Communication Skills

The gamer stereotype of basement dwellers was fairly accurate in the early 90s/00s.  The explosion of acceptable geek, online communities, and now streaming has flipped that around.  Likely the most communicative people you find are going to be gamers.  Sort of begs the question if the issue was the people, or the medium.  I’d like to think it’s both.

Gamers traditionally want to share, rather than hear the sound of their own voice.  LAN parties, D&D sessions and whatnot.  Traditional media is one way, lacking any true sense of feedback or dialogue.  Bring in the interwebs and now there are platforms to share, and kablooey, here we are.  Social media was birthed from that mindset.  (Another topic as to what it’s warped into.)

I work in an IT field.  Communication skills are, for the most part, lacking.  Oh, they are all over social media, but they’ve modified their methods to fit the tool.  If it isn’t done in 140 characters, the interest is lost. The concept of long form, or complex dialogue is not something new hires have experience.  And because they generally value their online identity more than the message, they take a fair a lot of insult at any pushback.  It’s hard to block your boss after all.

Just the general concept of thinking before speaking seems to be a lost art.  I can see it in their eyes, all of a sudden they realize what’s come out and silence comes along, or some stuttering.  I don’t mind thinking out loud, that’s a good way to build up an idea with other people. But there are parts of a person’s life that I really don’t need to know about.

I’m clearly getting old here.  I’m in the middle of the workforce in terms of age, but there are many more generations of communications younger than me than older.  Google is older than some of my employees.  And I have students that are as old as Facebook.  Means that when I’m having a large group session, I need to apply a half dozen communication techniques to make sure everyone gets it.

There’s some irony to this topic appearing on a blog, as the audience is likely going to be people who already present long form ideas.   It’s one of the many reason I still blog, keeping that part of the brain active without it being loaded with work-related items.  It’s just an interesting fact that I’ve come to realize… as much as I spent effort building ideas, I spend quite a bit of effort communicating them.  Cause even the best idea in the world won’t go anywhere if people aren’t hearing about it.

Anxiety

Let’s just get to it.  I have anxiety.  You have anxiety.  Everyone has anxiety.  It’s normal.  The difference between us is how that anxiety is triggered, and what we do about it.  This post is primarily a result of Belghast’s.

Anxiety is the fear of what’s to come, and you’re stressful reaction to that idea.  There are some more common things, like a job interview, a first date, a performance.  The outcome of that activity is likely to have some “major” consequences and your mind just goes racing at all the options.  Some people decide to focus on the worst outcomes, others get paralyzed with all the options, others end up in this rabbit hole of outcomes.  Like a first date goes well and they are thinking about kid names.

I used to suffer tremendously from anxiety.  It wasn’t debilitating, to the point where I didn’t take action.  It was to the point where my mind just wouldn’t shut off.  It was like being in one of those amusement funhouse mirror mazes.  I’d see infinite copies of me, in all sorts of situations.  I’d navigate through it, find the one I wanted to be, and sort of “took over” that role.  The best analogy I can apply to this is that me, as a core, stayed the same.  What happened was that I applied a sort of filter onto the core, and let certain aspects through given the particular issue.  So the hard-ass version of me in areas where I needed to exert control, but otherwise would be put aside.

The challenge here is that I started depending on some roles more than others.  Instead of picking the “best” role for a given problem, I’d pick one that was easier and hit it at like, 80%.  Not through laziness, but sheer exhaustion from having so many roles asking different levels of energy.  I got really far in life using that model, but reached a point where it just wasn’t sustainable.  People around me were suffering for those impacts.

I went and got counselling.  Won’t sugar coat it, it took a while to find one I liked.  Most were OK.  Some were just horrible.  My wife has one, and we shared her for couples counselling.  She’s ok, but I really struggle to take advice on child raising from someone without kids.  I did eventually find someone who shared some life experiences and followed the Adler train of thought on psychology.

