Stress, burnout and advice

Sometimes I think I give too much advice. I like to give advice. I like to give good advice! But not everyone needs advice, sometimes people need empathy more than anything else. So I hope that my predilection isn’t a big negative on my listening skills. I hope it isn’t affecting them much at all, but I guess if I’m honest, I have to admit that it probably does, and I should be careful.

But there is one definite upside of giving advice, which is that if I find myself saying it to someone else, then I have to listen to it. Sometimes, the first time you can really hear something is when you find yourself saying it.

And most recently I found myself saying, “You have to take time for yourself. Study after study shows that a 40 hour work week maximizes productivity, especially for knowledge workers.”

I’ve been working some ungodly hours for most of the semester. More than 40? Sometimes more than 60 a week. I haven’t liked it, but I’ve felt like this is what I need to do to get everything done.

And maybe I slipped into that grossly unproductive zone where you are working and working at things and not really getting anything done. And making mistakes. I know I’ve made a lot of mistakes. The first exam proofreading was embarrassingly bad.

So. Stop. Stop it now. I am stressed. And I am feeling a lot of burnout. And you know what? I do not need to be a hero here. I’m afraid of not doing enough, but maybe that is stupid. If I did less, maybe I could do more.

And so, I need to try to take all or most of this next weekend off.

Don’t believe me? This web article is not perfect, but it discusses the relevant research.

It comes down to productivity. Workers can maintain productivity more or less indefinitely at 40 hours per five-day workweek. When working longer hours, productivity begins to decline. Somewhere between four days and two months, the gains from additional hours of work are negated by the decline in hourly productivity. In extreme cases (within a day or two, as soon as workers stop getting at least 7-8 hours of sleep per night), the degradation can be abrupt.

Many of the studies quoted above come out of industrial environments, and it may be argued that the more creative mental work of programmers, artists, and testers is fundamentally different. In fact, it is different , and Colonel Belenky explicitly addresses that:

In contrast to complex mental performance, simple psychomotor performance, physical strength and endurance are unaffected by sleep deprivation.

The ability to do complex mental tasks degrades faster than physical performance does. Among knowledge workers, the productivity loss due to excessive hours may begin sooner and be greater than it is among soldiers, because our work is more affected by mental fatigue.

The Fibonacci in Tool’s Lateralus

On Friday we rocked out to Tool’s Lateralus for a while before math class.
Even though there was a flood in our building,
and now we had the baseboards and 2 feet of wallboard removed in my classroom and in others.
Sound travels much better than usual.
No one came down the hallway to complain to me for making too much noise.
I did close the doors just in case.

I was sad to turn the video off, but it’s long.
We missed a day Monday, and we had to start class.
Back to business as usual.

I remember one day,
I played that video in linear algebra,
where we also studied the Fibonacci Sequence.
A young man turned to me and with incredulity in his voice asked,
“Where in the hell did you find that?”

I had to laugh, because everyone sends me math things,
but my magic is to know when to use them.
Even when no one reacts, I know that sitting in my classroom
some student is listening and thinking.
Maybe this little bit of inspiration is enough to take them in a direction
that neither of us ever imagined.

One thing we forget in math class
while we are doing calculations,
trying to remember which angle is which on the unit circle,
Is that all of this math and the fact that it works out the way it does,
in such neat little packages,
all of these are miracles, one right after the other.
That we can understand this at all,
that means each of us is also a miracle.

It took thousands of years before calculus was invented,
and we’ve forgotten all the intermediate steps,
all the times someone tried something and it didn’t work out,
all that got thrown away like scratch paper.
All we see is the final result, the neat little packages,
and we dare to think, “how boring.”
Stop before you say that.
Be amazed for a moment that we figured this out at all.

From Edward Frenkel’s recent article in The Atlantic

Charles Darwin wrote in his autobiography: “I have deeply regretted that I did not proceed far enough at least to understand something of the great leading principles of mathematics, for men thus endowed seem to have an extra sense.” Mathematics is not about studying boring and useless equations: It is about accessing a new way of thinking and understanding reality at a deeper level. It endows us with an extra sense and enables humanity to keep pushing the boundaries of the unknown.

