All posts by Sarah Lang

Block’out Montpellier

I spent some time in the south of France recently. Of course, I couldn’t leave without checking out a local boulder gym. Out of the numerous options available, I chose the Block’Out company’s branch in Montpellier, or, to be precise in Castelnau-le-Lez.

The welcome and setup

I received a very warm welcome with a super friendly employee showing me around. They have a kids’ area on the first floor with short routes where you can warm up and there is this pipe slide you can use to get back down. I didn’t want to try it but it must be a lot of fun.

They have a café where you can sit outside in the summer, an inside and an outside bouldering area, locker rooms with showers, as well as a mixed sauna which is included in the price (you have to wear your bathing suit however). There also is a strength training area, which unlike at most other gyms, is not on the first floor 😉 While there would be lockers in the changing room, most people seem to put their things in the common Ikea Billy style square things close to the mats which many gyms have. And so did I. They also have a water fountain where you can recharge your water bottle for free if you brought one.

Difficulty levels and selection of routes

The levels seem quite similar as in most places, however I found the first two levels weird. They had extremely many holds (like crazy many) but they were not very usual ones I hadn’t seen before. Both those difficulty levels were extremely easy and thus, a bit pointless, I found. The thrid level (blue), however, held many nice challanges. And, like I was pleased to see in Amsterdam as well, they have lots of easy slopers. In many gyms, especially in our home gym sadly, I find that there are very few slopers in general and those usually only start at the difficult levels. So that when you don’t easily master those levels, you are confronted both with your difficulty with the route level as well as having to adapt to this new hold type. I think this is pretty shit didactically and thus, was very happy to find those easier slopers (and even slab routes!) in Block’Out Montpellier and Monk Amsterdam.

I tried out many routes. Flashed a few. But as usual was also not my normal (at-home) fitness level because of the holiday. It’s so extreme how fast a little less training has an impact on your bouldering. It’s scary! But I met a few people and had a nice chat, so it was a success after all.

The price

The price of 16€ for university students or 20€ without reduction for entrance and renting shoes is quite steep. I am always astonished, time and time again, how expensive a hobby bouldering really is. I mean, ok, many people stay really long but I usually come for an intensive workout and see no point in lingering much longer after I’m tired. I don’t usually do multiple sessions in a day. I find it much more effective to come regularly and have quick and efficient trainings. However, the steep prices don’t really allow you to do that when you’re not at your home gym with a monthly pass which makes it a bit cheaper. So yeah, this is the only criticism and it really also applies to our home bouldergym, Boulderclub in Graz.

Hope this review helped someone,

best,

S

Monk Bouldergym Amsterdam

Last time I went conferencing, I also checked out a bouldergym for you guys, Monk Bouldergym in Amsterdam. Here’s the review.

The price

15€ for entry and shoes wasn’t cheap but I wasn’t going to bring my smelly climbing shoes for conferencing in my tiny handluggage. And, then again, it’s a crazy prize if you don’t stay really long (say all afternoon). But you’d pay the same amount in our local gym at home. However, I do think bouldering is really expensive in many places. In Braunschweig’s Fliegerhalle as well as Aloha Sport Club, I paid around half the price compared to most other gyms (!) – around 40€ for a monthly pass.

Observations

I didn’t know the Dutch were so correct. I always thought that was just Germans. But I had never seen people be so “correct” about boulder gym rules like “Don’t sit on the mat”. According to my experience, nobody ever respects that rule more than necessary. At Monk, the mats are relatively small (as opposed to covering all the floor) and there is a sort of pathway in between them with a bank to sit on. People actually sit on this bank. I was even told off for crossing through on the mat rather than the pathway (there was tons of space between the guy on the wall and me – in Graz we often don’t even have the luxury of this amount of space at all). Maybe it was a gendered thing because the guys who did it looked like too much testosterone and I am a woman with rented shoes after all, so they probably thought I needed telling what to do. (Which is actually the most likely explanation for this event. Sadly.)

Another guy who seemed kind of new to bouldering and couldn’t climb my level (which is not massively high since I only started at the beginning of last summer term, despite a good amount of progress made) seemed completely in awe that a girl can climb better than him and followed me around like a (very obvious) ‘shadow’. This seemed to be meant in a nice way. He might have been trying to pluck up the courage to talk to me all along and never ended up doing it 😀

After one and a half weeks of not bouldering due to extended conference travel, I wasn’t fit as usual and tired much too early. I would have wanted to try out many more boulders, so I ended up trying many of the easy level boulders without using any strength. I have been using this technique at many new boulder gyms on my trips now and I feel that it’s actually a really good way of working on your efficiency and body positioning. I highly recommend this exercise / game for days where you’re just feeling tired. Also, don’t forget to climb the route back down to the start without using any strength too!