This whole thing coincided with a really rough patch in my relationship with my wife, and a burnout at work.  Life gave me a few hints about it, but life never really gives up.  Either you learn, or it just hits harder the next time.  I went to counselling, I made an effort to be honest, and a larger effort to take it all seriously.  I had help setting new priorities, applying different techniques.  I refocused on what mattered, and learned to accept “what’s the worst that can happen, and can I live with it”.  That mindset liberated me.

In my line of work, this type of service counts are health services.  A portion of the costs were covered by work, and I footed the remainder of the bill.  I didn’t pay through the nose either – there are some insanely expensive options.  Makes little sense to create financial anxiety.  I understand that not everyone has my flexibility in this manner.  That said, if you’re in a position where you’re conscious of your mental health, there’s a darn good chance you have the means to address it.  If you’re worried about putting food on the table, mental health is not a priority – nor should it be.

In the world today, there’s more than enough to drive people over the edge.  It claws at our sanity.  But it’s a choice.  If the news is draining you, then you probably should stop reading the news for a bit.  If your social media feed gets your blood boiling, then you need to clean it up.  Everyone has that crazy uncle/aunt/friend who’s a few cards short of a deck.  Cutting Facebook entirely is massive peace of mind.  I rarely seek out things on Twitter.  I practice mindful meditation steps (I don’t sit on a mat for an hour), by taking a few minutes while I brush my teeth in the morning and evening.

This long post to come to a simple fact.  I am not alone.  You are not alone.  Everyone has challenges.  There are plenty of options out there to address them.  They will not show up to your door – and with a tiny amount of effort, it may end up changing your life for the better.

Imagine

I like to live in the near future, the spot where tomorrow’s ideas can be implemented and used.  It’s a practical lens to dreaming.  Rather than say “I wish I was a millionaire”, I’d go something like “I want a boat”.  I may not get one tomorrow, but I should be able to get one in a few months.

The upside to this approach is that all of my goals are achievable.  They may push me to uncomfortable limits, but I do get there.  Maybe I have to learn a new skill, maybe I have to make some new contacts.  It’s still doable, and the bar is far enough that I feel some level of content having reached it.

The downside to this approach is that the ideas are less grand, they are more restrictive.  There’s less freedom to explore an idea, because dreams are often gapped by the unpractical.

So let’s say I want to be an astronaut.  Awesome dream, every kid seems to go through that phase.  Well, I’d have to go back to school and get a double PHD.  I’d have to quit my job to do that in time, which would be a financial burden.  I’d spend less time with my family and having “fun” on a day to day basis.  The goal itself would demand too high a sacrifice.

Let’s say I just want to be a pilot.  Well that’s pretty simple, I just go an take some lessons, get enough training hours in the air, and bob’s your uncle.  Would cost a ton, but could dramatically save on travel time to the cottage up North.

The practical aspect of my brain causes me to put up guiderails on any idea generated.  Advantage that I can see permutations of a problem and can rapidly think of mitigations.  Work has honed that skill to a fine edge.  But it’s still there.  From a day to day view, this is fine.  It “grounds” the family to stability and structure, while still moving everything forward.

Yet I’m aware that it stifles creativity.  Not in the sense that ideas can’t gestate, but that the BIG ideas, the ones that are a little bit more on the crazy side, they just get dismissed unconsciously.  I need some meat on that idea, to feel it out in my brain, to see that it’s somewhere in the realm of possible.  This gets worse the more I know about a given subject, since I’m well versed in the variables to make something work.  The curse of experience as it were.

Which brings me to a larger point, of kids imaginations.  The general lack of constraint, of limits in a kid’s head is almost surreal.  They’ll think of a Liger and go “where can I find one”.  Or they’ll draw a picture of a dog in space and figure their own internal logistics to accomplish the feat.  A simple stick can be a lightsaber, a mattress and covers a fortress against monsters.  Just so many things that make you go “hmm”, then smile cause it doesn’t really matter if they enjoy it.  Then think back as to when you lost that spark.

It’s a rambling bit for sure.  I’ve spent the fair chunk of 4 months now, every day surrounded by these little lovable buggers.  You don’t quite realize the fun in an item until you’re given the chance to step back.  I need to train myself a bit more to get out of the way, and simply enjoy the ride, rather than the destination.  Realizing that kids have way more to teach us than we give them credit for.

