerhalle has only red and black after the blue one but red and black are extremely rare, so difficult green to blue covers quite a big range of difficulty. And that is not only difficulty by the end of the green range, but also a somewhat sudden onset of high technique requirements.

I, as a relative newbie, progressed to the difficult green ones quite quickly, but then there were some green ones left which were much too difficult. The blue ones all had hardly anything to grip or were slopers, etc. All required techniques I had never used, so I was quite unsure who to overcome this plateau – the easy to middle range green ones had become too easy, but the more difficult ones were sometimes that much out of my range that they discouraged me rather than motivating me. However, I had this same whiny complaining for Aloha, so maybe the problem is me and not the boulder gyms 😉

Transitioning from good beginner to a really advanced boulderer in a a short amount of time is probably bound to end like this. Since I just don’t have tons of experience, I maybe just didn’t give it enough time to acquire new techniques. This is a good thing about Fliegerhalle by the way: They sometimes offer quite easy green boulders which can be used to learn a new technique. The only difficulty will be mastering this spot where the new technique is needed, for example a dyno jump from the floor and then the route is basically over. This is a great idea. If these new things were included in a route which is already challenging to me otherwise, I can’t practice the new skill in isolation. So thumbs up to Fliegerhalle for that!

I also went top-roping with a fellow fellow two times which was good fun. The staff were really nice and helped us out a lot since we both had done toprope at some point before, but like 5 years ago, so a refreshing was in order.  Fliegerhalle, I take it, is also liked by many regulars because it has a nice café. You can sit outside in the summer. There even is a ‘bouldering mushroom’ to boulder outside, also a tower for lead.

The shower rooms are nice, but here – to my dismay – there is nowhere to lock away your valuables. You have to leave them close by and hope there are no longfingers around. So better try to bring as few valuables as possible. The lack of locked storage is, I might say, the only real drawback about Fliegerhalle, if you ask me. I also lost my chalk bag at one point at Fliegerhalle and it was found again after a few weeks which was nice for me, of course. Also speaks for the institution, I think.

On the top level, there is a nice workout area with hangboards and rings. Not quite as nice as the whole gym room in Graz, but quite nice. I really like the rings as well and the fact that it’s on a separate floor, so you don’t have 50 bystanders watching you as you labour on the hangboard 😉 They had some workout equipment at Aloha as well (which I think I forgot to mention), but it was all in the same hall as everything else. I prefer the workout area to provide a little bit of privacy. You don’t want to publicly make a fool of yourself as a beginner.

My last weeks and coming home

On the personal side: I think I will take a little break from bouldering for a few weeks. I made great progress over my summer “training camp” here, but I also got a cold over the last weeks (which still doesn’t go away and has gone one for 2-3 weeks now). I think I am possibly a bit overworked by now, so as much as I loved Wolfenbüttel and my early modernist mafia (whom I will miss so much!), I am also looking forward to coming back to Graz now.

With bouldering, I think I overdid it a little towards the end and put too much pressure on myself to keep up the crazy progress I had made. Which probably just isn’t possible once you’re not a complete beginner anymore. So I gathered from a few Youtube tutorials that a 2 week break can do wonders. Your specific bouldering muscles will be all but gone, of course, but muscles come back again in two weeks. Sometimes these weeks off can be just what your brain needs to process the new techniques learned and you’ll “click” afterwards. I’m hoping for the best, anyway 😉

If you’re a PhD student and thinking about applying for a fellowship, absolutely do it. You will have much more calm and time to get actual reading in writing done when somewhere else. Very advisable and it’ll look good on your CV to have a fellowship and possibly a stipend for it to show for.

So that was it, hope it was helpful.

Best,

S

Book Review: So good they can’t ignore you

When I first read the title of this book, I rejected it immediately. Only after I had become a fan of Cal Newport’s having read his Digital Minimalism and Deep Work, I went back for it. I loved it immediately. It really isn’t what the title makes you expect at all. Rather than a quick fix “you can do it” narrative, Newport stresses how some pretty unspectacular things, like hard work and skill, will make you successful.

This review sums up some of the main arguements and tips while trying to adapt them for the academic field. Because this book, unlike the later works of Cal Newport doesn’t contain frequent references to Academia and it’s not always obvious how an Academic can implement those very ‘market-oriented’ tips.

The craftsman mindset

The most important concept of the book is the ‘craftsman mindset’, a mindset opposed to the ‘passion hypothesis’. That is the idea that you should go for a job you are passionate about. If only you bring the passion and motivation, you will succeed. The most imporant point of Newport’s is probably, that this is the most stupid idea ever. Because, contrary to this optimistic new-age rhetoric, motivation alone will get you nowhere without skill.

Newport systematically investigated what approaches successful people had to their success and work, and also interviewed some believers in the ‘passion hypothesis’ who failed. In all his examples, those who had fallen for the passion hypothesis went on to make some truly horrible business decisions. Like start a freelance yoga business after a four week crash course to become a yoga teacher. And ended up out of work not much later.

Newport’s argument is that this happened because the ‘passion hypothesis’ just doesn’t work and you won’t get anywhere on happy thoughts alone. I think this is an essential thing to realize in Academia as well. People will hire you because you contribute rare skill and a hard-working mindset. Not because you have fascinating dreams. Academia rewards results, not effort or motivation. Nobody cares if you’re more motivated than your competitors unless this motivation is a driver for more actual results.

Newport shows examples of hugely successful people who approach their job like a craft. They show up for hours and hours of practice. They do ‘deliberate practice’, that is to say strategically look for imperfections and eliminate them. Like, say, a professional musician would approach daily practice. This is what he means by “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”

 

Control traps

Newport then mentions something he calls ‘control traps’, that means things which can go wrong when you want to take more control over your life. Like mentioned before, you need skills before you can make big steps. So before making a bid for control, acquire career capital. No bold, premature bids for freedom. People from the ‘Lifestyle designer’ community often go for freedom without skill and thus, fail. When interviewing all the ‘overnight successes’, it mostly turns out that many years of skill honing actually led up to this ‘sudden success’, so it really wasn’t all that sudden after all.

But once you have the skills, your boss will naturally try to hold you back from independence because you will have become too valuable. What makes your life better no longer benefits your boss, so they will hold you back. In Academia this might mean that a boss will give you lots of nice projects because they know you will do the job well. But none of those projects are probably high value enough to really advance or kick-start your career. To do this, you would have to move away, apply for a high-profile job or something. Once you don’t need your boss anymore, you’re ready and valuable, so there will be resistance when you try to leave for a new opportunity. Once you have enough skills, finding clients, or in our case, job opportunities, should be no problem.

Law of financial viability

Newport also brings up the ‘law of financial viability’. That is to mean that you should do what people are willing to pay for. Don’t switch to a new occupation full time unless you are sure you can live from it. So in this case, money would be used as an indicator of value and he suggests yout test the ‘finanical viability’ of an idea using “little bets”. That means that you try your idea on a small scale and see if it works.

Translated to Academia, this could mean that you try out a new project in a poster presentation or something else with a low entrance boundary. You don’t spend huge amounts of time on it and seek feedback early on in the process. If people like it, you can decide to investigate further. But also, in Academia you need to be careful not to blurt out great project ideas or somebody might ‘steal them’. So maybe, if you new idea is a new method, try it out on your own old data and remain silent about which corpus it could be applied to according to you. Before you go all-in on an idea, make sure to test if there’s a ‘market’ for it with small-scale, small investment but quick feedback ‘small bets’.

 

You find your mission in the ‘adjacent possible’

Newport thinks that we can find great new ideas in the ‘adjacent possible’; so right beside the current cutting edge. In order to find those new ideas, you need a good overview of the current cutting edge. Then, by recombining what’s there, you might find the new hot combination. Getting to te cutting edge requires, yet again, that you become ‘so good they can’t ignore you’ in your subject area. He recounts a few scientists’ life stories who found opened new fields by combining multiple exisiting ones in a creative way.

 

The law of remarkability

In addition to the ‘craftsman mindset’, Newport suggests you also adopt the ‘mindset of the marketer’. So when you have an idea, it needs to be something people will remark about because it stands out (like Milka’s purple cows). Your venture needs to favour word-of-mouth marketing like this. Participating in a poster or science slam with a fun contribution might do the trick here.

 

Summary

Newport’s book may be summed up in a five step process:

  1. Build career capital, i.e. rare and valuable skills, using the craftsman mindset.
  2. Cash it in for independence and mission.
  3. Mission ideas can be found in the adjacent possible beside the current cutting edge. Finding them, however, requires expertise.
  4. Once you think you might have found something, follow up with systematic exploration using ‘little bets’ before you go all-in on your idea.
  5. Then, once you’re settled on an idea, you need a marketer mindset to generate ‘remarkability’.

