MIT has a fairly well known undergraduate admissions blog. I think usually it’s just anxious high schoolers reading the posts, but some have garnered wider coverage and helped shape how the world views MIT.

The graduate school wanted a blog to cover graduate admissions as well, so starting this year there is a grad admissions blog. They collected the initial round of posts by running a writing workshop over IAP in January, which I was fortunate to be a part of. You can find my posts about some of what I’ve learned as a PhD student there:

Confronting AlphaGo

Get Beyond the Bubble

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Today I took part in a d.school pop-out class called Exponential Ideation, with Elysa Fenenbock and Aithan Shapira, and it was chock-full of activities and prompts that I plan to steal shamelessly for Building Bridges. In fact, I would almost describe it as a (six-hour marathon) BB workshop for adults. At an art gallery! Today’s focus was on brainstorming as someone else (and reflecting on what that felt like), empathy as a form of ideation, translating ideas across media and industries, and changing constraints through unusual pairings. Here’s a run-down of what we did today, in case you find it as useful as I did. A note, though – I haven’t edited this post for readability, just used it as a brain dump for future use, so I apologise if it’s hard to get through. I hope the emphases and spacing and pictures help! Also, did you know that massaging your face can make your brain feel better?

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We started with an exercise called empathy sculpt. Clusters of objects arranged as a still life were grouped on the table, and we were given clay (and five minutes) to sculpt what we saw in front of us. Aithan and Elysa guided us through a number of prompts (each took two minutes).  First,theye urged us to sculpt “the most perfect” version of what we were seeing, to look at relationships between objects, to put all our effort into it – and then in two minutes, we all had to move one chair down, take a look at someone else’s starting-sculpture…and then continue it for them. Then we moved back to our seat, thought about what we’d learned from trying to work on someone else’s work, and then wrote down on a little post-it single words that would be prompts for what we learned. Then we moved two down to the right, and were given the prompt of trying to aIMG_20170211_105941dd to the sculpture based on how we thought the original person would approach it, based on their existing sculpture and post-it note guide. Then we moved one further down, and were told to work on this sculpture as if we were “fixing” it, making it so much better than it actually was. Finally, we sat down in front of “our” sculptures one last time, adding in any  final pieces based on all the things we learned.

There’s so much richness to this exercise – seeing how incomplete a picture we all have of an object/project/event (and how we fill in what we don’t see and assume we can see it all), appreciating that there is an art to looking, how often “team” projects can simply become the aggressive “fixing” of other people’s work, how hard it is to really get into someone’s head, and how you can’t “unsee” different perspectives and how that seeps into your work. Someone talked about how differently they began to see, and someone else described what she wanted to do as “helping others see differently.” Everyone approached their work so differently – some with painstaking attention to detail, some more concerned with relationships between objects, one almost 2D versions of the objects, another almost-abstracted negative space. So much space for meaty discussions about empathy for others through an entirely tactile exercise.

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IMG_20170211_112418The next exercise was the chance to wander through the ICA’s gallery space for 15 minutes, pick a piece (or an artist) on view, and really try to get in their head. I picked Julia Anne Goodman’s Unearthed (from Nov 13, 2016 – my birthday!) where she used thinly sliced beets to depict San Jose’s rising winter constellations. It was a fabulously tactile work. We took notes based on biographies and didactics and the piece itself, and it really made me think about the work and its production in a way that I wasn’t used to.

Then, we were given a bunch of objects that we had to “re-create” in some way as though we were the artist that we picked – a wine-opener, a lemon squeezer, a mason jar – but it didn’t need to be recreating the object itself; it could even be something associated with it. We just had to immerse ourselves in what we thought was their way of making. I picked the mason jar, and made the following out of green and yellow pipe-cleaners (first time I’ve used pipe-cleaners in a way I felt creative about) as a way to think about the process of pickling. If I’d had more than five minutes I think I would have made a TON. An overwhelming furry pipecleaner-rug of pickles.

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This exercise was fabulous, but also weirded me out in that I got completely in the zone acting how I felt JAG would go about her work, so I wasn’t an artist making an object, but an actor being an artist making an object. It always blows me away just how versatile the medium of acting is (even though I know it is and that’s why I love it so much), and how much better it pairs with the visual arts than I’ve been imagining in my conceptualisations of the BB syllabus.

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Elysa and Aithan are working on food-related projects, so their next prompt was, “If you were X company, how might you design the food experience of the future?” The companies were Apple, Facebook, Gap, Bank of America, and I think there was another one but I’m blanking. We were given Gap, and using their values of classic, dependable, affordable clothes for all, we thought they might come up with an urban kitchen in food deserts that did a lot of educating around how to mix and match classic local produce in healthy, nourishing ways. As soon as we were done, I wished we had named it Closing the Gap, because I love bad puns. Not a super outlandish or brilliant idea (at least not as outlandish as Apple was) but definitely a useful exercise in trying to think of new ideas, by pretending to be someone you’d think would have no stake in that idea, or has an analogous problems (Elysa gave the example of observing how NASCAR responds to situations that need lightning-fast response to bring solutions to the ER at a hospital, which included a “kit” that had pre-packed tools for the 10 most likely situations). Perhaps also useful for working through innovative approaches to some of our logistical, administrative, and financial concerns! It also helps to put in some false constraints to get your brain working in weird ways. It’s a way of disrupting (bing! buzzword alert!) ourselves by taking on a new persona. By engaging in mini-challenges that seem off-topic, or using media and topics that no one is familiar with, you break through people’s expectations of how they will engage.