Pendulum Swings

I recall a physics class where the teacher demonstrated the behavior of a pendulum and the effect that gravity/air resistance had.  If you dropped (not pushed) it would never reach it’s starting point – each pass would get progressively shorter.  The beauty here is that physics are a constant – the math is consistent and the results always match the math.

In the sci-fi series Foundation (from the 50s!) the concept of psychohistory is pushed, where mathematical models are applied to sociology.  The core concept that an individual can be an unknown, but that large masses can be predicted.  The larger the mass, the more accurate the prediction.  Over the series, the books explore the creation of this class of mathematics, and the centuries of effort to refine it.  The point here is that the first book is entirely based on the mathematical predictions, and how people deal with the concepts of fate/control.  This is over large spans of time – each crisis takes over a couple generations to appear.

In today’s word, we seem to be encountering a new crisis every couple weeks.  2020 has been a hell of a year.  I mean, it started with most of a continent on fire and has somehow managed to go downhill from there.

The pendulum keeps swinging.  Instead of resistance, there’s a larger force pushing the swing forward.  That force has always existed, but it’s been limited in power/reach.  It used to be that you had to physically meet people to sway their ideas.  Then radio gave a voice to it.  TV put a face to it (the Nixon/Kennedy debate is a key turning point).  The hindrance here was time – you needed to be ready to take the message when it appeared.

Social media removes the concept of time.  Some countries have weaponized this platform either through moderation (China) or deception (Russia).  If they control the medium, they control the message.  Other countries aren’t a whole lot better.  POTUS tweets on average 20 times a day,.  It doesn’t matter the validity of the message, simply that the message exists and is amplified.  Credit where due – these groups have found an opportunity and exploited it.  Where at the ethical level, most people wouldn’t think that deception would be consistent, these groups focus almost entirely on changing the narrative.  They are not targeting the majority – they are simply targeting a vocal minority.  Smart.

Again, this is consistent with social modeling.  People that acquire and maintain power must control the message.  People’s acceptance of that message is like an elastic – it can stretch for quite some time.  Finding the right balance of stressing that elastic and then easing is key.  (There’s a longer conversation as to the people of China who have enjoyed unheard of prosperity this generation, and what they’ve gladly traded for it.  Golden chains, as it were.)  Very few people in power are able to maintain that balance, as it changes as society itself changes.  Eventually, the systems themselves become unmanageable and they topple.  There are no exceptions to this rule – they all eventually fail.  The difference is in how long that takes – and who’s in charge when the decline picks up steam.

It’s not like there’s one factor, or one actor that we can point to.  It’s simply the stress on the elastic that gives out and cascade impacts occur.  No one who lived during the fall of the Roman Empire ever saw the fall occur – it took a long while.  They saw the pendulum swing, but never really saw it pivot.  In today’s hyper-connected world, we are seeing very large swings at the micro level.  Brazil might have a buffoon as a president, but at the aggregate, Brazil has had corrupt leaders for a long time.  It seems like a swing, but it’s just a speedbump in the larger arc.

It’s too early to say that we’re in a change of arc.  It certainly can feel that way, but usually a change is countered in short order.  We’re still having debates/laws pushed about abortion – a discussion that should have been closed a generation ago.  People feel that racism doesn’t impact them, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.  There’s a whole lot of “the rules sound great, but don’t apply the to me!” – which, if history is any indicator, is a trigger for large scale change.

I do have faith in the outcome.  It’s not like we’re staring at the dark ages again (1200 years!).  I really don’t think that people in charge are smart enough to do enough lasting damage – cause the people themselves simply won’t accept it.  They’ll accept a lot.  They have already.  But when that elastic does break, a new one will show up within a short time.  Always has.  Just wonder what it will look like.

Projects Everywhere

If my wife wasn’t a teacher, then there’d be no reason to own a cottage – we’d simply rent.  The only real downside to renting is that you need to make sure you have a place to rent during the time you want.