Most experiences can be career capital later. So go for tons of experiences and explore. However, acquisition of career capital happens mostly via deliberate practice and deep work (book review to come!).

Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come. (Victor Hugo)

Systematically practise for improvement. Explicitly note down results from deliberate practice. Measure your progress. Income or success generation require for you to have something to trade in return. Thus: Be so good they can’t ignore you.

And the book is a definite recommendation – I loved it and thought it was something real, for once, in a jungle of self help bullshit. It all comes down to the fact that people become happy with their jobs who have the skills required. Those who just blindly pursue their supposed ‘passion’ will end up miserable. So maybe, when deciding what job you want to do,  first look where your skills are.  


XX

Bouldering Braunschweig – at Aloha Sport Club

As you might know, I currently am a research fellow at Herzog-August-Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel to work on my dissertation. But of course, we promised we would review bouldering places we visit during our travels. So today, I will give you a short little review of Aloha Sport Club Braunschweig. Since I am here quite long term, you will get a long term (= 4 week) review and not just first impressions.

Overview first

First of all, Aloha Sport Club doesn’t offer bouldering facilities only. It also has tennis and squash and I don’t remember what else. The location is a quite run-down building from the outside, but it’s an ok sports place on the inside. Just like old fitness facilities used to be in Germany, only that most of them have probably been replaced by more modern fitness studios nowadays. Well, this one hasn’t and it includes a decent sized bouldering room, so no complaints here. The locker rooms are not places where you want to stay and shower, but I always shower at home anyway. And coming from Wolfenbüttel, this location is the closest of the three bouldering places in Braunschweig (the other ones being Greifhaus and Fliegerhalle), to be reached in about 15-20 minutes by car. Most reviews also mention that it’s quite an ok facility on the inside once you got over the shock of how run-down it looks from the outside 😉

 

Zoom and Filter

The routes

There aren’t many people there, but the regulars are quite nice and talk to you easily. As for the routes, I find them a bit weird. At first, I thought I just needed to adapt (I am afraid of heights when I don’t trust the wall and the mats yet). But now that I’ve been there more than once, I feel like something’s off with how the boulders are done. Of course you can always use techniques like flagging if you really master them and get away with practically anything. But I am still at the beginning of learning flagging and I have real difficulty here. I feel that the walls just don’t really afford technique, if you know what I mean.

The feeling is completely different from our home base at Boulderclub Graz where all the routes feel quite natural – even if the advanced ones are still of limits to you as a (relative) newbie. When you look at them or watch an advanced person do the routes, it is usually quite clear that they were set with the flagging technique in mind and you can always figure out a meaningful way to do it with flagging. Usually, most well-set routes become manageable once you approach them systematically and with ok technique. The difficulty is mostly to figure them out systematically and then go through with it practically. Here, this is not at all the case.

Difficulties mislabeled

In my frustration, I googled for reviews and found that many complete beginners (first time bouldering) thought it was wonderful and left positive comments. And that’s ok. It’s not a bad place to go bouldering. But I also feel that in comparison to home, the way the boulders are done is a lot worse. They just don’t feel natural. And voilà, a quick web search turned up that more experienced boulderers (is that the correct term?) have felt the same way. Some comments I found said that they thought most boulders afforded “solving” them by force rather than technique. Somebody else said that the difficulties were seriously mislabeled – which, by the way, I also felt. I am completely unable to complete difficulties I normally master. There are some really easy routes, but a lack of intermediary ones. The “second level” and “third level” (to avoid colour differences between countries) are often really difficult. That would be green and blue in Graz, but yellow and green at Aloha.

Comparison to Graz

At home, I had been at the point where I can complete the “first level” (yellow in Austria) easily, the “second one” (green) in 80% of the cases unless it’s a difficult one which I can work out after a couple of times and then, I manage – say – about 30% of “third level” (blue) routes and progressing quickly. Here it’s white, yellow, green, blue. And I can only do yellow. Those are almost a bit too easy. But then yellow sometimes have nothing to grip properly or are spaced apart so much that I would have to jump which I don’t fancy. Green ones totally don’t work out. Even though in Graz, I at least usually have a good go at them (blue here) even if I don’t manage all of it. At Aloha, even though green here should theoretically be the same level as blue in Graz, I really don’t get anywhere at all with them. So far. It’s quite difficult to progressively work boulders out if can’t even get parts of the route. I think the problem might be that there is too big a gap in difficulty between level 2 and 3 labels. Maybe it’s going to get better the more I get used to them. Hopefully. And I am progressing. So maybe it’s just me taking a little longer to adapt to this new wall… 

 

Mislabeled difficult routes are bad for newbie motivation

Overall, seeing as I only started climbing around 4 months ago, I think it’s not super great to be in an environment where I can’t do the level that I usually do. Someone who’s been bouldering for a very long time with a very high skill level, might be able to compensate for this or their self-esteem is less affected by little failures like that. But for me, I think this environment is not optimal for my progress, since it’s just demotivating and frustrating. That’s why I will try the other bouldering place soon, just to reassure myself that the fault is not mine. (Edit: I actually did and it turned out that it really seems like the problem wasn’t on my part – the other place went much better.) 

Jumps required in supposedly easy routes

Also, I often feel that the routes must have been set by someone really tall. Because those from the “second level”, I often felt were not doable for someone my size without jumping / leaps which is definitely not “second level” (and I am seriously afraid of that, so I can’t complete a lot of routes which would be doable for my level apart from the jump). The jump is also not big enough that I think it’s deliberate either. I think they just didn’t take into account that a smaller person can’t reach that far even with the best technical approach and full body extension. And, at least from what I have seen in Graz, deliberate longer jumps are not usually part of blue ones. These are mostly labeled purple in Graz (“fourth level”), so should be blue here. It could be, of course, that I seriously misread the routes and just didn’t get how they were supposed to be done. So it could be my fault. But then again, this is my review, so my feelings as a customer count 😉

 

If I hadn’t paid for a monthly ticket in advance, I would have probably changed to somehwere else

But to be honest, I already have paid for a pass for one month, but am seriously considering trying the Fliegerhalle this Friday. Just to get my motivation back up (hopefully). Because here, I really feel like a complete idiot even although my fitness levels have definitely improved lots over the last weeks. (I decided to do some sort of personal fitness challenge while I’m here).

 

Volume regulations

Also, another interesting fact maybe: it seems customary here that you can use volumes even when there isn’t a boulder from your route on them. In Graz, if you want to stick to the rules, you should only use volumes when they are marked as part of your route by the presence of a boulder (mostly a mini-boulder) in your routes’ colour. This doesn’t seem to be the case here. Maybe I would just have to make use of the wall and volumes more to manage the routes here. Well anyway, I think I’l never feel quite at ease with the Aloha wall. Sorry to have to give a bad review in the end ;(

 

Asked a guy whether he liked the place and he praised it, but failed to mention he worked there

Something else has happened to me and it was this: I got talking to some guy and asked him whether he thought this was a good bouldering place (also in comparison to other options in Braunschweig) and he said that, yes, he thought it was the best one in BS. But what he failed to mention is that he works at the place. So obviously he thinks his spot is the best. I don’t know but I personally would have given a disclaimer like “I work here, so I’m probably biased, but I think this place is the best for objective reason XY”.

Because it became obvious he worked there the second time I came to the gym already. So he might as well have mentioned it. Felt a bit weird finding this out right about the same time I was starting to have doubts whether I had picked the right place. I had bought a ticket for a month anyway (I assumed this was the ideal location for me because of the relative closeness to my appartment and the fact that I didn’t have to travel through Braunschweig town in order to get there). So it wouldn’t have made a difference. But anway.

 

Detail on Demand

Since I wanted to share my first impression, or that is to say, the impression of my first week going to Aloha Club, I have left this first part of the article the way I wrote it after the first week. But I scheduled it to a few weeks later, so I could add later experiences and also to add the comparison with the other places in Braunschweig I have tried out. Furthermore, I didn’t want to post a somewhat negative review while I was still going there, so I waited to publish it until after my monthly ticket had run out. So this following rest of the article will be from later experiences.

 

The one-month-pass

After one month of going regularly to Aloha (2-3 times a week consistently), I will give some final impressions. Frist thing, the monthly pass is around 35€, so quite cheap and only 2/3 of the price in Graz. However, I still stick with some of my criticisms.