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A second version of that exercise was to come up with as many ideas as we could in a short period of time in response to the prompt, “How might you respond to creating a food-on-the-go solution?” I think our first set of ideas included drones, personalized robot chefs, and train vending machines. We were then told to come up with a list of foods you can have for lunch (one minute) and things you can find at Target (one minute). We then created ridiculous mash-ups, pairings of food + Target-object. We had mochi-bubble wrap, beer adhesive tape, and more.

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We then created a one-minute advertisement for “burrito greeting card” as a first draft prototype (again, I’m always a fan of skits as prototypes). It was ridiculous, and I think we kind of forgot the original prompt of food-on-the-go in our fixation on getting our brown-paper burrito to sing “Bailando” in children’s greeting card style (I just stuck my phone in) but we laughed so much that it didn’t matter. Also, now I really want mochi bubble wrap.

Uh, of course this is a burrito.
Uh, of course this is a burrito.

Also, the key to “choosing” ideas is not about picking one, or the “best” – you can make choosing a bit more focused by getting people to pick what they think will be most likely to delight the user, or is the most ambitious, and not throwing away the others, but maybe doing several quick rounds of prototyping on a bunch of different ideas. Perhaps a good way in for deciding what to pick as a “final” exhibition installation, to take the pressure off and get rid of those thoughts of, “What if we’d picked something else?”

How to choose without choosing
How to choose without choosing

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The next exercise was fun as an architecture/art history student; we got back in the gallery space, and were asked to point to the first object we saw when we entered it, which prompted a whole conversation about curation: where objects are placed in relation to each other and in relation to our yes, about narratives through progression, and the way in which entering from one door over another completely changed a particular order. The way in which curators mediate between artist-story and viewer journey. How each piece is placed in a way that allows all the other pieces to be their best. A cheesy but captivating definition for curation, and one that we can certainly weave into conversation with young BB participants about ways of seeing.

Using what we’d discussed, we were then given one “object” – a form of chocolate – and a verb. We had to pick one more object from the museum, and a third object of our choosing, and “curate” it in such a way that our three objects could stand alone without verbal explanation to conjure up our word.

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Chocolate in many forms

IMG_20170211_145307  IMG_20170211_112920  IMG_20170211_145452

We got play, so we picked the picture of s’mores, and a wonderful multi-coloured hanging installation by Russell Crotty called Look Back in Time (see images above) that really invited exploration (and also really brought on the temptation to touch it!) and decided that our third “object” would be a table of stuff for making your own make believe. I know we could probably have pushed our concept a little further, but we were getting pretty tired at this point!

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Lastly, we were asked the questions:

“Where are you stuck? What constraints can you change (scale, time, medium, company) to re-think your problem? How will you try to do this?”

I didn’t have a super answer to this – I thought a little card pack of “hats” (people you could pretend to be, like a teacher or beautician), “places” (that you could go for inspiration, like a supermarket or hospital) and “events” (to serve as the backbone of your ideation, like a boozy happy hour or birthday party) might make for a multi-dimensional getting-unstuck toolkit. I also really liked someone else’s idea of pulling together research questions she cared about with those of others, drawing two out of a hat, and then forcing herself to think those ideas through and seeing where that takes her – it might be a good one to shamelessly filch!

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This is my favourite – I didn’t even take note of what this is supposed to be a photo of, I just know that the lady on the right is #goals.

Last year, I took a class at MIT called ‘Leading Creative Teams’ and one of the major assignments was to complete a version of the Reflected Best Self (RBS) Portrait. The RBS is a feedback-seeking exercise developed by researchers at Harvard and Michigan that I found to be really insightful for three reasons:

Firstly, it focuses on identifying strengths rather than areas for improvement. As a perfectionist trained to spot errors, glitches, lapses, contradictions, mistakes, anomalies (you get my drift) it was refreshing to seek out, for once, what absolutely shines. The RBS reoriented how I evaluate myself.

jan_challengeSecondly, it relies on data gathered from other people. I often find it difficult to tell if my self-administered personality evaluations are grossly inflated or selling myself short. It was odd but nice to start seeing myself as other people do (hence ‘reflected’ best self). Interestingly, not only did I begin to appreciate myself more, but I also felt more gratitude for all the wonderful people in my life.

Thirdly, the RBS takes the form of stories, which are so much richer than one-liners or MCQs. It’s not really possible to pull apart one’s strengths as tidy stand-alone traits, and the short stories helped me see meaningful confluences and intersections. Stories also makes provide the flexibility to delve into as simple or detailed an analysis as one wishes.

I’ve compiled a few different approaches with links to the original sources so you can cherry-pick or engage in further reading (also, here’s the original paper in the Academy of Management Review if you’re curious).

Here’s how it works:

1. Jot down 15 or more people who interact with you regularly or know you well. Try to include names from different areas of your life: family, friends, work colleagues, teachers, etc.

2. Reach out to them and ask if they can share 1-3 stories with you, describing when they saw you at your best. These aren’t compliments, but an honest reflection on how they see you perform when playing to your strengths.

2a. I didn’t do this, but one version (pdf) from a class at Yale suggests writing three such stories about yourself and draft a paragraph describing who you are at your best – the first version of your Best-Self Portrait – based on your self-assessment, taking note of your strengths displayed, emotions felt, and who else was involved.