The routes

The routes, by the way, were really interesting. The levels were similar to Graz. First is yellow in Graz, orange here. Then green, then blue. I am at ease with blue right now, usually. However, here most of the blue ones were a challenge since they were all very sloper-y and we don’t have that much in Graz. But without the practice (I only got around to going once), many weren’t feasible or I didn’t get through until the final pull. Maybe I also just lacked that little bit of strength that day, which can make all the difference in the world with slopers.

Summary

Overall, Monk was a really fun expericence. They also have a nice strength training area, lockers for valuables and a cafe. It’s better to reach by bike. I was there on foot which was some walk from the metro station (and it was raining all along).

I wanted to try more Amsterdam gyms but in the end, there were many social evenings at the conference so I didn’t have the time.

Best,

S

Why “just focus on your thesis” is not entirely good advice

Which doctoral student has not yet heard the infamous sentence “You just focus on your PhD”? Of course, this advice is given in all sorts of contexts and I can’t talk through them all here, but I will discuss one reason why it is good advice and two why it’s not good advice. It’s not particularly Christmas-y, but then again, this is a PhD life blog and not a Christmas blog 😉 

 

Pro: ‘Extras’ only count once you have the PhD

Extras are great and important (see point below). That peer-reviewed paper, being the head of the student committee, that stay abroad, a fellowship at a prestigious institution. All these things are assets on your CV, no doubt. But they only really count once you have that PhD. You won’t get a post-doc because of your nice CV unless the PhD is done. 

So while these extras are priceless once you have that thing in hand, they are practically worthless if you don’t get the PhD done. So the advice “Just focus on your PhD” is valid in a way, especially when you’re at a point where you already have so many ‘extras’ (which are also all around the same ‘value’) that new ones really won’t upgrade your CV any further. This is the point where the degree is the only thing standing in the way of applying to the next higher positions. 

But there are (considerable) negative sides to his (usually well-meant) advice as well: For example, when you don’t already have those extras hiring committes nowadays want to see beside the PhD, then it’s not good advice. (For more info, read: Karen Kelsky’s The Professor is In.)

 

Contra 1: Nowadays, you need extras as well, so you can’t completely neglect them to really focus on the thesis

In The Professor is In (great book, review to follow!), Karen Kelsky writes in her chapter The Myths Grad Students Believe (23-28):

[Ph.D. students] rest all their hopes in the completed dissertation as a magical talisman of scholarly success, unaware that is is scarcely more than a union card – the bare minimum proof of eligibility […]. Certainly, they are encouraged in this by faculty advisors, who, when confronted with the anxious reports from the job hunt, offer the easy evasion “just focus on your dissertation”, as far preferable (for both advisors and advisees) to a hard conversation about an academy in crisis, on the one hand, or flaws in a student’s record, on the other. (Kelsky 2015, 23)

When reading Kelsky’s more-than-useful guide, it becomes quite obvious that the “just focus on the dissertation” advice, many times, is a lazy excuse. Sometimes it is well-meant advice because, after all, this strategy used to be really good and worked 30 years ago. So your advisor might not even have it in for you when they repeat this advice. But it is still bad advice for the job market now.

You need to add some other high-value items to your record which result in additonal quality lines on your CV. Kelsky’s tip is that you should try to add one (quality!) line to your CV per month. However, mind that not all lines are worth the same, so don’t only go for easy-to-get items. Rather go for easy-to-get items only if you really can’t help it one month. Otherwise, plan ahead which item you add to your CV every month. People will know which ones were not really great achievements. (A book review doesn’t count as a quality item, in case you were wondering.) Respect some basic rules while doing that, mainly well-known truths such as: Peer-reviewed papers should always be preferred to conference proceedings and excessive conferencing. But, of course, nobody’s expecting you to deliver a peer-reviewed paper per month, so you’re allowed to “fill up” with some of the above. Just remember to fill your time-planning glass with the big rocks first, then add the pepples around them.

 

Contra 2: It’s demotivating to not have goals ahead

Now for the first time in my life, I have no perspective. When I was in school, I worked for graduation as a “middle term” goal, but I always had going to university in mind as a long term goal. When I arrived at university, I worked towards a degree but I also always knew that I wanted to do a doctorate afterwards. So my long-term goal was the doctorate. But now, I have no real long-term goal. And I find it devastating. That’s the main reason why for me, recurring repetitions of “Just focus on your thesis” are hurtful and counterproductive. I don’t want to blindly focus on a writing text which might or might not give me a perspective for the future, in the future. I need a perspective now.

 

So dear advisors, well-meaning friends and loved ones,

the next time you think about saying “Just focus on the PhD” or similar sentences, do us all a favour and don’t. Just shut the fuck up. Thanks.