The boulders are often quite seriously mislabelled. A nice guy who turned out to be chief of boulder setting at Aloha told me that he is aware of the problem but since everybody there sets those boulders for free in their free time and they tend to be very hurt if you change their labelling, they usually remain the way they are. Most boulders have a little sticker with the name of the person who set it, so the regulars apparently are all aware that if it says ‘Meik’, consider it at least one level more difficult than the label. Well, that’s nice for the regulars. But still, I think that the customer is king (or queen) in the end. And if the people who set the boulders are super down when their labelling is criticized – hello, if you are able to set crazy difficult boulders it’s quite pussy of you if you can’t take criticism. After all, the boulders are not set by babies either.

Aloha should really think about improving their policy on this because it is a major drawback for me. Even if I am supposed to know that the boulders might be mislabelled, it hurts my ego when I can’t do the stuff that I usually do. That, in turn, acts like a self-fulfilling prophecy causing me to generally perform below my skill level or at least stops me from raising to the challenge, which I usually do at some point. This is not fun in the long term.

And I’m quite sure I am not the only person who is like this. Since Flliegerhalle is not far away, (plot twist) actually much easier to reach by car from the motorway,  and hardly more expensive (a few euros on a monthly ticket), I would recommend everyone to go to Fliegerhalle. Really sorry, nice people at Aloha. Furthermore, as Aloha already has to make up for its somewhat shabby look, they should definitely take these issues more seriously. Fliegerhalle is just generally a much more put together place that’s fun to be in and doesn’t look like a derelict building either. In the direct comparison, I personally wouldn’t find one single reason to choose Aloha over Fliegerhalle if I had the choice.

 

Pro-tip: Never buy a long-term ticket before you have tried the place at least 1-2 times

So what do we learn from my mistakes? Never buy a long-term ticket before you have tried the place at least 1-2 times. Even if it will be more expensive in the long run / for a single try, always try the place at least 1-2 times before buying a ticket for a longer period of time.

On the upside: Weird routes forced me to focus on technique

As for the more positive stuff. Since I couldn’t do hardly any of my usualy skill level at Aloha and even the level 2 stuff sometimes was quite a bit more difficult or respectively made less sense than what I was used to, I had to work hard on my technique to reach half of the output in mastered routes that I usually have. So I made it my job for this month to kinda ‘vanquish’ this wall. I now am at the point where all the yellow ones (level 2) are kind of too easy, but most of the green ones (level 3) are kind of too hard. (Whereas I think I would be at a level to master at least 70% of blue ones = level 3 in Graz by now.)

I have used the time to teach myself a few new techniques for my repertoire which will always come in handy, I guess. So not really time lost in terms of training. I even had a really cool session every third session. But the ones in between tended to be quite annoying and frustrating which is uncommon for me. In Graz I would have a frustrating session max. once every 4-5 times.

 

Pro: Nice regulars and volunteers cheered me on

But, then again, some of the nice people I met there helped teach me how to dyno and explained how to figure out a particular route for me. That was super nice. But still, if most of the routes are set in a way that a non-pro person cannot figure them out at all without help from those who know how the routes “were meant to be climbed”… I can’t really see how that’s a good thing in the end… Alright, some nice people helped me out – those people are not Aloha. But this is a review of Aloha. And Aloha’s quality was average, if you ask me. 

 

Final summary

So that was four weeks of bouldering at Aloha. Apparently, a lot of German climbing champions climb there. But still, I am not a fangirl type of person (unless it comes to researchers or historical people, or  Magnus Midtbo, I guess), so I really couldn’t care less if the *best German boulderers ever* came to this gym. So, summing up, it is set well for complete beginners who will find enough easy ones for a fun session and it has some nice stuff for very advanced boulderers. If, like me, you are in between and just don’t pass as really “advanced” yet, there is quite a gap and you will be forced to do stuff which is either too easy or despair on stuff which is rather way too difficult to make a nice training progresison. So, regardless of the apparent appeal for very good boulderers, it still is set badly for the average user and, sorry to have to say that, I would definitely recommend going to Fliegerhalle instead.

Best regards,

Sarah

 

Resources

Overview first, zoom and filter, then details-on-demand” is the so-called Shneiderman’s mantra for data visualization. The blog headings were organized according to this mantra for no reason in particular 😉

Book Review: Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning

Today, I wanted to give you another book review. This time, it’s quite a short review and the book is: Joshua Waitzkin, The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance, NY 2007.

Not a lot of practical takeaways

I thought this would be a relevant book from all of us in the ‘learning industry’. The title ‘The Art of Learning’ kind of suggests a book with practical tips. Also, from the never-ending praise Tim Ferriss has for the book, I would have expected a more practical approach. That’s how I came to read this book now (or rather listen to the audiobook on my way to my research stay up north). But, as it turns out, TFs 4h Chef actually is way more practical with tips on how to approach learning than Waitzkin.

Mostly an autobiography

Waitzkin’s book really is mostly an autobiography. It recounts his journey and successes as chess genius and then as a martial arts champion. Some of it was kind of interesting, but for me who is neither a chess nor martial arts fan, it was kind of boring because of the lengthy recounting of matches. I was almost thinking about not finishing the book.

One takeaway after all

I ended up finishing it after all and one concept stuck with me that I wanted to share today. It is a simple concept and Waitzkin doesn’t really offer a solution but it was an important pattern for me to notice in my own life.

It is the destabilizing impact small failures can have. Waitzkin recounted endless matches where he went into downward spirals after a little insecurity and opponents who actively played to destabilize him. He realized that he lacked in the area of bouncing back from failure. He then trained to basically ignore failure and continue as though nothing had happened and ended up even more successful, now able to handle much stronger opponents.

The destabilizing impact of small failures

I realized that I am very fragile when it comes to little failures. I am a control freak sometimes and this is, essentially, due to the fact not that I were afraid of failure itself, but rather afraid that I might not be able to get back on track after a failure. So I try to maintain a rigorous productive routine and am taken aback when a week of conferencing throws me off track. Often, this ends up a self-fulfilling prophecy because I really find myself unable to get back on track. I think this is because of all of the pressure I put on myself in these situations (which could be completely normal situations, after all).

The tiny failures end up making you fail in earnest

Had you just gone back to normal after being thrown off track, it would hardly have had any impact. A little failure, a moment’s inattention. They are not that big of a deal. But when you end up getting scared instead of staying calm;  when you react to the failure, you begin to fail in earnest.

So in this respect, Waitzkin’s book has made me aware of an insecurity I have and that I need to find ways of strengthening myself faced with failure. Maybe, as he suggests, meditation would help. And failing a lot, fast. Of course.

So namaste until later,

S.

 

 

Sexism in Academia II: Specific Issues in Academia

In the last post, I gave some thoughts on sexism in Academia which I have come up with during the last few years experiencing Academia.

My conclusions were that only breaking the silence will make things better in the long term. This means persistently speaking up, even and espeically, about minor incidents because they give a good picture of what’s really going on, they make perpetrators lose their anonymity and they are relatively easy to talk about for the victims. Speaking up and owning your story often results in victim blaming, de-validation of your experiences or down-playing (in German, we have the very fitting word of “verharmlosen”, meaning pretend as though no harm had been done). Regular compulsory educational workshops for bosses and strict company policies are promising initiatives to counter this systematized phenomenon that is discrimination based on gender. Because this discrimination often happens in so-called “non events”. So, it can be difficult to complain about it because, essentially, “nothing happened”. 

Today, I wanted to expand on this and also talk about some points even more specific to Academia. So let’s begin:

 

Why did I give the incentive for this workshop? My own experiences leading up to this activism

First, I want to take a few paragraphs to illustrate some of the things which have happened to me. This is by no means a complete collection but these incidents mostly suffice to surprise people about how many things like this happen to a womxn on a regular basis.

Disbelief that a womxen can be more successul or qualified than a man: How do you mean you are about to grade a Bachelor’s thesis?

Not so long ago it happened to me that I was asked repeatedly “Which bachelor’s thesis? Your bachelor’s thesis?” after I had stated I had to turn in early because I had some BA thesis corrections to do. The person in question (a man, however not from Academia) really couldn’t wrap his head around the fact that I was advising a bachelor’s thesis and he didn’t even have a degree. By which I don’t mean to say that it’s bad to not have a degree. But it also indicates a strong reluctance to believe that a womxn is able to accomplish something, and most importantly, to be more accomplished than a man.

Groping during a panel at a conference

I had my worst instance of sexism in Academia at DH-Budapest in 2018. It was an extremely hot day in a small room. Seats were very close together. It was my first “bigger” conference I had specifically travelled abroad to. My poster presentation had already gone well, people were nice, all was good. It was my last day at the conference, during a panel focusing on Classics, so probably the one which was most relevant to me. We went in talking as group of people who got on really well but had only met eachother at this conference. I sat beside this guy who was weird. But I have I bias that all weird people must be really nice because people thought I was really weird at school and ever since I have a – probably stronger than healthy – understanding for the exclusion and stereotypes these people have to live with on a daily basis. 