3. Compile the stories you receive and reflect on any common themes that emerge – they’re often surprising.

Here are some different ways to analyse the data:

a. The version I did was tweaked by our professor David Nino, and guided us to arrange what we learned in three columns that focused on identifying what kind of strength we were displaying, like so:

Strength Attribute

(find common themes that keep coming up in the stories you receive)

An attentive, active, empathetic listener*

Examples

– “I was having a personal crisis and you put your considerable work aside to be a friendly and comforting ear. You listened without judging, and at the end I felt calmer and got rid of my sense of paralysis.”

– “You seem to remember all important actionables from our Monday meetings, and I don’t know how you do it.”

Insights

Is this strength one of my identities (how I express myself in a given situation), distinctive capabilities (skills I display when performing at my best) values (personal standards guiding my behaviour), or part of my personality (enduring personal traits)?

* No, this is sadly not one of my core strengths.

b. Although I didn’t do this, a useful addition is a column listing “enablers” and “blockers” – personal / environmental/ other factors that either maximise or inhibit your strengths.

4. Compile your analysis into a short 2-3 paragraph essay that you can read as a reminder of who you want to be more of. It can start with something like, “When I am at my best, I…”

5. Reflect on whether you are able to play to your strengths in your professional and personal life, and write out your action plan for further enabling your strengths. Below are some prompts to help formulate your plan of attack.

a. This HBR article includes the following questions:

What are my goals for the next 12 months?
What strengths can I use to help achieve my goals?
What strengths do I have the greatest desire to use in my current role?
What do I need to do to make that happen?
How can I use my strengths to help me with the parts of my job that I struggle with?
Who can help me?

b. This version from Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizations is broader in its scope:

What short-term actions can I take to be at your best more often? (Refer to ‘enablers’ and ‘blockers’.)
What long-term actions might I take to make my best self even better? (i.e. methods for strengthening my strengths)
What actions can I take to promote continuous, life-long learning about my best self? What reflective and feedback-seeking practices will I adopt to refine my best-self portrait as it evolves over time?
How can I bring out the best in others?

…and that’s it! (For now.)

If you’re a friend who agreed to do this 12-month challenge with me, and I’ve interacted with you regularly – now or in the past – I’m happy to share stories about your strengths as you compile your own RBS Portrait. Just drop me a line. Also, if you feel comfortable, please share in the comments how the RBS was helpful to you.

My personal challenge

I’ve done the RBS analysis and found it incredibly insightful, but didn’t come up with a clear action plan for ensuring I am able to use my strengths as much as possible. I’d like to use this month to do just that, instead of vaguely meandering towards opportunities that kinda sorta maybe are in line with my strengths.

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FEEDBACK

You may be bubbling with questions such as, “How do I know what my values are? How do I pin down my goals and make them actionable? How do I map and reach out to my network?” I’ll be tackling all that stuff in the upcoming months, and I’d love to hear if you have ideas for how I might order the challenges in future (this seemed most logical for now, but I’m open to constructive critiques). No matter what the order, though, re-visiting always results in rediscovery.

Also,  I’m compiling these challenges partly for myself, and partly for others who don’t have access to the wealth of materials for self-reflection that I’ve received. I have some questions for you, and would be grateful if you can pop any thoughts in the comments box:

Was this blog post helpful? Did you have to do a bit of googling to clear anything up, and at what sections?
Would you have preferred a different method of sharing – a video perhaps, or a podcast? (I am toying with the idea of turning some of this stuff into a game for post O/Level and A/Level students, fyi.)
Was it too short, too long, too impersonal, too wordy? Would you like me to share more from my own life or not at all?

I look forward to hearing from you!!

xo
Nushelle

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As 2016 draws to a close, I am grateful that I can look back on a year that was often overwhelming and exhausting with a sense of clarity. I can see when I said ‘yes’ too often, when my efforts to attain perfection were misplaced, when I could have jettisoned activities without guilt, and – most importantly – how I will fill my life with in the new year.

I’m not sure I’ve ever felt such a sense of calm or joy in anticipation of a new year.

This feeling is certainly influenced by a Building Bridges planning session with co-conspirators Irfadha Muzammil and Amalini de Sayrah this morning, and the monster spring (winter?) cleaning session I undertook in anticipation of my impending move to Stanford for the first half of 2017, but that’s not all it is.

Over the past two years, I’ve regularly set aside time to reflect on myself – my values, strengths, quirks, passions, projects, and half-baked ideas; my past, present, and future. I certainly wouldn’t have done such a thorough job alone; I was guided through a year’s worth of resources through Leading Change, the course that forms part of the Queen’s Young Leaders Award.

In 2015, as a highly commended runner-up in the first cohort, I completed the course assignments while growing increasingly interested in the challenges that our fabulous course director Frances Brown was grappling with: in particular, how do you effectively use an online course to engage 100+ young leaders from across the Commonwealth, who all have varying skills, interests, projects, and internet speeds?

As she turned heavy web content into accessible PDFs for the 2016 cohort, I responded to her call to volunteer to copy-edit some of the modules and enjoyed it thoroughly. My involvement in shaping course content deepened in 2016: I was in the unusual position of having been named an Award Winner this year, so I cheerily took the course again, while signing on to undertake a raft of course-related projects.

This year, I’ve worked on significant content and copy-edits for Leading Change, gathered and compiled feedback on the modules from other QYLs, delivered recommendations for future module delivery, served as guinea pig on an experimental mini-course on Commonwealth citizenship, and created a set of comprehensive overviews to accompany the fresh set of PDFs.