If you’re an advisor, think about what Karen Kelsky preaches: Your job is to prepare your advisees for the (current!) job market (not the job market from 30 years ago). And repeating “just focus on the PhD” just isn’t enough. If that’s all you do, you’re not doing your job.

 

So that’s it for now.

Best,

S

 

References

Karen Kelsky, The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide To Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job, NY 2015. Do get that book, its value is priceless!

 

 

 

What’s your *one thing* which will move you forward in 2020?

Recently I witnessed a class at our climbing gym. It was about which strength training exercises you can do for antagonist muscles which are neglected in climbing. But those are not what I want to talk to you about. After having witnessed 10 minutes of this class while streching out after my climbing session, the trainer had already enumerated about 15 different exercises. I coulnd’t even recall them all. And all I wanted to do was yell over to him: “Can you please proceed to show us the *one thing* which will have an actual effect?” This will be a post about effective mini-habits, new year’s resolutions and some strenght training geekery.

 

Keep it simple

I find that many self-improvement measures, be it in the climbing gym or office productivity, tend to be too complicated and too much. But complicated and excessive things will not get done on a daily basis, especially as those things (such as strength training for antagonist muscles) are things you have to do aside from and in addition to your actual work. If these self-improvement routines are too complicated, too hard or too time-consuming, you will not keep them up very long. Like I have preached many times now: If you want to make it sustainable, do less than you could. Leave one in the bar, so it remains fun (or as fun as possible). Don’t ask yourself to do something which is maybe even harder than your main work. Keep the mini habits mini.

It is my experience that if you look close enough (sometimes you’ll need tons of reserach), you can always find the mini-habit which has a tremendous effect. For years, my ballet teacher screamed at me because my arabesque supposedly wasn’t good (=high) enough. But she also persistently failed to show me the *one* exercise which actually works. I found that only years afterwards on YouTube. (If you’re interested: The point is that lifting your leg higher than 90 degrees up requires a different muscle group than up to 90 degrees, but that muscle group is hardly ever used and difficult to even ‘find’ or activate when you haven’t really used it before. The trick is to do a développé-based strength training: You lift the leg to the knee and from there, lift not from the foot but from the hip – it’s just a tiny, hardly visible movement but gets hard after a few reps already – then you slowly open into the développé but only a bit, not even until the leg is (half-)streched because the stretched leg tends to evoke the wrong muscle group again. Do that only once you built that strength).

 

“What’s the *one* thing I can do?”

It’s not like I am the only and first person to realize this. Famous self-help gurus such as Tim Ferriss have made this the key piece of their philosophy. Tim Ferriss call it the ‘minimum effective dose’. For getting fit, he suggests you train with a 20-24kg kettle bell two times a week and do 75 kettle bell swings each time (work yourself up to 75 in sets while you can’t do them all at once). 10-20 minutes total training time. That’s all. He has proven that you can have amazing, replicable results with this technique. Or, if you don’t want to work out, try his “30 in 30”, that means having 30g of protein (such as in a shake) within 30 minutes of waking up. This charges up your metabolism and he was also able to show than you can achieve dramatic changes in your weight if you do just this morning routine, even if you change nothing about your other habits at all.

 

Simple is sustainable

Many people think running is a good way to get fit. But really, if you genuinely don’t really like it and you’re only doing it to keep yourself fit, it’s incredibly ineffective. The cost in time (and suffering for someone who doesn’t like it) is high and the results will stop coming in once you’re body has adapted to it a little bit, so you’ll have to do more and more. Human beings are very effective runners, so especially endurance running is probably your worst bet ever for getting in shape: rather try High Intensity Training (HIIT). Also mostly, I think running is just too complicated. You need to change – whereas you can kettlebell in you pyjamas. You need ‘equipment’ – at least I totally tend to go overboard with making running complicated because I used to train quite ambitiously in my youth.

So to get back to the trainer from the beginning: After ten minutes, so many techniques had been enumerated that I couldn’t even remember them all. The Tim Ferriss stuff has become so popular because it’s simple. And simple is sustainable. If you have trouble even remembering what exactly you have to do only five minutes in, it’s not “habit material”.

So what can you do? From what I’ve gathered from Youtube videos, especially “Grundkurs Bouldern”‘s Ralf Winkler offers the supplementary training trias of push-ups, pull-ups and squats. I think that sounds good. They are well-known, no-bullshit exercises pretty much everybody knows how to do and they plain work. 

Also, you always need to remember that training is highly specific. Often trainers will enumerate tons of exercises but the only thing an exercise really does is train exactly this movement, so it might not even be transferable to the skill you actually wanted to learn (!). That’s why push-ups are good. They train your whole body. People of different skill and fitness levels benefit from them, but they also don’t “pretend” to train bouldering – they only give you some additional fitness. They train you to do push-ups, not much else. Most “bouldering exercises” don’t actually do much for your bouldering. That’s why Louis Parkinson from Catalyst Climbing (London) suggests you do your boulder strength training directly on the wall.