This time, however, it would probably have been better to react with more distance since the guy got really close to my during the panel. He sat in weird ways but I explained this with his general awkwardness and the fact that it really was extremely warm and packed in the room. There really was hardly any room to move. So I tried not to interpret anything into the fact that he casually started to touch my leg at some point. I honestly wanted to believe that it was just so cramped in the room that no other sitting position was possible for him. And since he was an extremely awkward guy, I though he might not even have realized. I still tried to shift around in my seat to avoid his touch. After he changed positions multiple times and subsequently shifted away multiple times, at an increasingly fast rate, I started to suspect something. There weren’t any more positions for me to sit without touching him that I hadn’t tried yet.

I silently gesticulated to him that he should not touch me. He wrote “Sorry” on his phone and showed me, so I thought it would be ok now. But after a few minutes, the touching restarted and more aggressively than before. In the end, he ended up touching my ass and I told him to stop again. Then he finally stopped. I avoided him afterwards but he actually had the insolence to want to share his contact info with me. 

When I recounted this story to friends, they asked why I hadn’t reacted quicker and more vigorously. I really don’t know. I think I didn’t want people to know. I didn’t want to believe this was happening. I didn’t want to make a fuss. But since the seats and rows were cramped so tightly together, I wouldn’t have been able to leave without making quite a fuss. Maybe I should have done. Maybe I should have screamed. But I didn’t. I was angry at myself for a long time for not reacting faster and more vigorously. 

But I also didn’t want to miss the panel because of the guy. I don’t know if nobody noticed what had happened, but I am quite sure that the people around us must have realized I was shifting around in my seat like a freak. Should the bystanders have said something? I don’t know. 

All I know is that I have never felt fully safe at conferences ever since. And for good reason, because things like these kept happening. Many were just casual hints to follow someone up their room, but phrased in ways which were hardly clear. So had you complained, they would say that you had misunderstood them. Things like these happen quite frequently. Mostly, they are deliberatly circling ‘grey areas’, in my opinion, deliberately phrasing what they want ambiguously. So you have to spend nights wondering whether this was a sexist moment or whether you’d just made it all up. This is also victim blaming, in a way, making the victim so confused about where the boundaries are and making it hard to identify if they were crossed so that the victim seems like they are not in their right mind.

Verbal harrassement when traveling to conferences

It happens to me a lot to get sexist comments when I travel from and to conferences by public means of transport, like trains. Often, these comments come from elderly people who don’t seem to realize their ‘compliments’ are uncomfortable and not really compliments. All sorts of weird things have been said to me on the train (“A reservation in your heart is not as cheap has this 1€ train seat reservation, right?”). I will also not go into detail too much here because the post is already so long.

Non-events

Since this post is already getting really long again, I will just point you to this brilliant and important article on non-events for now:

 

Liisa Husu, Recognize hidden roadblocks

In researching women in science and academia, I have found that it is not only the things that happen to women — such as recruitment discrimination or belittling remarks — that affect them in pursuing a career in science or that slow their career development. It is also the things that do not happen: what I call ‘non-events’ (L. Husu Adv. Gender Res. 9, 161–199; 2005).

Non-events are about not being seen, heard, supported, encouraged, taken into account, validated, invited, included, welcomed, greeted or simply asked along. They are a powerful way to subtly discourage, sideline or exclude women from science. A single non-event — for example, failing to cite a relevant report from a female colleague — might seem almost harmless. But the accumulation of such slights over time can have a deep impact.

Non-events can be manifold. Superiors or colleagues might ignore or bypass women’s research and performance; fail to invite or welcome them to important informal and formal networks; bypass them for awards, prizes or invitations; fail to give them merit-advancing tasks such as representing the research group in public forums; not ask them to design or participate in scientific meetings, conferences, panels or as keynote speakers; or simply stay silent when it comes to career support, advice and mentoring. Even supposedly small non-events can send a powerful message, such as when a female postdoc publishes a high-profile article that generates no reaction from senior local colleagues, while her male counterpart’s parallel article is celebrated with high-fives all round.

Non-events are challenging to recognize and often difficult to respond to. Nothing happened, so why the fuss? Often, non-events are perceived only in hindsight or when comparing experiences with peers. Learning to recognize various non-events would help women scientists to respond to them, individually or collectively, with confidence and without embarrassment. Anonymous pooling of non-event experiences would be an eye-opener and a good start to understanding how non-events work in various scientific settings.

All scientists — leaders, gatekeepers, rank and file — need to be aware of how they might inadvertently exclude women from crucial collegiality. Monitoring the practices of support, encouragement, inclusion and exclusion in research groups, projects, networks, conferences and science institutions from a gender perspective would be a first step forward. Addressing this issue in management and supervisor training and early-career coaching is key.

 

A postive example?

Once during a after work event, my boss sat beside me. He then asked me whether I could change places with a male doctoral student because it’s less weird if their legs touch accidentally than ours. While this is a very heteronormative view of matters, I think it was weird, but also quite thoughtful of him. I am his doctoral student and I appreciate that he was so ‘proactive’ since there are many small situations where you’re not sure “Is this sexism or am I making this up?”. By stating this good intent, he made it all clear. It was still a little bit weird and also, a form of rejection of a student of the opposite gender compared to the acceptance of the own gender.

We discussed this particular situation during the workshop and like me, most others also can’t decide whether this was a brilliant or an extremely awkward  and over-the-top thing to do. In the end, I am grateful. This behaviour would probably be weird between boss and ‘normal’ colleague. But the PhD phase is a very vulnerable one. The advisor has a lot of power over the advisee, even though this might not be visible so much at all times. I appreciate the fact that he keeps some personal distance during this qualification period.

It’s protecting me. It’s a nice change in a world where I ask myself so many times whether someone is just generally a touchy person or whether they just ‘accidentally’ touch me more often than other people. But it’s also a case which shows some of the potentially strange consequences this process of banning sexism might have. Like one participant said at our workshop, this newly won ‘safe space’ might cost us some of the “more natural” way of going about social life.

 

Why I think a lot of womxn feel sympathetic to a workshop like this but don’t actually sign up for it because they feel it doesn’t concern them

When talking to womxn about sexism, I am sure that all of them have had their sexist moments. I can’t believe there are actually womxn out there who have never experienced sexism. Yet so many say that they feel sympathetic but they won’t come to a workshop because it just “doesn’t really concern them”. Why is that, I wonder?

Maybe you are not dominant enough to be perceived as a threat. Maybe you are too early in your career and people just don’t take you seriously. Which is not a judgement about you but rather, about the society you live in. It is highly likely that they don’t trust you to ever accomplish anything at all. You are just a nice girl who knows her place and has no ambitions (no matter whether that’s the case or not). But once you step out in the limelight, once you want to be respected and treated in the same way as you male peer, I think it very unlikely you’ll still feel that sexism in Academia doesn’t concern you.

 

Manthologies and Manels

Terms to know in the context of academic sexism are ‘manthology’ and ‘manel’, that is to say an anthology or a panel which only consists of male contributions. This is a problem because it causes men to even more be perceived as overly competent, whereas it makes women seem like the don’t contribute or aren’t as important.

An easy #heforshe thing to do for all those wanting to be allies: Don’t participate in such all-male displays of competence.

If they “really couldn’t find a female contributer even though they looked very hard” they must be a pretty shitty organizational team anyway, right? Research is only good when as many perspectives as possible have been taken into account.

So let’s not accept shitty excuses anymore.

Also, if you’re interested, a brilliant article about the subject is the following: Mara Benjamin, On the Uses of Academic Privilege (@theTable: “Manthologies”), in: Feminist Studies in Religion, May 27, 2019. Let me cite her definition of the ‘manthology’:

man·thol·o·gy · noun · /manˈTHäləjē/: 1. A collection of writings by different authors, the vast majority of whom are men. 2. a popular form of scholarly production, produced by an intellectually myopic volume editor, an insufficiently critical publishing house editor, and the passive complicity of contributors.

This is her advice:

First, to would-be editors of volumes and publishing houses: you’re on notice. We are watching the choices you make.  We are uninterested in hearing I asked many women but they all declined.  If your volumes aren’t representative, they are not worth publishing.  Women and other underrepresented minorities don’t want to be tokens; we want to do our work.  You can support us by reading it, publishing it, and engaging in serious and constructive conversation with it.  Your failure to acknowledge and engage our work is a methodological error on your part that is now being called out publicly in more and more subfields of Jewish studies.