I think I’ve always somehow wanted to be an educator, but I’d never seen my passion for curriculum design so clearly before (despite it being in front of my nose – this is, after all, precisely what I do with Building Bridges!). I’ve rarely felt so fulfilled, perhaps because this might be the first time I’ve felt empowered to learn from a text while critiquing and transforming it. (I’ve also found a mentor in the incomparable Hazel White, who never fails to look at my workshop plans and make useful recommendations for not entirely exhausting those I work with.)

In the spirit of continued meditation on Leading Change course content and on myself, I will be creating twelve challenges, and will share them at the start of each month. I’ll pull what I consider to be “greatest hits” from Leading Change into thematic monthly posts, as well as  a number of other incredible resources I’ve been privy to this year: the Hive Global Leaders programme, the Forbes 30U30 Summit and Amit Sood’s work in particular, and two courses on leading creative teams and on connected learning.

These challenges will revolve around topics such as reviewing my strengths, values and personal journey, managing myself and my team, employing human-centred design to improve community solutions, being mentored and mentoring others, dealing with conflict, taking time out, and effective goal-setting for the future.

While I’m creating this as a means to guide myself, I hope that anyone looking for a monthly dose of soul-searching and clarity (that isn’t too overwhelming) can find it here. My goal is that this will serve as a compact, accelerated version of Leading Change – I’ve loved everything I’ve learned and I’ve longed to share in a comprehensive way, but never had the space before. I’m looking forward to doing it now.

If you’d like to join in, just leave a comment – journeys are always more fun when taken together.

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As 2016 draws to a close, I am grateful that I can look back on a year that was often overwhelming and exhausting with a sense of clarity. I can see when I said ‘yes’ too often, when my efforts to attain perfection were misplaced, when I could have jettisoned activities without guilt, and – most importantly – how I will fill my life with in the new year.

I’m not sure I’ve ever felt such a sense of calm or joy in anticipation of a new year.

This feeling is certainly influenced by a Building Bridges planning session with co-conspirators Irfadha Muzammil and Amalini de Sayrah this morning, and the monster spring (winter?) cleaning session I undertook in anticipation of my impending move to Stanford for the first half of 2017, but that’s not all it is.

Over the past two years, I’ve regularly set aside time to reflect on myself – my values, strengths, quirks, passions, projects, and half-baked ideas; my past, present, and future. I certainly wouldn’t have done such a thorough job alone; I was guided through a year’s worth of resources through Leading Change, the course that forms part of the Queen’s Young Leaders Award.

In 2015, as a highly commended runner-up in the first cohort, I completed the course assignments while growing increasingly interested in the challenges that our fabulous course director Frances Brown was grappling with: in particular, how do you effectively use an online course to engage 100+ young leaders from across the Commonwealth, who all have varying skills, interests, projects, and internet speeds?

As she turned heavy web content into accessible PDFs for the 2016 cohort, I responded to her call to volunteer to copy-edit some of the modules and enjoyed it thoroughly. My involvement in shaping course content deepened in 2016: I was in the unusual position of having been named an Award Winner this year, so I cheerily took the course again, while signing on to undertake a raft of course-related projects.

This year, I’ve worked on significant content and copy-edits for Leading Change, gathered and compiled feedback on the modules from other QYLs, delivered recommendations for future module delivery, served as guinea pig on an experimental mini-course on Commonwealth citizenship, and created a set of comprehensive overviews to accompany the fresh set of PDFs.

I think I’ve always somehow wanted to be an educator, but I’d never seen my passion for curriculum design so clearly before (despite it being in front of my nose – this is, after all, precisely what I do with Building Bridges!). I’ve rarely felt so fulfilled, perhaps because this might be the first time I’ve felt empowered to learn from a text while critiquing and transforming it. (I’ve also found a mentor in the incomparable Hazel White, who never fails to look at my workshop plans and make useful recommendations for not entirely exhausting those I work with.)

In the spirit of continued meditation on Leading Change course content and on myself, I will be creating twelve challenges, and will share them at the start of each month. I’ll pull what I consider to be “greatest hits” from Leading Change into thematic monthly posts, as well as  a number of other incredible resources I’ve been privy to this year: the Hive Global Leaders programme, the Forbes 30U30 Summit and Amit Sood’s work in particular, and two courses on leading creative teams and on connected learning.

These challenges will revolve around topics such as reviewing my strengths, values and personal journey, managing myself and my team, employing human-centred design to improve community solutions, being mentored and mentoring others, dealing with conflict, taking time out, and effective goal-setting for the future.

While I’m creating this as a means to guide myself, I hope that anyone looking for a monthly dose of soul-searching and clarity (that isn’t too overwhelming) can find it here. My goal is that this will serve as a compact, accelerated version of Leading Change – I’ve loved everything I’ve learned and I’ve longed to share in a comprehensive way, but never had the space before. I’m looking forward to doing it now.

If you’d like to join in, just leave a comment – journeys are always more fun when taken together.

A. Leading for the future

When asked to define leadership at the beginning of the year, I proposed we do away with the idea altogether, encouraging networks of interdependent and supportive collaborators instead.

Now that the year has come to a close, I’m not sure if I stand by my definition. On the one hand, I think that’s still my goal – to encourage those I work with to each take the lead in their areas. On the other hand, I have come to accept that this kind of encouragement is itself a form of leadership. It doesn’t happen automatically; it requires intent and skill.

I’m more prepared now to wholeheartedly accept the definition by Stephen Covey that I posted at the beginning of the year: to communicate to people their worth and potential so clearly that they are inspired to see it in themselves.