Owning a cottage shared a lot of the challenged of renting.  Still need clothes, still need food, still need the little things.  The car might be a bit more packed when travelling when renting, but not all that much.

The downside to owning is that it’s like another house. I need to cut the grass, maintain the property, and there are non-stop projects.  Planning those projects is key, so that you spend more time enjoying the cottage than working on projects.  Who wants to paint a deck when it’s boiling outside?

A few this year – things that take an hour or more

  • Plant / maintain a garden
  • Repair the roof
  • Install a new rain gutter
  • Clean & stain the deck
  • Replace the water heater element
  • Get new stairs for the dock
  • Replace the floating island for the kids
  • Cut down a tree or two
  • Install some new lighting
  • Change some power outlets
  • Repair the pillars supporting the dock
  • Trim all the trees
  • Install an in-line water filter for the lake water pump
  • Replace some sinking foundation pillars

We’ve been able to do most of the things on this list, with some big ones left to do.  The roof will be done in the fall, since it’s more important to prep for winter.  The foundation work needs to be done before frost as well, and that’s likely to take a couple weekends to let the cement cure properly.

Means that for the most part, the summer can be enjoyed without too much side effort.

I’m not regretting buying a cottage at all, frankly the list of things to do helps fill up the time instead of the liver.  Just makes me appreciate it all the more.

 

A Week of Rest

Was off for a week at the cottage with family and the COVID bubble folks.  The weather in my part of igloo-ville is quite warm, with a pile of humidity.  Hovering near the 35C/95F, with an extra 5C/10F in humidity.  It’s awesome.  Even the lake water is hot, 27C/82F.  Just borderline refreshing before being more wet.

Took both kids on a canoe-camping trip on an unmarked lot and slept the night.  The activity is something my wife really enjoys (and will be teaching), so it’s nice for the girls to see her in that element.  The day was solid, with some swimming/fishing, and a nice campfire.  The night had a major heat thunderstorm nearby, so some winds and about an hour or so of thunder.  There’s something eerie about being in a tent in the middle of that.  Kids slept like rocks, which was good.

Rest of the week was water stuff.  Tons of tubing with the kids, staying up wayyy too late around the fire.  A lot of beverages.  The heart loves it when people come over, and the liver thanks them for leaving.

This week is back to work, but I’ll see if I can’t get most of it done from the cottage.  I’m only an hour from the house (which is pretty much my old commute from downtown), so there’s some up/down that’s very easy to do.  Internet isn’t as good out here, but it’s good enough to get everything but videoconferencing to work.

The best part about being away for a week is that nothing big seems to have happened.  I don’t suffer from FOMO, and being able to disconnect and enjoy the day to day parts of life is really great.

Now I need to go through a week’s worth of work emails.  Thankfully, it’s the second slowest week of the year (Christmas being #1), so it should be pretty quick.  There are some bits of gaming news that interest me, so likely fodder for future posts.

Enjoy the good times.

Teaching Math

It should be pretty clear based on my post history that math is one of my stronger subjects. I really love numbers and finding patterns.  Mostly this is due to there often only being one answer.  I live in grey, so any time I can get a pure answer, that’s great!

I live in Ontario, which about 15 years ago implemented a new math curriculum in elementary school.  Helping my kids with their homework isn’t easy, because I find the approach ridiculously overlong.  Multiplication tables aren’t a requirement, and everyone has a calculator in grade 1.  Fine though, I wanted to give it the benefit of the doubt and judge on results.  For a wide variety of reasons, the general results have been increasingly trending downwards. There’s no single factor to blame here, everyone in the process has something to bring.

To me, math is like breathing and walking.  I don’t really think about it, I just do it.  That comes from years and years of exercise.  I have a habit of throwing math problems to my kids, in particular in long car rides.  At first they were simple arithmetic, but over the years they’ve grown into analytical problems.  This year they’ve learned more about budgeting.  I won’t hide it, there are parts I’ve taught them that conflict with their teachers.  So there have been some nights where we work on multiple approaches, and the kids get to see the logic behind them.  At some point, they will find their personal approach for problems solving, and the more they are exposed to, the better.