Second, to senior scholars:  Share the spotlight.  Lift up the work of scholars who are in more precarious positions.  Call out editors.  Ask your friends and colleagues who organize conferences about how they came up with the list of invitees or contributors.  If you’re at an R1, reflect on how you admit graduate students. To what extent are your decisions guided by the implicit aim of replicating yourself?  How can you bring underrepresented voices and topics into the scholarly conversation?  Make your position on these issues known to junior and contingent colleagues who may want to call on you for support. 

 

What we learned during the workshop

The workshop was held by Mag. Dr.in Lisa Kristina Horvath (Dr. Lisa Horvath. Universitäts- und Organisationsberatung) and Mag. (FH) Stefan Pawlata (Verein für Männer- und Geschlechterthemen Steiermark). As a guest speaker, Seunghyn Song presented her work with the EGERA.eu project.

As one of my biggest takeaways, Seunghyn Song pointed out:
It’s not just about you being a womxn, it’s also about how you are a womxn. And (that’s what I want to add): It’s about how you claim your space as well.
 
 
But let’s start from the beginning.
 

What counts as sexualized harrassement?

Basically anthing from cat-calling to comments on when you are planning to have your children or overhearing informal talk that womxn XY is probably not a good fit for a job because you can’t believe she will be able to handle authority while caring for two small children. Or mean comments that a womxn has gained weight with age or stress. Which actually, most man do. In my personal opinion even more so than womxn because they are less societally required to look good. And most people do not have magazine cover ready bodies. Yet when you are a womxn, there is the implicit expectation that you should. That you should look permanently fuckable, an expectation which dehumanizes and objectifies you. Which takes the focus away from your (academic and other) strenghts to your superficial appearances.

So basically in sexualised harrassment, there is non-verbal (staring, gesturing, unwanted presents, etc.), verbal (cat-calling, remarks, annoying and inappropriate questions, unwanted invitations) and physical (unwanted closeness or touch, sexual assault). This term stands as a broader form to ‘sexual harrassment’ which really only covers the ‘extreme stuff’, yet fails to encompass the far more common daily problems with sexism. Not taking into account the small stuff which leads to the big stuff is a mistake, I think.

Sexualized harrassment can also be on the base of sexual orientation. And it is by no means reduced to womxn only. But since our workshop was a pilot workshop and we wanted to reduce complexity, this time the focus was only on womxn.

 

Silence, victim-blaming and rewarding the prepetrators

As I said in the last post, they need your silence. Song brought this topic up in her talk as well: If you’re not silent, they will try to silence you by punishing you (if only implicitly) for speaking up. 

Prepetrators actually get implictly rewarded for sexist behaviours: It is the victims who will be blamed and/or shamed (victim-blaming, victim-shaming). It is the victims who get asked to just avoid the prepetrator or who just don’t get invited to events anymore, whereas the perpetrator still gets invited. They subsequently profit from the absence of the victims who could be competition for them. They alone are there at events to profit from networking, recommendations, introductions and the like.

This is not pure conjecture either, this has been proven in a study examining this problem Europe-wide. Because sexism causes Academia to lose so many talented people and because sexism seems to be so deeply ingrained to the Academia field that the EU thought they had to address the issue.

Sexism and promised rewards

With sexism in Academia, we learned, often come promised rewards or threats of negative consequences. Prepetrators in a position of power over the victim abuse this power for getting closer than the victim likes.

This could be the abuse of an exam situation to make inappropriate comments, only allowing to discuss a dissertation in uncomfortable narrow or private places (such as at your advisor’s place). Forcing employees in precarious situations to share a hotel room “to save costs” without asking them first or without really asking them (i.e. giving the opportunity to decline without offending anyone). And of course nagging questions about relationship status, etc. But always accompanied with the threat of negative consequences should you decline. Sometimes you are even offered help that you really need – like the introduction to a famous person – but only in return for sexual favours.

 

Spotting and handling those sexist moments

Often, you will not know rightaway you ended up in a sexist moment. It often happens so fast. People actively use grey areas to make you unsure of what’s going on, to blur lines which they are about to cross, etc. But mostly, you will feel that something’s off.

Get a sense of what is normal by asking simple questions

In order to find out what you really feel, use some psychological methods like: asking “How do I feel right now?”, “What would I like to say right now?”, “Would they be saying this to a man? Would it sound ridiculous to say this to a man?”.

Start documenting as soon as possible

If something happens and you’re not sure whether you’re making this up, start a diary. Always write down exactly what happened and how you felt, what lead up to the situation, etc. Since our memory plays tricks on you, people might not believe you that you experienced what you did if you only speak up years later. Our memories are susceptible to manipulation. But if you have written accounts of how you felt that day, right after it happened, this will be much more believeable should you decide to sue one day.

Also, if you were raped, definitely go get a forensic checkup to secure the evidence. In many places, there will be the possibility to do these tests and they will save the evidence and results for you until you are ready to act. So even if you are sure that you don’t want to file a complaint right now, secure the evidence! 

Make a fuss if you can

Other ways of handling sexist situations include: making as much noise and fuss as possible. Prepetrators only continute to harrass people because it’s easy (most of the time). Speaking up, getting them into embarassing uncomfortable  situations is exactly what they need to stop. But also of course you need to be careful if you’re in a precarious job situation. The one day workshop wasn’t really enough to work all this out. 

 

So, this is it for now. The problem is in no way solved or talked through completely. But hey, it’s a start.

Best,
S

Resources

https://www.egera.eu/workpackages/no-3.html

https://www.itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2013/01/a-comprehensive-list-of-lgbtq-term-definitions/

 

Platforms on the internet

I just wanted to quickly mention a sexism support network on Twitter (and Facebook?) #wiasn: womxn in academia support network.

If you follow some of the hashtags like this one, it can be depressing, I know. But hearing about other’s experiences can also be a big relief that you’re not “making this up”, like people often urge you to believe. So think about it.

Typical tips you will get on how to deal with sexism include those: Find likeminded people. Get a support network. So if you can’t find anyone in your analog life, try #wiasn (women in academia support network)

 

 

 

Sexism in Academia, Part I: Breaking the Silence

This was supposed to be a blog post recounting our experiences at the “Sexism in Academia” workshop we initiated and that finally took place around two weeks ago. But since it got really long, it will come as a two-part piece now. And it’s not only what we learned during the workshop but also, kind of in a condensed way, all the opinions I have come to collect on this topic over the last years. I’m afraid that even two blog posts can’t really do this huge thing justice. But well, at least it’s something.

 

Intro

We often think that in our generation, sexism is not an issue anymore. I think we couldn’t be more wrong. Of course, some progress has been made. But we haven’t achieved equality yet at all. Just look at the gender pay gap and tell me you really think that’s ok?

Just think about the number of times you as a womxn have experienced some sort of weird situation because of your gender. Then look how many times it has happened in the work place. If you can’t come up with anything – I am a quite firm believer that you will have experienced sexism in Academia already, even if nothing comes to mind at first. Not because I want to make you paranoid. But because I see more and more in womxen around me that certain sexist behaviours are so normal for us that we don’t even get offened anymore. But we should.

It starts with the assumption that girls just aren’t good at math but rather prefer languages and typical Humanities subjects. Or that men are the ones to whom computer capabilities are constantly attributed. When someone asks “Who is the technician in your project?” in German they usually would give a male pronoun. Or people who ask whether you know a ‘good man for the job’. Or the 500 times you have not protested non-inclusive language or inappropriate comments on your looks. This post will examine the situation and give some first suggestions for how things could get better.

Throughout this article, I will use the term ‘womxn’ as an inclusive form which includes trans, lgbtq+, all sorts of womxn imaginable, in short. The focus in womxn is not meant to exclude men or de-validate their struggles, but because as a womxn myself, I am most familiar with this perspective and also, to reduce complexity (a little bit at least) in this incredibly complex topic.

 

It’s not about sex, it’s about the struggle for compentence and power

Like they say with sexual harrassment in general, it’s mostly not about sex. It’s about power. And in Academia, competence is power. You become vulnerable to sexism in Academia especially once you try to climb the stage and are confident enough to claim your space. To claim the authority you should have. To get the respect your competence deserves. To make your competence visible and to get the acknowledgement for your achievements and compensations for your efforts.

Sadly, so far womxn often don’t just get these, while man do. As a womxn, it often happens that you get overlooked. That you don’t get that praise you deserve. That a man just states all sorts of skills in their CVs with confidence when you know that they barely passed the class in which they would have been supposed to acquire this skill – that is coincidentally your principal skill, yet you as a womxen don’t actually feel confident enough claiming to possess this skill in your CV.