Based on what I’ve learned this year about listening to myself and my body, I would go a little further. To me, leadership means filling my heart with compassionate love for myself and all people, and filling my life with words and deeds that demonstrate that love at all times (there’s nothing like being loved to inspire loving others). Love is a strong word, and I subscribe to the view that it is a verb. It’s also hard to love others if I do not look at myself with the same compassion. If I take on too heavy a burden myself, what is stopping me from expecting the same of those around me?

I’m inspired in part by the realisation that I wish to be a great teacher, and by Eugenie Teasley’s observations that leaders can learn a lot from great teachers. I believe the best teachers do exactly what Covey describes, and my favourite teachers certainly did that for me.

Reflecting on my own leadership style in relation to my definition, I think that while I do have a fairly long way to go, I’m excited to have clarity on the kind of leader (and person) I aspire to be, and what areas I need to focus on to get there:

  1. I will specialise in my strengths, and delegate/not worry about everything else.

I cannot be the best at everything. QYL has given me a great deal of clarity on what my unique strengths are, and I plan to spend my time working largely on those areas. For everything else, I will work with people who are better than me to handle those areas, and constantly remind myself of the comparative advantage of guarding my time for what I’m absolutely best at. This way, I encourage everyone around me to own what they’re absolutely best at, too.

  1. I will spend as much time sharing as I will learning.

I can’t know everything before I embark on my journey – I end up procrastinating in my quest for perfection and am mediocre as a result. There is so much to be said for learning through doing, and in accepting that teaching is a two-way process. This is particularly hard for me, but I’m going to try to share nuggets of wisdom I gather in 2017 through blogging, podcasting, and live sessions. This means that I’m going to cut my ‘consumption’ to give myself more time to create and share.

  1. I will change how I communicate to others in the face of a challenge or problem.

Instead of immediately asking, “How can I help?” or offering what I believe to be the solution, I would like to start asking a version of, “Where do you believe you want to go?” and “What do you think might be some good ways to get there?” I’m hoping to enrol in a coaching course to help me frame these guiding questions better.

 

B. Self-reflection

  1. Since I was named a QYL, I’ve become more confident about frankly admitting to my strengths. While I’m still struggling with saying no and with delegating, finally accepting that there are things I’m truly super at has helped me stop trying to say yes to everything, because it’s made me want to guard my time for playing to my strengths.
  1. This realisation has had a ripple effect in my work. I’m scaling ‘down’ some of my ambitions for Building Bridges, because they’re not aligned with how I personally want to spend my time, while supporting my team to realise some projects that they strongly want to lead and are part of our mission, but not how I want to expend my own limited bandwidth. I’m seeing my role evolve into consultant and researcher, while freeing up the rest of my time to spend time in the villages where I started my journey. In my PhD work, I’m currently trying to focus on research that feels aligned to my interests in pedagogies of teaching (while acknowledging that I do love not having to answer to anyone about the potential ‘usefulness’ of the work I do).
  1. I think my proudest ‘sharing’ moment is when I led a design thinking workshop for a UN programme on youth and reconciliation. It felt like a real risk at the time, because if it didn’t work out, I would have embarrassed our group (and the UN office in Colombo) in front of Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon. What I realised, though, is that situations like these, everyone wants to succeed, and while I certainly made some egregious mistakes, it didn’t affect the final outcome and I now have a much better understanding of what’s possible in a single workshop.
  1. The best online conversations can’t compare to meeting everyone in person (something I didn’t have last year as a runner-up) and the residential week will always be my favourite memory of QYL…especially our impromptu dance party at Madingley.
  1. The biggest change to my ideas/values? Goodbye perfectionism. I mean, it’s a work in progress, but I believe I am making progress (one indicator – look at how much shorter this final assignment is than last year’s!). I’ve learned how toxic and unnecessary it can be.
  1. I surprised myself when I took on a hefty leadership role for the UN workshop, and found that despite some bureaucracy, that this kind of leading came naturally and that I enjoyed myself.
  1. This was a year of wonderful opportunities, accolades, and recognition, but I wouldn’t describe it as a year when things went well. I felt overwhelmed and overworked, and still have overdue projects to complete. Trying to avoid ever feeling like this again has led to the realisation that I don’t have to go chasing after opportunities and awards for clarity. There will always be opportunities for me to do what I love, and to do it really bloody well. Taking on far too many things made me see clearly what things I loved best, and that I could wake up and do with great joy even when I felt most stressed out: writing, research, and editing (and thinking up ways to make QYL even more fabulous). So while things didn’t go ‘well’, I grew mightily as a person.
  1. Advice for future QYLs: Self-care, self-care, self-care.
  1. I said yes to too many things in a search for clarity, and didn’t give of my best to any of them. Being absolutely clear about my strengths will enable me to say no to everything that is extraneous in future.
  1. One challenge for 2017 that fills me with mortal dread is sharing without fear of judgement. It’s not easy to make myself vulnerable to criticism, but I’m going to do it.
  1. My areas for improvement in the realm of leadership are also forms of self-improvement, so my goal for 2017 is to specialise, and achieve a more balanced learning to sharing ratio, and empower others to do the same.
  1. From now until 2020, I plan to spend 90% (or more) of my work-time on the things I do best: research, writing (and editing/synthesizing ideas), creating curricula, and theatre. I also plan to goof off more and hang out with friends/family more. I’m more confident now than I was before that clarity of purpose will follow: i.e. I’m less interested now in ‘being’ someone (thanks, island, for helping me shed labels) and more so in doing what make me buzz.
  1. By 2020, I hope the QYL network includes sustainable frameworks for regional projects, meet-ups, and opportunities for skill-sharing. In particular, I’d like to work alongside my regional QYLs share what we’ve been learning through Leading Change with other change-makers in the area.