Why You Should Ask Stupid Questions: How to Look and Act Like the Smartest Person in the Room

I’ve got a little story for you, so sit right down and make yourself comfortable.

A while back, I worked as a software developer for a fairly small but very profitable company. The owner of the company is one of those geniuses. He was interested in computers back when desktop computers first became available. He started playing with the idea that they could be used to do statistics and mathematics. Eventually the program he wrote to do that was paying his bills. In the present, that software package has since likely made him many millions of dollars. At a guess? Tens of millions of dollars.

I remember one day, we were sitting in a meeting discussing the future of documentation for this product. Our documentation was (at the time) printed in the dead tree edition: a set of about 12 books or manuals. Online documentation, it was becoming clear, was the way things would be in the future. And the standard way to do documents like that is PDFs.

At some point in the conversation, my boss, the genius, the owner of the company, the man who had been in computing since desktop computers first became available, spit out the question, “What does PDF stand for?”

PDF, very simply, stands for Portable Document Format.

It might not strike you, Dear Reader, that this is a stupid question, but at that time in that context, PDFs had been around for a decade or so. Surely, anyone who was anyone in commercial software development would know what this is. Especially someone who had seen these evolve over the past decade. For goodness sake, he had been into computers when the first PCs came out! How could he not know what PDFs are?

Apparently he didn’t know what PDF meant.

I sat there in my chair thinking, very rudely, to myself, “That is the stupidest damn question I have ever heard in my entire life.”

You know what happened next?

Someone, maybe even me, answered him. I don’t remember who.

The conversation continued as if nothing unusual had happened.

No one ever mentioned it to him again. I certainly didn’t let loose with my opinion.

But I was keen to observe and think about the dynamic of what I had just seen.

I came to a few conclusions.

  1. If you are the smartest person in the room, you can ask whatever stupid question you want, and someone will give you an answer.
  2. So rather than worrying about whether or not a question is stupid, maybe you should act like you are the smartest person in the room, and just ask it.

I’ve put this into practice. If I have a question, even if I have that little nagging doubt in my mind about whether it is a stupid question, I ask it. What have I found out from this?

  1. Almost always, others have the same questions that I do.
  2. I get more respect from asking questions than I do from keeping silent.
  3. People tend to think I’m smarter when I ask questions than when I don’t.

Dear Reader, I conclude with my advice to you. Act like the smartest person in the room. Have courage, and ask your stupid questions.

Success and Luck

I have had several conversations about success and luck today.

The truth is that if someone is successful at anything meaningful, s/he had to work hard, but s/he also got lucky. The right opportunities appeared at the right time, and the right place for that person to take advantage of them. This isn’t to say that hard work wasn’t involved. It certainly was. It is to say that luck is involved too. Sometimes a lot of it.

Now, most people, especially most successful people, think it is all about hard work. I don’t want to deny hard work, but realize that some people who are less successful worked just as hard, but didn’t get the same opportunities.

What really grates is the implication that if you aren’t in whatever successful group it is, it is surely because you just don’t work that hard.

This is explained by the Just World Hypothesis, a known cognitive bias in psychology. We all want to believe in a just world. And in a just world, the deserving, the hard-working, will succeed, and, well, we know who it is that fails.

News bulletin: the world isn’t just.

This goes along with all the talk about the relationship between power and empathy. They don’t go together. Here’s a link to the research paper and scientific results.

I hope you didn’t miss the video with evidence that wealth and economic success go along with poor behavior: cheating, taking advantage, lack of empathy.

What got to me today was a conversation about online dating. I tried that several years ago. My experiences were mostly pretty awesomely awful. And hilariously funny. But not so much while I was going through them.

A friend met her husband on one of these sites. I don’t think she realized that she immediately began offering advice on how to succeed, how to play the game right. I know she wasn’t criticizing me, but all I could hear was the message, “if I just tried harder, put together the right profile, screened the other users of the site more carefully, then success would be mine too.”

It grated several weeks ago when someone else commented, “Well, I didn’t meet my special someone until I was 50.”

As if … as if we can just play the game right and find the relationship we are looking for. Or anything else. Yes, it requires hard work. But it requires more than hard work.