Because as womxn, we have been raised to not stand out. To not make anyone feel bad. Most man really couldn’t care less how their presence makes others feel. As a womxn, you often feel insolent even for asking to take part in this workshop which will be an important formation to advance your specialty skills. Insolent to ask for what you want because you think you have no right. Or you are afraid to ask for help when you need it because you are afraid it will make you look weak.

 

So, no. It’s not about sex. It’s about competence. And with competence comes power in Academia. Yet competence mostly is something which needs to be acknowledged by other people in order for it to be valid. It’s not enough that you have a skill. Other people need to know about it, need to praise you publicly for it and acknowledge that you have it. How many times do womxn have to prove they actually possess certain skills when those same skills are never questioned in a man? Like the ability to lead, for example. And how often does it actually help to prove you have a skill?  If they don’t want to believe you, they just don’t.

It’s happened to me many times that I had proven to have some skill and I was just ignored. People pretended like it hadn’t happened and still treated me as though as I didn’t have the skill. Even though I was objectively better, more advanced, had a (provable) greater level of mastery of the skill than the men present who were acknowledged to actually have the skill.

 

 

The importance of not remaining silent

I have learnt in many conversations that men who I think should be allies often lack understanding for my experiences or, mostly, general comments about how womxen often suffer from sexism. Sometimes I was quite surprised with these comments coming from lgptq+ friends very much into inclusive language and so on. Then I realized that men often really don’t have much of a clue about some of the blatant sexism womxn encounter quite regularly, maybe even on a daily basis. Some of these things are so common that they don’t even stand out for womxn anymore. At the same time, such situations are completely unknown to men.

Also things like the hearfelt advice to “just put on whatever you want – your outfit doesn’t matter”. For a long time I tried to believe this. But it’s just not true. As a womxn, if you’re not dressed in a certain way, this reflects much stronger on as how competent you are perceived. (If I’m not mistaken, there even was a study which proved this objectively – you see, as a women you often need to offer proof for your everyday statements if you want to be taken seriously. Sometimes people just plainly refuse to believe me even when I cite a resource proving my statements…) If a male programmer just shows up unwashed,  people often still respect them on the sole base of their extraordinary skill. But if you did that as a womxn, it just wouldn’t work. When has anybody ever based their judgement on you as a womxen on skill alone? Do you remember one single time?

Men can’t understand when we complain about these incidents because they just don’t happen to them. This is because a lot of sexism is silent and invisible. And so ingrained into our culture that it takes extra attention to become aware of it and notice it again.

So speak up whenever something happens to you (and you feel up to it), especially when it’s “just a small thing”. These things are good practice for not being shut up by non-believers. Start talking about small, less hurtful instances of sexism and work yourself up to bigger things or at least up to what you’re comfortable with. Apart from being good practice, they help raise awareness of common sexism. With womxen, a problem is that we often don’t report or even recount the small stuff because we think it’s just normal or not such a big deal. Then, when somebody comes out with a big complaint, nobody believes them.

People will say that something like this doesn’t come out of nowhere. And it doesn’t. That’s why you should speak up early, if you can. It only becomes more difficult, the stronger the harrassment gets.

Don’t think about how people will make fun of you or call you a ‘feminazi’ if you speak up. Yes, of course I have received my share of stupid comments. Heck, a friend even gave me a door sign along the lines of “It’s so difficult to be a woman” to mock me. It’s not worth avoiding to speak up just to avoid these little nuisances. You have to be stronger than that. But also, if you feel actively endangered, be careful and stay silent if you feel like you need that to protect yourself. You know your own situation and when to take what I write with a grain of salt, I assume.

 

Special problems with sexism in Academia

Speaking out without wrecking havoc

In Academia, a big problem is that you often can’t speak out without hurting a big ego. And one who is in a position of power over you, whom you need or whatever. So even a bystander’s comment which puts attention on the misbehaviour can be detrimental to your career. Thus, we need try to find ways of handeling situations in a non-offensive way. Even though I really don’t like it, but I have to advise you to react in ways which do not cause the perpetrator to lose their face in front of other people. Though I think they should. But we’re probably not there yet. But hey, nothing’s more powerful than an idea whose time has come. So maybe we be able to do that some time so.

In order to protect yourself from a horrible situation, you might have to extract yourself from it. Often, this means that victims will leave Academia while the perpetrators stay. Do things to heal the trauma. Dare to ask for help (professional and friends / family). 

 

The power (and necessity) of “saying something”

If you are a bystander, you should definitely do something. Often just acknowledging in a clearly audible voice that you do not agree or don’t share this opinion can throw perpetrators off and helps victims feel validated.

We need to give perpetrators devalidating responses to their behaviour and opinions. A study, which I sadly can’t find anymore, has shown that rapists think that everybody thinks like them and that their behaviour is normal. This is why sexist jokes are not actually harmless, like it is often stated by people who do have valid moral judgement. Everybody knows it’s just a joke, right?

No, it’s not ok and it’s not funny, because in fact, a rapist does not know it’s just a joke. Rapists often tell rape jokes in their circles of friends. Most people brush it off saying that the person is awkward. So they laugh along and forget about it. But to the rapist, this means validation. To them, it’s not a joke. They feel validated in their opinions. So this is a call to people experiencing a situation like this. Everybody has this one creep in their circle of friends. Educate everyone why sexist jokes are not fun. Even if they are not rape jokes, they still serve to socialize people subconsciously with long outdated concepts of womxenhood. They still cement patriarchal, misogynistic thinking into subconscious thinking and thus, perpetuate it to another generation.

 

Silence reinforces the stigma, obscures the size of the problem and makes people “becomes accomplices”

Many womxn also become accomplices in sexism rather than being allies for the victims because they are afraid it will affect their own standing if they say something. This is even more hurtful because it reinforces the silencing. Also, it’s often the same with the ‘good guys’ who officially are on your side but also “become accomplices” when they are afraid to speak up because of potential risks for their careers. This  reinforces the system and makes me more and more determined that silence really is the key problem. If we can break this silence and education against sexism is all around, something will have to change for the better at some point.

Often, I also wonder whether people who don’t say anything “because they fear consequences” would actually suffer consequenes for their behaviour. Or whether it’s just a lazy excuse. Pretending to be an ally has become fashionable in our time. But I think that you really need to prove yourself if you want me to believe you. Pretending to care is a way of preserving the status quo too. The only thing which really makes a difference is action.

And you can only call someone a real friend and ally if they stand up to you despite the consequences. Standing up when it doesn’t hurt you is not an act of courage.

 

Getting over it is unavoidable. But how to repair the (pluridimensional) damage to your career?

Many instances of sexism are hurtful, but you can get over them with the right psycho hygiene regimen. Meditate, release your anger, workout (and no, not so you look good in a bikini because that’s what’s expected of womxn). Also, it’s not like you had another choice than to get over them. As long as it’s not sexual violence (and even then), you probably have no choice but to get over it anyway. You can improve your psycho hygiene and help the movement once you decide to speak up: Join an initiative, go to womxn’s marches. Let it all out and help with the activism.

But there is one other problem in Academia: Like it’s not about sex in sexual violence, but about power, in Academia it’s largely about competence. Because (acknowledged) competence is power in Academia. So when someone makes a sexist comment or you suffer from a non-event (not) happening to you, this will be a dent in your perceived and acknowledged competence.

The assholes-are-part-of-life part of sexism I can live with. Or, at least, I have to. But in Academia – which is the field where I am trying to have a career – I really can’t have the fact that sexism hurts my chances in the job market.

Many instances of sexism and non-events are, largely, “not that bad”, like everybody around you is going to assure you. But they are. Because they add up to what is going to be perceived as the difference in competence which will cause your male colleague to get the job. Unless there is a womxn quota. Then, of course, you only got the job because of that quota and not because of your genuine superior competence.

Step 1 is acknowledging the damage done on a daily basis by sexism

I think, the first step to solving this, is to acknowledge that there are non-events happening and that sexist structures hurt the perceived competence as well as the credibility of womxn. Here, the perpretrators may be a large anonymous mass. It’s not really anybody’s fault. You can’t point a finger at one single responsible person. But in the end, this disease which befalls all of us womxn, feeds on silence.

The more we speak up, the more we take away it’s fuel. So let’s speak up. Be open about what sexism has happened to you if you feel up to it. Don’t ever be ashamed of something that was done to you. It’s always the perpetrator’s fault, never the victim’s. No, you didn’t “ask for it” by being the way you are or wearning certain items of clothing.