 

C. Next steps

I will keep this section minimal. Too often, I write an ambitious list of things I want to achieve, and then never look at it again because getting there would require that I never sleep. Look at this ridiculous mind-map of goals I made in July in anticipation of this module – also in a more illegible form below:

ridic_goals

 

It makes me tired, and I’m sure it makes you tired too. And look, I got so exhausted in the process of writing it that I didn’t have any energy left to fill in the section on how I would prioritise my community – definitely a bad sign. Also, some of those goals don’t really align with my sense of self anymore…and this was just five months ago! However, it did give me clarity on what my mantra would be (it’s the grey box in the middle), and what sorts of questions I should ask myself before I launch into any project.

2020 goal

My mantra is the only thing on my heinously impossible mind-map that truly resonates:

My strengths, values, and passions direct me to be a educator-leader. I use words – written, verbal, performed – to create tools for learning about and loving the world. In all my efforts, I strive to nurture creative, collaborative, compassionate, and critical-thinking communities. Each day, I reliably take a small step towards my greater goals and personal/professional mastery.

My goal for 2020 (and 2017) is to focus on working at the intersection of what I’m good at, what I love doing, what the world needs, and what I can be paid for, so that clarity of purpose will follow. In a nutshell, I want to focus on researching questions at the intersection of education in the arts and of citizenship, while taking time to practice as an artist. Here’s a handy-dandy diagram:

purpose

This means ruthlessly delegating (or doing a mediocre job of) tasks that might be necessary but not within my realm of expertise. I still think my PhD is the best training for honing my skills as an interdisciplinary researcher, but I don’t need to complete each requirement with the same dedication, or even write every paper with the same care.

My goal is to work towards my PhD while having one major creative side project at all times.

The greater vision is that while I am committed to doing ‘good’, I refuse to ever blindly assume that anything I do is unequivocally or objectively good. This is why I love being a researcher, and will always be one, rather than working 100% ‘in the field’. I’ve also come to accept that for me, ‘in the field’ can also mean ‘on the stage’ as an actor.

My greatest challenge is saying no to things that only align minimally with my goals. While the FOMO is real, I’m getting better at jettisoning things.

What I do want to do is show up every day, and take small steps in a consistent fashion. The best things come from habits cultivated over time, not one-time smash hits. So I’m scrapping the ambitious “run a marathon” or “write a book” goals and replacing them with the kind that look like this (and the ones below are real goals, not examples, but I’m keeping them short to be manageable):

Run (or exercise) every other day for 30 minutes (self-care bucket)a
Write 500 words in two hours every day (learning/sharing bucket)
Call or email a loved one every day (family/friends bucket)

What will help me reach these goals is to have three concise lists: strengths to build, questions to constantly calibrate my internal compass, and daily/weekly tasks in five categories (learning, sharing, arts, family/friends, self-care) to complete without fail. I will design this little path-seeking list over the Christmas break, and carry this note with me in my wallet.

Example questions to use in any circumstance:

Will this [academic paper/speaking gig/conference/guest blog/play] be an effective way to build my [writing/speaking/performing] strength?
What will I [learn/share/create] through this opportunity and why is it important?
Have I spent enough time on [self-care/loved ones/art – usually the three I leave for last] this week?

To reach this goal, I will swap out perfectionism/procrastination for daily diligence, impostor syndrome for embracing my strengths, and guilt-about-privilege for gratitude-for-opportunities.

I definitely have some secret projects in the works, but they will evolve as the answers to my “path-seeking list” questions evolve. For example, one project is a fortnightly blog series on people using theatre in unusual ways, inspired by Lauren Currie’s “X designer” series (you can see an example here) which is in turn inspired by the Introductor blog, and I already have my two incredible interviewees lined up for January. I’ve also told Lauren about how she’s inspired my project, and she’s offered to share it with her network when I launch. (EEE!) For now, I feel that it lines up perfectly with my learning and sharing goals (in particular, write 500 words a day) and is very much in line with sharing what I learn, and doing away with perfectionism (each blog post is literally four questions). If I can no longer answer “yes” to my questions, then the series will be changed or be chucked.

Below is a screenshot of my five-year plan, the title of which is in a dumb joke-for-self – look up Soviet (or Indian) five-year plans and prepare to roll your eyes. It’s a reminder not to get too wedded to an idea when it becomes clear that it is unfeasible or potentially catastrophic. Mine is on Google Sheets, so it can be changed! (This one already needs updating, and I created it on the 26th of November.)

5yrplan

 

2017 goal

In the spirit of keeping things simple, my goal for 2017 is the same as that for 2020 (and so are my vision, challenge, assets to reaching my goals, and things to overcome).

My word for the year (the idea is filched from Claire Diaz of Twitter) is selectivity – thinking of saying “no” as judiciously picking projects and savouring my precious time rather than limiting myself.

My monthly and 6-month goals (as evidenced in my five-year plan) are much simpler than those from last year – I felt burned out and exhausted for a great deal of this year, and I am looking forward to having space to breathe next year. This time around, my goal is simultaneously easier and harder than last year: simply to be consistent in what I do each day, rather than trying to pack in a bunch of milestones. The milestones will come as a result of what I do, rather than being what I begin with. (Also, if that was a five-year plan, what happens in 2021? GLORIOUS AND UNCERTAIN ADVENTURE, THAT’S WHAT.)