 

The one thing and the Pareto principle (80/20)

Most of you probably have already heard about the Pareto principle. It’s probably already a bit dated by now, but the idea behind it is still universally good: 20% of your work will give you 80% of the results. The other 80% of work only give you the additional 20% of perfecting your output. Whether a PhD student can afford to just ditch the last 20% is another question, but the principle is still worth using at least with annoying everyday tasks. Often you just need to hand in *somehing* and perfection will give you no additional reward whatsoever. So dare to keep it simple and effective.

 

Make better new year’s resolutions this year

When you make new year’s resolutions this Christmas, please think of my post and come up with a way of simplifying what you were planning to do in the next year. Even if you think your resolution was already quite simplicistic – cut it in half and it will be perfect. Always be very concrete in forming your goals, have cues to trigger the activities (see the review on Atomic Habits, to follow) because unconcrete goals (like “Learn French”) don’t work. Come up with something concrete such as “Learn 20 items of vocabulary per day” or “Sit down to learn French, in a timer-timed timebox of 20min every day”.

So if you want to do something for new year’s resolutions, don’t just pick some classic line everybody else uses. Take time to reflect on your goals, what exactly it is that you want and especially take the time to research what the single most effective, super-simple mini-habit to achieving that goal is.

I’ll follow up with some more new year’s resolution themed posts to go with the holiday season over the next weeks.

Have a nice pre-Christmas panic attack at work and be sure to eat some cookies while you do 😉

Best,

S

How letting your inner feminist out will make you more successful

Today I wanted to tackle a common fear, i.e. that you will be disadvantaged and disliked once you let your inner feminist out. While I can’t speak for everybody and my environment certainly isn’t exceptionally conservative or ‘backwards’ in that regard, I think it is quite safe to say that becoming a feminist is likely to make you more successful rather than turning you into the universally-hated, notorious ‘feminazi’, like many womxn erroneously believe.

DISCLAIMER: I am neither a professional advisor nor actually qualified to give you any kind of advice! Apply this only after reflecting whether you think it’s appropriate in your workplace. It should be, but if you’re stuck in a clearly very backwards environment you might better not do anything to make the situation even more miserable and dire. Check with a local gender equality advisor how best to proceed.

 

Don’t “dial down” on the feminism, level up

For a long time, I felt that I was somehow ‘holding back’ on the feminism, even tough on the inside I really wanted to be more of a feminist. Society tends to tell you that it will make you look bossy, undesirable, etc. But at some point, I realized that this is exactly one of those subconscious habits which cause womxn to be less successful than they could be. Because not daring to displease some, trying to be universally liked, accepted and appreciated by everyone is a ‘trait’ which might end up making you seem less qualified than your male peers and  come off like you’re not leadership material (btw, it’s actually literally not possible to be liked by everyone, even though womxn are taught to strive for this goal!). Because being edgy makes you interesting. It makes you look like a leader.

 

Don’t swallow your pride – swallow other people’s expectations

Daring to be yourself, asking for what you want and deserve, and not giving a hoot whether some idiot colleague (who doesn’t even matter to your success) might end up disliking you for your feminism will make you seem confident. People who only like you when you’re miserable and disadvantaged really don’t deserve your worries! Standing up for yourself will actually increase your worth in other people’s minds and once you start drawing boundaries and saying no, they will respect you more. In the beginning they might be a little annoyed; nobody really likes change after all. Change is hard. Gendered discrimination used to be the norm and it will remain so as long as we’re accepting accomplices to it. Just recently, I have personally had the experience that I felt so much more valued in the workplace after standing up for myself and against sexualized discrimination.

 

Love yourself first

Maybe it wasn’t even other people who behave differently now, maybe it’s just my perception which has changed. But I feel so much more empowered for it and thus, ready to tackle all sorts of things, not only discriminatory colleagues 😉 I feel much more respected and valued now, but that might just be a by-product of me respecting myself more. Standing up for your rights is a sign of self-love and self-respect. And like they say, maybe you need to love yourself first before others can love you.

 

So show yourself some self-respect! Love yourself first and allow yourself to unleash your inner feminist – we all have one of those!

 

Best,

S

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

Yet another post which almost 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 it, highly recommend it 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?)

Also, some say that checking your phone puts you in this passive-aggressive reactive mode – instead of clarity, purpuse and empowerment – because of information overload. This is not a mindset you want to have in the morning because you should first get 2 hours of dissertation writing done, am I 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 out to you in a more aggressive way 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.