The provincial government announced this week a new curriculum for math.  The devil is in the details, but at a conceptual level this new model appears to address quite a few gaps of the previous.  It’s practical math, meaning that it’s in the day to day context of use.  If they can find ways to apply the math (like coding, or budgeting as listed), then this simply becomes a daily skill set.

Won’t stop me from having random math tests at home.  There are few skills more useful in life than mathematical literacy.

 

Personality Profile

I would think most people have had some sort of personality profile in their lives.  First ones are usually in high school and relate to career development.  You may have had one at work later on, or taking some random online test.  They all seem to fall into the same general category, like Myers Briggs.

The one we’ve been focusing at work is Insights.  Similar model, but a larger focus on interactions between the profiles.

 

The north/south axis is related to data/feelings, respectively.  The east/west axis is related to introvert, and extrovert, respectively.  The challenges in communication between profiles is when they are directly opposite – so someone that’s mostly Blue (introverted and data driven) has trouble with people who are Yellow (social and runs with their gut).

The challenge with any of these assessments is that they are exclusive choices.  You are presented with options, and since it’s a priority, one choice is the “best” one given your current context.  Let’s say your house is on fire, you are going to make different decisions than if you’re just making dinner.  In that sense, these are role-based assessments.

So first some work context – I work in an IT related field.  The stereotype is generally there, with a whole bunch of Blue and very few Yellow.  When I’m trying to fill a gap in the team, I often leverage this model to figure out how best to pick a candidate.  The technical domain changes all the time, but it takes a mountain to change a personality type.  Too many Red and you get conflict.  Too many Yellow and no work gets done.  Too much Green and you have people waiting.  Too much Blue and you have analysis-paralysis.

My personal assessment puts me as a very strong Red, with part of Blue. so I tend to trend between Director and Reformer.  I struggle with the Support/Helper role, I really do.  There are times where I need to take a couple deep breaths before responding.  They need to feel valued in the larger sphere of work, and their motivators are not tangible.  If they wake up on the wrong side of the bed, well, that day’s a wash.  If they wake up on the right side of the bed, then they have some sort of magical sauce that makes the team 8x more productive.

A reminder that this is role based, so this assessment is related to work.  There’s an “unconscious” evaluation, one where you’re not at work.  I still trend in the same role, but my Red trends downwards, and it’s a more balanced view across the 4 colors.  Balanced, in the sense that I actually have Green in my non-work state, not in the sense of equal values.

My wife is an Inspirer/Motivator.  She’s damn good at it too.  That means our kids are exposed to two people who are mostly extroverted (my wife much more than I).  I consciously push into the Blue to offset my wife, and she works on pushing into the Green to offset me.  That still leaves a point where we both move into a “get shit done” mode, and that only gets you so far.  So we spend some time talking over our days, seeing what worked out and what we want to try the next time.  That we’re aware of this at all is probably the most important step.  Much easier to work on being a parent as a team, than against each other.

It’s interesting to think about the genesis of this post.  I’ve covered bits of it in the past, but a recent event at work really made me take stock of my personality once again.  It’s good to write it down again, remind myself that progress is really only achieved as a team, and that for every perceived weakness, there’s also a strength.

 

Milestones

My eldest hits 10 this week.  There’s something about society looking at the X0 ages as big stepping stones.  I think it’s mostly about easier math, cause I can easily think of 2010 and what was going on.  The summer was a heat wave, everyone in the social group was having kids, and I went through a massive career shift in the fall.  With the support of my wife, in the first year I pushed extremely hard to get progress then, which I knew I’d be unable to do with a kid running around.  It’s paid off, and today I have the flexibility to spend more time with the family.

My eldest has seen some really crazy stuff.  She has little concept of a disconnected world.  For the longest time she didn’t understand that her grandparent didn’t have access to the internet.  Social Media has exploded in her lifetime, and kids her age end up watching TikTok, or some other insanity. She gets annoyed at TV ads but will accept ads on YouTube.  I think we’ve done a decent job at balancing real world and connected world, since she’s not bugging us for a phone.  She can follow, or she can lead.  She shares a lot of my passions, and has plenty of her own that I try my best to support.