To track my consistency, I will use the wonderful Passion Planner that Alicia gifted me. Below is a picture of a “model” week – I make time for focused PhD work, creative work, long meals, and a day off. I have also turned my to-do list section into a goal tracker for each area of my life (learning, sharing, BB, art, self-care, and community). Obviously nothing will go down exactly like these plans in real life, except perhaps for how much washi tape I use on my planner, but having a model helps me figure out how to keep on track.

Bring it on, 2017.

 

modelweek

A few months ago, a video was forwarded to me about an air-conditioning unit being developed for developing countries which didn’t require electricity, dubbed the “Eco-Cooler.” It’s not clear to me exactly who or what is behind the idea: the “official” website gives little confidence that it is a serious project, and the videos, while well-produced, seem to be posted through third party accounts and get taken down after a while (this is the original link that was shared with me). In any case, you should be able to search for “eco cooler” on Google or YouTube to find the information I’m talking about, even if these links become defunct.

The science used to explain how the Eco-Cooler works in the video is wrong, and there are others who have already explained this elsewhere (1,2), although unfortunately it seems there’s a lot of noise – incorrect explanations are given along with the correct ones, and skeptics still aren’t sure what to believe. While I’ll take some time to explain why the explanation is wrong, I’m more interested (impressed really) in the experiment the video suggests you try in order to explain the working principle of the Eco-Cooler.

So how does the Eco-Cooler work, according to the video? Air is forced through a nozzle into the house, which pressurizes the air, therefore cooling it. This is bogus. First, pressurizing air heats it, while lowering pressure will lead to a lower temperature. For a real life example of this, you can look at what happens when you use a can of compressed air (or an air horn, or spray paint): as you spray, the can gets cold. When you release air from the can, you’re reducing the pressure inside, and that expansion of gas (not compression/pressurizing) is associated with lowering temperature. Second, the increase in pressure from air flowing through a water bottle nozzle would lead to a negligible change in temperature. If you want to calculate the magnitude of the change yourself, you can use the Joule-Thomson effect, the Bernoulli equation, and conservation of mass – with a back of the envelope calculation I get that air squeezed through the bottle nozzle should heat up by about 0.0001 °C. Finally, even if the air changes temperature as it is squeezed through the nozzle, it will expand as it flows into the room, so the temperature will return to its original value.

So if the scientific explanation they give doesn’t make any sense, why did the video go viral? I think the video’s success is due to the extremely convincing (albeit misleading) “try this yourself” experiment. In the video, the viewer is invited to breathe onto their open palm, first slowly with an open mouth, then quickly with pursed lips. Blowing with pursed lips feels cooler, and they (falsely) claim that this is the same principle which the Eco-Cooler runs on. So what’s actually going on? The air in our bodies is typically warmer than the ambient environment, so if you breathe that air onto your skin, you’ll feel warm (this is step 1 of the video’s experiment). When you purse your lips and blow, the air comes out of your mouth at higher velocity. This leads to more entrained air, that is, the air from your mouth drags along air from the environment with it (this is also how Dyson fans work). As the ambient air is entrained, it mixes with the air from your mouth, lowering its temperature. Overall, the air hitting your hand will be at a higher temperature than the environment (since it’s a mix of high temperature air from your body and ambient air), but it still feels cool since moving air can pull heat out of your body more effectively than still air (this is why sitting in front of a fan feels cool even though the fan doesn’t cool the air at all). To experience this first hand, you can try holding your palm at different distances as you blow with pursed lips. Holding your palm further away should feel cooler, since the hot air from your mouth will have longer to mix with colder ambient air.

So how does the Eco-Cooler actually work? First, I’m not convinced that it does. The video claims the Eco-Cooler can lower the temperature inside a house by 5 °C, but the other content in the video is full of falsehoods, so there’s no reason they couldn’t have just lied about that point as well. That being said, it’s possible that Eco-Cooler could lead to a lower temperature. Air flow through a house will keep the temperature closer to the outside temperature (the house can be hotter than outside because of absorbed sunlight – the same way a car sitting in the sun can get much hotter than its surroundings), and the Eco-Cooler might be more effective than a window because the white panel will reflect sunlight away. However “possible” does not mean “true,” and without much stronger evidence, I am not convinced that the Eco-Cooler is an idea worth pursuing.

This Halloween my girlfriend Jaimie and I dressed up as Rocket League cars. She doesn’t play, but I was set on the costume and she wanted her costume to match mine:

rlhallow2

We made them ourselves, so ideally I would’ve thoroughly documented the process, but we were a bit rushed for time, since we just worked on them during evenings of the week leading up to Halloween. Instead I just took pictures intermittently, which you can see below. As you can see, the cars are primarily made of taped together cardboard that we painted. The wheels and tires are attached to the main body with toothpicks and superglue.img_20161026_212930616 img_20161027_205000179 img_20161027_221904023 img_20161027_221900556 img_20161027_221911998 img_20161029_151353858

Part 1: Life Audit

I chose to do the Life Audit, which got a little challenging around the 50-goal mark, but then I got a burst of inspiration towards the end. The things about having 100 goals, I’ve noticed, is that you can be a bit “wasteful”, which is a great way for figuring out what you want more of in life. In my case, it was art – opportunities to create and engage in a bit of pottering around. 27 of my post-its had a wish that was art-related, whether it was learning to knit or taking an improv class. I don’t think I can realistically take up all 27, but it’s an indicator that I need at least one.