Like somebody said in our workshop, it’s still sexism if you walk around naked. Not even being naked is an invitation for sexual advances or sexism, unless the naked subject clearly states their wish and consent to engage in sexual behaviours or to receive sexual comments. And no, this does not mean “you can’t do anything anymore nowadays.” It just means you can’t be a sexist asshole without having me pointing it out publicly.

 

Step 2: Don’t remain silent

I hereby vow to never be silent again. Not only for myself but because I know that many cannot speak up for themselves due to trauma or because they don’t dare to. This workshop, in fact, was created because experiencing sexism made me aware of the fact that probably this happens to a lot of people who are less outspoken and angry and impolite than me. Who speaks up for them?

So if you are not sure whether or not to speak up, but you do feel up to it mentally – do. If not for yourself, then to support others and join the fight. It doesn’t take much but our united voices will have some effect. Don’t feel like your case was not “dramatic” enough. Or that it “doesn’t really count” as sexism. Everything counts if it made you feel uncomfortable or threatened.

Sharing the small stuff with likeminded people can be an extremely helpful and validating experience for someone who has experienced sexism but kept it a secret. For people who had this weird situation that bothers them but they are not sure whether it was, in fact, sexism they experienced or whether their feeling is valid. 

 

Step 3: Biannual compulsory educational workshops for bosses

Our guest speaker at the workshop, Seunghyn Song, said that it is already practice at many universities to have binannul compulsory educational workshops for bosses. While those bosses often sit in these workshops behind their laptops without paying attention, I believe that it will help the message to trickle down. It shows the bosses that, even if they don’t care about the topic themselves, it is important to their institution for which they are representatives. At some point, this gentle but frequent form of education will do something

These workshops should concern sexism as well as other forms of discrimination, like non-events. Bosses should be educated so they know that these seemingly inconscipuous actions already constitute sexism, learn how to spot them and how to react. This will at least raise awareness and help womxen who want to speak up: If bosses have already heard about it from some authority, they are more likely to believe a womxn who claims to have suffered from sexism in their institution.

So this is it for this time. Stay tuned for the rest of the post with more concrete info on the actual contents of the workshop.

Best,

S

 

And for the PS a little quote from an article on gender bias and perceived incompetence in womxn:

One assumption is that women are first assumed incompetent until proven otherwise. It’s the opposite for men.  So right from the start women are not perceived as leaders. If a woman is successful it’s because she’s a hard worker […}, or was lucky; if she fails it’s because she’s incompetent. If a male succeeds, it’s because he’s competent; if he fails it’s because of bad luck or a scandal […].

Consequently, cultural biases consistently overrate men and underrate women. Self-assessment studies show that men and women do the same to themselves. Women tend to evaluate themselves two points lower than reality, while men will evaluate themselves two points higher.

Assumed incompetence puts women on the defensive and their struggle to prove themselves keeps them on a never-ending treadmill. So if you as a woman have felt held to a higher standard, it’s not your imagination, you have been. It’s the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers syndrome: Ginger has to do everything Fred does, except in high heels and backwards.

It’s not just men assuming women are incompetent; women also fall prey to assuming incompetence in women. A woman may feel that she’s competent but she won’t assume that of other women. In one global experiment called the “Goldberg paradigm,”  […]

Some women use the negative gender schemas against them to their advantage. These women play along as if they don’t know what’s going on, when in reality they are five steps ahead of the guys. As Mae West put it, “Brains are an asset, if you hide them.”

Being under-estimated can work to women’s advantage when she is covertly outsmarting him, but that’s a short-term benefit. In the end, feigning ignorance only helps perpetuate a misperception. […]

So let’s be conscious of this unconscious assumption. If your comments are overlooked, don’t assume you have nothing to contribute or are not a leader. Rather assume an unconscious assumption has kicked in. If you agree with what a woman might be offering to the discussion, don’t tell her at the water cooler. Speak up and stand beside her and giving her credit.  If someone takes your idea and claims it as their own, do as one woman scientist who did research on cancer told me. Tell that person, “Thanks, I’m so glad you love my idea!” (Birute Regine, Forbes)

Resources

 

 

https://www.itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2013/01/a-comprehensive-list-of-lgbtq-term-definitions/

 

Gender Bias Sways How We Perceive Competence in Faces, https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/releases/gender-competence-faces.html

 

 

Book Review: Essentialism

This time, I wanted to share with you another book from my quest to regain some work-life-balance: Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, NY 2011. McKeown mainly challenges one quite fundamental assumption about our time: the illusion that we could just do it all.

 

Have you ever found yourself struggling with information overload? Have you ever felt both overworked and underutilised? Do you ever feel busy but not productive?

Priorities

The word priority used to be singular only. Which makes sense because actually, it is not possible for two things to be “the most important thing” at the same time. It is this introduction of a plural for priorities which shows how we use language to lie to ourselves.  It means not acknowledgeing the fundamental truth that you just can’t have it all. This is especially revelevant for myself because I am really bad at accepting this. When asked to choose something, I always decide to do both. But this is not ‘being super-human’. This is acutally being stupid and naive.

We perceive countless things around us. Yet our greatest power is the power to focus, which means of making the choice to ignore most of the noise in order to get to the message. This is what ‘essentialism’ is about. To not ‘do more’, but to do ‘less but better’. To ignore most things in order to value the important things.

 

Trade-Offs

We often think that we’re just not good at saying no. But saying yes to something always means saying no to something else. So ultimately, we are constantly saying no by saying yes. We might as well choose which thing to say no to directly. Because you just can’t have it all.  Yet, it is understandable why people have difficulty saying no in a society which encourages you to say yes. Saying no is not the nice thing to do. It is uncomfortable. Saying yes is what is praised in the moment. People who say yes seem productive, seem like they ‘have it all’ and ultimately, most bosses do actually expect you to say yes to everything. Even if this massively hurts your overall productivity. 

Another hallmark of the subconscious unability to say no is the act of constantly cramming in “just one more thing”. Like I do. McKeown even makes the example of this one annoying colleague who foolishly doesn’t accept they just can’t have it all and thus ends up answering “just one more” email before they leave for a meeting they would already have been late to before they even started writing that last email. Let me introduce you to this colleague. It is me.

Essentialism is the deliberate pursuit of ‘less but better’.

Delusional thinking

Like I said, McKeown brings the example of people who know they have 10 minutes left to get somewhere, it takes 10 minutes to get there and yet they still sit down to answer an email before they go – thinking they could just “fit it all in”. The result is that they are guaranteed to be late and thus, still miss one of the two things. Or, at worst, both. All because they are afraid to make conscious decisions to reject something. If you don’t know this from personal experience, you have just gotten to know me. This is who I am. I am not proud, but that’s the way it is. If you don’t make this choice (of what to do with the time you have), somebody else will make it for you. This is kind of like with digital addiction.

We are ever only aware of the decisions we actively make. That these imply that we also automatically (and perhaps unwillingly) say no to other things, we often don’t want to see. At least I don’t. Before saying yes, we should ask ‘What would I give up to do this?’ rather than ‘Can I fit it in?’ which is what societal pressure tells us we should do. McKeown introduces the concept of trade-offs, i.e. the fact that when you decide to do something, you simultanesouly also reject something else. Because you just can’t have it all. When you meet person A, you secretly have rejected spending your time with person B. Only that you are not aware of this fact. Essentialism means becoming aware and accepting of this reality of trade-offs.

 

The unimportance of practically everything

Essentialism is about the unimportance of practically everything. By that, McKeown means that not all actions are useful or effective. Many are a complete waste of time compared to others. He brings the example that bosses feel one really good employee doesn’t create results twice as good as another but 10.000x as good. McKeown learnt in his own childhood that delivering papers was a poor use of his time. He had to trade one hour of his time against one pound. Being able to afford something nice would be a gigantic pursuit with countless hours of toil. He then realized that washing cars on Saturdays would be able to get him a six pound per hour return and thus, was a incomparably more effective use of his time. This is the sort of thinking he suggests we should do when he tells us to do ‘less but better’.

 

Philosophy and practice

The book is splitted in a more ‘theoretical’ part explaining the ‘philosophy’ behind essentialism and some more practical parts. These contain tips not unlike those time management tips from all of the other books I looked at so far, be it in the Digital Detox experiment oder Rest.

  1. Part two (“Explore”) suggests you ‘escape’ and save time by being unavailable (ruthlessly avoid going to useless meetings, etc.); you see what really matters, make time for (serious) play, get enough sleep and select what you spend your time with using ‘extreme criteria’. 
  2. Part III (“Eliminate”) suggests you clarify decision making, dare to say no and learn how to do it gracefully without offending people, uncommit from non-essentials and gain freedom by setting boundaries for carefully ‘edited’ amount of meaningful activities.
  3. Part IV (“Execute”) praises using a “time buffer” between commitments, removing things which hurt your effectiveness most rather than starting some new quick fix technique on top of everything, progressing with small wins, using routine to get in the flow, focusing and being in the moment by asking (“What’s important now?”).