And hey, I also know I’ve done this to other people too, in a variety of contexts. I’m not innocent of this, and it is hardly a crime. We all say things that strike others the wrong way sometimes. No sense in getting angry, No sense in getting upset.

So yes, it is kind of stupid to get so upset, I know, but after the awful experience this spring, it all hits home that I’m 44 years old, and I honestly don’t believe I am going to find that special person. And even if I do, at this point it is too late to have a family.

And yes, I do know how negative and unfair that line of thinking is. The Just World Hypothesis. If I’ve been doing things right, I shouldn’t have to go through this. And what is it I did wrong? Can I fix it? Make it up to the universe and somehow get back on track? Of course not. Ah, but the world isn’t fair. And yes, yes I do have to go through this. And the other things that are bothering me right now.

I have to just let this and all the rest go. I have to find a way to be happy with the life I have, not with the life I thought I’d have, not wanting something that isn’t mine. Focus on the things that I am grateful for. Surely students are the next best thing to having children. Even when they walk out of class right after quizzes.

But another truth is, as true as all that might be? It isn’t comforting much of the time. It all tastes like ashes. These days it takes a hell of a lot of effort to put on that happy face and keep moving forward. Not that I’m about to stop, but just saying.

And yes, yes, I do know first world problems. Yes indeed.

I also know that this is a sign that my world has been disrupted, and I haven’t resolved the disruption yet. I think it is harder when you are older. But maybe I’m wrong; when you are older you at least have more experience and maturity to realize what is happening and what you need to do to get through it. I am surely an expert at grief by now.

If you are single you establish a pattern (eventually) that at least mostly works for you. Then you start a relationship, which disrupts the pattern. Then if the relationship ends, you don’t have a pattern any more, and you go through a time as I am now, where I spend a lot of what little free time I have alone. Which is hard on a person. Solitary confinement is punishment everywhere for a reason.

And the other part, too much work, too little free time, just wears me down day after day after day. I haven’t had 24 hours off since the beginning of the semester. Not even when I was sick. And some real nasty issues have come up at work, making me uncomfortable and unhappy there. So nothing in my life aside from teaching the honors class is working well right now. And that is working well at the price of a hell of a lot of time to make it happen, and once again without much hope that I will get to re-use the work I put into the class this semester. No wonder I am emotionally and physically tired.

But there we come back to it again. Put on as happy a face as you can and keep moving forward. Keep moving forward. One step at a time. But that sure doesn’t make it easy, and it sure doesn’t make it better quickly. But yes, it is, indeed, all I can do.

Walking out of class

Friday is quiz day. I give a quiz. I try not to make it an easy quiz. This week inspiration came in the form of an online homework problem everyone said was difficult. I didn’t think it was that bad, but I took time to write up a solution and post it for them. Then I recycled it for the quiz question, figuring that after they had tried to do it, and after I had posted a solution, it was fair game. And if we still didn’t know how to do it, it was time to learn.

I could tell that many were unprepared for the question, and they were too flustered to come up with a coherent strategy for dealing with it.

And that’s fine. That’s why I solve quiz questions immediately after giving a quiz. If you don’t know how to do it and you should, well, now I’ll show you again and hope that this will impress the method on your brain.

Five students stood up and walked out before I started doing the quiz solution.

That kind of blatant display of disrespect for me and their own learning annoys the daylights out of me. I know that we are a learning environment, not a forced learning environment. You can lead a horse to water, blah blah blah.

But. Wow.

I’ve seen this happen in other people’s classes, including one I was sitting in on for fun. I know this has nothing to do with the quality of the instructor, and everything to do with the quality of the student. Still … it can be hard to sit/stand there and take it.

I pointed out to the ones who stayed that they were at a competitive advantage in the class.

Before we went home, I reminded them that I would love to see them in office hours. “Maybe I am weird, but I love to watch you do math,” I said, “I guess that’s why I am a math teacher. So if you are wondering if you would be `bothering’ me in my office hours, don’t. Working with students is the best part of my day. So come.”

Three new ones did. Maybe the day was not without its successes.