I’m also clearly really taken up with design thinking (maybe because it so nicely fits with my need to be creative for social good) because I had the phrase on 12 post-its.

There were 14 “family and relationships” notes, 14 on my academic research (although maybe I need to revisit the ‘What if I lost everything’ exercise to see if I want these or just think I want these), 13 on expanding my work with Building Bridges, 12 on sharing my work through talks, blogs, and research, and 11 that are travel and language-related. It turns out that I’m not as hungry for new experiences as I thought I was…maybe because I already feel like I get to see and do a lot of cool new things anyway, and I can be a bit of a homebody.

I had 18 notes on mental and physical health, second only to my whopping 27 on art. I’m not surprised. I’m more tired than I’ve ever been in my life; I’ve taken on far too many things, and while I feel I now have a great deal of clarity about what things excite me, and that I want to keep doing for a while, I do have to get through a lot of other (often overdue) obligations to get there. I’m grateful for the ‘all kinds of everything’ I’ve experienced this year, but I am also very ready to be done.

I sorted everything by time, too, but I realised that I actually had no desire to obsessively graph them and make a plan. I’m thinking of it more as taking a mental temperature than a fully-fledged map to chart the future. I think I’m just going to pick a handful that feel most interesting/valuable and save the rest for another day. You can see my post-it wonderland below:

Click to view slideshow.

Part 2: 2017 QYL Challenge – Looking for Magic

The Challenge: Take small steps towards abundant thinking.

The Tasks: Abundance thinking really comes down to small daily practices that expand your horizons. Here are three to get you on your way.

  1. Practice seeing the unseen: Micci and Lee’s ‘Noticing the Moment’ ‘3C Vision’ exercises are helpful guides. Simply pick an activity you usually don’t think much about – brushing your teeth, or your morning commute. Try to spot ten things you didn’t before. Which side of your mouth do you begin brushing first? Is there a house or tree you didn’t take note of when walking? What colour is it? It’s a good way to start seeing how the world is bursting at the seams with magical things that go unnoticed every day.
  2. Take time to be grateful – and then tell people about it: The Self Journal in the Dropbox is a great framework for this, with space for naming three things in the mornings and evening. I encourage you to go a step further and tell people about these things, whether it’s giving someone a thank you note for past kindnesses – think back to the module with Lauren Currie – or finding more creative ways to give thanks. Giving a talk at Creative Mornings about my parents (which inspired this challenge!) gave me a warm fuzzy feeling for them that hasn’t worn off three weeks later. It’s one of the best things I’ve done this year.
  3. Challenge yourself to give in creative ways: None of us are very well-off, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot to give, be it a friendly ear, vocal support for someone who needs it, taking the time to edit an essay or be a mock audience when your friend is practicing for a speech. It could be cleaning the kitchen for tired parents, or surprising a sibling by taking the afternoon off especially for them. Giving creatively is not about you and what you’re capable of, it’s about figuring out what people need before they say it. It’s a way to look outside ourselves and our needs, and giving will also give you a boost of joyous energy in the process.

The Benefit: You’ll notice that good things come your way more often. It’s easy to think of them as good fortune or luck, but the ability to spot what others don’t logically leads to new opportunities, a constant sense of optimistic gratitude (rather than focusing on anger or frustration) has the effect of opening you up to the world rather than closing you down, and dreaming big is likely to result in more spectacular results than thinking small.

My Experience: I’ve found that taking the time to enjoy my walk to school, or my morning tea, or any activity I’m usually doing without paying much attention, leaves me with a sense of calmness and readiness for the day, as well as gratitude that I get to do all the wonderful things I do. Being consistent about writing what I’m grateful for is harder, but well worth it for reframing a ‘bad’ day. The thing I find hardest is to dream big about giving ‘big’, and I think it’s important to remind myself that it’s not about how much I have in my bank account (but we’re so used to thinking in monetary terms that it’s hard to get out of this frame of mind) and trusting that the non-monetary things we can give are just as, if not more, valuable. Then there really is enough for everyone.

Part 3: Reflection

The ‘Island’ module has come at a really opportune time for me, even though I’ve still been so busy that I haven’t been able to retreat to my island every day, or even as often as I’d like. It’s been a way for me to check in with myself (and see how I had burdened myself with far too many things) and create some space to ask, “Well, what do I want? Where do I want to be?” I decided to be present when I went for a conference that was taking time from my PhD work – and I got more out of it than if I’d tried to balance everything. I was also invited to a dinner with Dr. Amit Sood of Mayo Clinic, who teaches on resilience and happiness – and I’m convinced it’s another sign from the universe telling me to lighten my load.

I’m still finding that hard to do, so I’ve started tracking my hours, and refusing to let myself work for more than 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. It still needs a lot of tweaking and working through, but I think it’s healthy to think of my PhD work as just another job, at least for a little while. Framing it as my vocation is both a source of inspiration and exhaustion, but in line with the question, ‘What if I lost everything?’ seeing it as just one more (fun) thing I do that needn’t take precedence over anything else helps me to budget my time better, not putting all my time-eggs in my PhD-basket.

Lastly, I was inspired to give that talk about my parents right after writing out my 30 Nice Things and Island task list. I loved giving the talk, my parents were surprised and thrilled to read it, and it resonated with a lot of friends. Thinking about it still makes me happy, so maybe my next list will be 30 nice things to give.

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