 

So that’s it from me today and from Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. And remember: You can’t just “have it all”. Do less, but better.

Best and until next time,

yours,
Sarah

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Rest

As you might remember from the last book reviews, I am on the quest for a better life in a digital age. I have tried reducing exposure to screens, but in Make Time, I came across more than just the allure of ‘infinity pools’ like the Internet. I was introduced to the concept of the ‘busy bandwagon’. The fact that your success is measured in how ‘busy’ you are or appear to be. The more I think about it, the more disgusted I am by it. I am sick of all the people around me being proud of their business – because obviously, how busy you are shows how successful you are, right? – and I could throw up at myself for answering ‘busy’ to every innocent ‘How are you?’. Since when has the standard answer to ‘How are you?’ changed from ‘good’ to ‘busy’?

 

Jumping off the busy bandwagon

Anyways, in my quest for a better life, I now try to find a way of jumping off the ‘busy bandwagon’. In Make Time, a few simple steps are already mentioned. Things like not answering email straightaway but rather in batches, not being constantly available, making time for family and so on. But there is more to it than just ‘changing how we work’. Because, after all, working constantly is what I am trying to avoid. So thinking about how to work more efficiently is not the right way to do it.

This is why today, I wanted to give a review of another book I recently came across. Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, NY 2016. Also check out the website: http://www.deliberate.rest/

Overwork is the new normal. Rest is something to do when the important things are done – but they are never done. 

 

Introducing ‘deliberate rest’

Rest isn’t primarily a book about productivity, that would be contradictory. It is a book which argues that (deliberate) rest is not just a by-product of being human, a necessary obligation to be reduced to a minimum. No, it is an enabler of creativity which is, after all, what we really want to achieve. Being ‘productive’ doing ‘superficial’ work does not create value. (Yes, I remember I still owe you the Deep Work review). What we really mean when we say we strive for productivity is: unique creative and valubable output.

I began to wonder if our productivity had as much to do with the pace of our lives as the place we lived. I started to think that maybe our familiar ways of working and living, and our unquestioned assumptions about our need to stay always connected […] to treat weekends as a time to catch up on work […] don’t work as well as we think. […] Today’s leaders treat stress and overwork as a badge of honour, brag about how little they sleep and how few vacation days they take and have their reputations as workaholics carefully tended by [PR. …] They remind us that the working lives of even the most powerful people unfold in an environment saturated with unquestioned assumptions about the virtue and inescapable necessity of constant work. Whether we embrace the idea that overwork is essential for productivity and creativity or reject it, we all are defined by it.

In the last few years, there has been a growing interest in the habits of successful people. They have mostly been analyzed to see how those people work, how they are productive. Rest does the same. This particular book, however, notes how it is striking that all those creative geniuses mostly didn’t do more than 4 hours per day of what we would consider their most important work. Often, this had previously been judged as ‘Oh, they are so capable that they succeeded despite all their off-time’. Rest asks whether this might not have been the other way around: They weren’t successful despite the copious amounts of rest, but because of it.

I have come to see our respect for overwork as […] intellectually lazy. Measuring time is litterally the easiest way to assess someone’s dedication and productivity. It’s also very unreliable.

Rest is more than just the mere absence of work. It is not an inconvenience. Leisure nowadays is seen as a luxury to be consumed and shared publicly on Instagram, at best, and at worst, the negation of all our values surrounding success (willingness ‘to go the extra mile’, etc.) With workaholics, it can easily happen that we don’t even really exist outside of work. I think many people who are considererd ‘successful’ in Academia do not have a life or even a self outside of work.

 

8 ways to work better using ‘deliberate rest’

As we become ‘more productive’, we work longer hours. […] You cannot work well without resting well.

  1. You are capable of no more than (max.) 4 hours of ‘real’ creative work per day. This is also the generally accepted amount from the 10.000h rule study and the ‘deliberate practice’ and ‘deep work’ movements. Of course, you’ll need to do some low value work which takes up a lot of the time every once in a while. But think about this the next time you’re about to work overtime. Do you really think this is going to yield quality output or could you do that night’s work in half an hour when well rested in the morning?
  2. Add walks or naps to recharge. A short walk will heighten your ability for creative work for multiple hours afterwards. So it’s not necessary to walk while thinking. But walking and creative thought are related.
  3. Have a morning routine where you get the most important task done for 1-2h. Regularity generates creative output. Routine is also a necessary step to protect rest from the invading work demands.
  4. Sleep enough.
  5. Take regular breaks.
  6. Stop work in a good moment when you still have energy left. Many know this rule as ‘leave one in the bar’. Stop before you’re tired. And, if possible, in a good place to continue for the next day.
  7. Exercise, deep play, sabbaticals. Hobbies, like playing music, allow you to detach emotionally from work. The way we spend our off-time determines how effective we are when at work. Rest even cites a long-term study on which academic careers succeed and which ones don’t. Most of the exceptionally successful scientists intensively engaged in sports and active rest, some even did climbing 😉 While according to a study, low achievers tried to get better at work by doing more work, the ones who really ended up successful were busy with “deep play”.
  8. Not taking time off creates exhaustion (emotional and physical) and has long term health risks. Take vacations. I actually don’t get how anyone can get along with 5 weeks of holiday per year. If I’m honest and wanted optimal productivty for myself, I would need at least two weeks off at least every three months. Not that it’s possible. But when I secluded myself in the south of France last Christmas for two weeks, that was one of the most productive and mind-clearing experiences I’ve had in a long time. People in Academia should be allowed to go on “writing escapes” to get their writing done. Maybe (hopefully) my upcoming fellowship this summer will have the same effect.

Vacations are like sleep. They need to be taken regularly to be effective.

The book isn’t super long. The audiobook lasts only 7 hours. Many of the tips don’t go deeper than what’s included in the summary here, except for lots of examples. But it mentions climbing as an activity for active rest. So yay for that. And examples might be helpful to you. If you feel that overwork and not resting enough is an issue for you, the book will definitely be interesting to you.

Best,

Sarah

The Digital Minimalism Experiment: Conclusion

We’re all distracted by our digital devices. I wanted to see if I could adopt some ideas from Digital Minimalism and Make Time and I kept you up to date, too. Now, I wanted to sum it all up because the experiment is over. In a good way: I stuck with my new reduced digital life and am better off for it. It’s time for me to move on to another project. This post sums up the biggest takeaways.

Auto-unplug the internet in the evenings using a timer plug

If you want to get unstuck fast: Get a timer plug for your router. Make it switch off the internet early in the morning, so you don’t check it as the first thing you do after waking up and all evening.

Reduce TV / streaming to a minimum to free up time lost

The internet plug trick made it easy for me to stick with my new rule of max. 2 episodes of a series / 1 film per week. Since there is no internet after 19:00, I spent my evenings doing something else. This transition was super easy, I don’t miss anything and I wouldn’t go back. I have had a lot more time for reading, exercise, (cooking and) eating well, and getting a good night’s sleep. As a nice side effect, not being able to access digital devices in the evenings made me lose the habit of constantly checking something and I subsequently found it easier to reduce my phone checking in the daytime.

Get a dumb phone 

If you’re ready to give it your all: get a dumb phone. But switching off mobile data by default and only switching it back on when you really need it already helped me reduce compulsive phone checking.

Reduce social media and don’t scroll

Check social media as little as possible (as little as once per day or per week). Don’t use social media on the mobile device you carry around but rather on a computer which is less instantly-accessible. Don’t scroll so you don’t fall victim to the “infinity pools” of constantly refreshing distraction.

You don’t have to completely give up on anything if you don’t want to

To sum it all up: I had to give up on none of my digital habits. I just changed the default to “not using XY” compared to “constantly using XY” from before.

Have replacement activities

But in order for this to work, you need to have things to do instead at the ready. Like for me, I mostly go climbing now, read a book or go to bed early. This works surprisingly well.

Plan for analogue quality social interaction

Make sure to set up an analogue social life so you don’t suffer from some sort of social media withdrawal symptoms. Focus on planning quality time with people who are really worth your time.

Conclusion

As a conclusion, I thought of something last week: This experiment was great and I prefer my ‘new life’. But at the same time, better digital habits are not a cure-all. On their own, they will not make you happy nor will they take care of your overcommitment-induced stress. This is another issue you need to tackle and it might well be the next focus for me.

I’ll keep you posted.

Best,

Sarah