The most fulfilling bit is seeing the sense of discovery in her eyes when she finds something I take for granted.  She (her sister and friends) fully dissected a fish at the cottage this weekend, and it was as if they had found hidden treasure.   The first time she rode her bike alone, her eyes were like saucers.  When she build a brand new tower in Minecraft that has a secret passage… it’s like showing me a new puppy.

Oh, there are days where she can drive me up the wall.  There are days where I drive myself up the wall, so that’s sort of part of the game.  I know there’s only a finite amount of time left where time together is assured.  Eventually she will spend more time with friends, have a job, and eventually university or other.  Eventually she will spread her wings and I will sit here with my wife and watch her soar, hoping I did good enough to keep her in flight towards happiness.

But that day is not today.  Today I get to appreciate the time I have, the opportunities COVID has presented to be with my family.  I can see her every day try, fall, get up, and grow.  I can share in her success and her stumbles.  And while this post references my eldest, it applies equally to my youngest… but it’s my eldest’ milestone.

And this milestone is just a reminder of how lucky I am to have a great wife and two amazing kids.

Life Can Suck

Wife and I paid our respects to a friend last night, who lost his son to COVID impacts.

This whole COVID stuff is having interesting impacts on people.  The “fluff” of everyday life is taking a backseat, and people are checking their priorities.  The need for a double americano just doesn’t seem all that important.  People are managing without awesome haircuts, and plenty of women are getting by without their nails done.  The concept of “essential” is really hitting home.

I’m not dismissing the joy of those specific luxuries, at all.  There are people that make a living providing luxuries, and frankly, provide a larger benefit to the world than any hedge fund manager ever would.  I won’t go into the whole wants / needs / rights conversation – blogs can’t convey the context required for it.

Instead I’ll take a different look here and focus on loss.  In the past 4 months, I’ve had 2 employees pass, one lost his dad, and 2 hockey buddies lose their adult children.  There’s no right way to mourn, and no consistent way either.  You could lose two uncles and one hits more than another for a billion reasons. The stages of grief may apply, but the time between them is unique to the relationship.

When the 2 staff passed, it was within a week of each other.  One numbed the impact of the other.  Was a reminder of the humanity behind the work, and that each person matters.  When my employee lost his dad, I didn’t even think to ask what he needed, I just said “take what you need”.  Some prefer to focus on work, others to reflect.  When my hockey pal’s children passed, that was a reminder to look at home and what I have here.  No parent should ever say goodbye to their child.  There’s a level of empathy here that’s made me take pause.

I’m an advocate for mental health in the workplace.  It’s easy to see someone with the flu who shouldn’t be at work.  Someone who’s suffering from mental health issues is a whole lot harder to see, but the impacts are similar.  Their productivity suffers (often for longer periods) and their situation can certainly impact others.  Taking pills generally wont fix it, just hide the symptoms.  It’s a much longer road to health.

I know when I lost my uncle a few years ago, I took a few days off to reflect and tried to go back to work.  I was not at all ready for that, and lasted about an hour before I just got up, told my boss I needed more time, and took another week to sort some stuff out.  No questions asked, no guilt trips.  Someone replacing me at 25% of my rate of work would have been better than me sitting there staring blankly at the wall.

My wife’s a teacher.  There are a significant number of kids who find refuge at school.  Not everyone has an ideal home – it wouldn’t be ideal then would it?  Same with people who work, or who socialize.  They may do it to avoid another situation.  There’s a spike in domestic violence, and people are struggling left right and center.  It feels like a boiling pot, ready to overspill.

To cycle back, this COVID stuff is making me re-think my approach to life and work.  Corners are a bit less sharp.  Making sure the foundational stuff is taken care of first, so that people feel value in their work lives.  The bells and whistles will come when they come.  For now, it’s more important that we treat each other with humanity and compassion, and realize that our neighbour needs it as much as we do.