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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

"Busy" is not an appropriate answer

How are you? Busy. How's it going? Busy. What's up? Busy

Is it me or is this more and more the answer you get when you ask a friend about their day, their life, or... well, anything? Even worse: are you like me and find yourself telling others "busy" when asked pretty much anything lately? 

I react to events immediately. Telling users when they lose connectivity at a site, not the other way around, lights my fire. I strive to be the best at what I do and hate getting caught goofing off! I never want to be seen as anything but the hardest worker on the team; maybe not the smartest, maybe not the most talented, but the most dedicated. I have worked hard to get where I am today and work harder still to be prepared for the next opportunity. I always try to give my 110%...

When is enough enough though? Am I working so hard just to do that: work hard? What's the end game, the outcome, the achievable goal? What matters to me and when will I succeed if I follow the right steps? Where does family come into play and how is my work/life balance? Have I celebrated my successes today, this week, or even this year?! 

"A high performer knows when to turn it up. When their number is called, they give everything they have. They don't buy into the illusion of 110%. They know that 110% is unsustainable. Instead they focus on increasing their capacity so that their 100% is better than the competition's 110%.

A workaholic thinks "turn down for what?" They hustle, grind, and go H.A.M. all of the time. They have difficulty prioritizing what's important, therefore, everything is important in their mind."

See where you stand after reading Julian Gordon's High Performers vs Workaholics.

The Buck Stops Here

I am the boss, though. I need to lead by example. It's my duty to work all night in a school hanging 3 SMARTBoards and then show up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to a teacher's classroom to smile and nod about how slow the internet is. It's my job. Am I content at the end of the day to go home after attending 3 hours of meetings and endless chats about personal electronics, yet only accomplishing an hour or two of actual work? How many weeks do I put off programming the switch to link the main building with the maintenance garage, all while devoting massive amounts of time to developing strategies to video intramural sports or email others to plan to do so? The problem is that maybe the invitation to meetings and committees, at work or voluntary, is more of a boost to the ego than I'd like to admit. I feel important and, to a certain degree, pompous. As a society we are obsessed with resumes, skills, and self-worth. Achieve, achieve, achieve.

Getting things done in a hurry is often more important than getting them done right! 

We are surrounded by fast food, MVP security lines in the airport, and express lanes in the grocery store. I remember my dad leaving carts full of groceries in line because the line was too long. We'd shop somewhere else, he'd say, and he was right: in the dog-eat-dog world of American capitalism time is money. I was brought up with a strong emphasis on "hustle," diligence in all things, work ethic, and enterprise. These ideas shaped me, molded me, into the man who never dared let a coworker arrive earlier or stay later, produce greater numbers, or deliver a better presentation.

My problem isn't ambition, determination, or dedication, though. The devil is in the details. Making time to do real, meaningful, efficient work is the key. By allowing myself to take on requests from colleagues I build relationships and form bonds. I take and take and take, but fail to delegate. Eventually there is a point where I cannot accomplish what is defined as my job in a given day due to the number of "busy" activities accepted from others. Seconds lead to minutes, minutes to hours, and the next thing I know I am imaging computers at 3:00am instead of snoozing in the library of the local school. Without a trading of duties or delegation, the "yes man" model is unsustainable. As a manager this also means you must take on duties from employees who fail to complete tasks, doubling the workload as you juggle your own assignments, directives, and deadlines.

Diagnosing Real Workaholism

So how do you know if you are really in trouble or just buckling down temporarily? I moved to the Bush from Anchorage and thought I'd just get my nose to the grindstone for a while and focus on work. I devoted my energy, my life, to the job and thought I would see fruits of my labor in no time. I traveled extensively, visited tirelessly with teachers, and concentrated on impacting student learning like never before. When was that again? Oh, right, 4 years ago... The trouble is we don't always realize what is happening around us and to us without taking a step back every once in a while. The following is an excerpt form a favorite blogger of mine who describes a...

...seven-question test called the Bergen Work Addiction Scale (BWAS), modeled on diagnostic tests already used for traditional addictions.
If you have to admit that at least four of these statements sounds like you "often" or "always," the researchers suggest you might want to stop laughing about your overwork and consider intervention.
  1. You think of how you can free up more time to work.
  2. You spend much more time working than initially intended.
  3. You work in order to reduce feelings of guilt, anxiety, helplessness, or depression.
  4. You have been told by others to cut down on work but you don't listen.
  5. You become stressed if you are prohibited from working.
  6. You de-prioritize hobbies, leisure activities, or exercise because of your work.
  7. You work so much that it has negatively affected your health.

**From The 7 Signs of Workaholism, by Jessica Stillman

Hello, my name is Sam and I am a busyness addict.
Step 2 - change. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Wanting what you already have.

I feel strange saying this, really I do, but I don't want more. I don't want more money, though the comforts of it brings could be nice. I don't want more friends, but I welcome them when the come and cherish deeply the ones I have. I don't want fame and prestige. Frankly, I am tired.
I have worked since I was 13 years old, first as a helper setting up job sites, packing tools, and moving sheetrock. Then I was a burger slinger under the Golden Arches, complete with a clip-on tie when I made swing manager at 16. I got a taste for the service industry and ended up working 2 jobs in competing restaurants after I quit school. Tips were great and life was good. I filled my life with things: Walmart kitchen gadgets, accessories for the tricked out '93 mustang convertible, and gold chains to match the gangster getup. I wanted more, every... single... day. I could not be satisfied. The rat race caught up to me of course and by 19 I had hit rock bottom.

Eventually I ended up in college, first for chemical engineering (I thought I'd be rich!), then for education (not sure, don't ask). Graduating, landing my first job, and still bar tending on the side, things were looking up, but I wanted something else. I was confused because there were people around me that made 3-4 times my salary and still had more debt than I did. I could see the greed of consumerism in my colleagues and community (Louisiana is famous for fancy cars parked in front of houses that cost less than the auto loan).

The next event in my life was serendipitous, I think. It was one part natural disaster, one part adventure. I packed my things and moved to Bush Alaska. Selling everything you own is entirely underrated! Landing in Togiak with only a few suitcases to my name, spare a few boxes at the parents' house (all forgotten now), I felt so free. My first house was a furnished duplex, complete with 30 years of pet stains (averaging 2 years, the tenants of district housing typically don't take care of things as well as their personal property), a ratty armchair, and greasy couch. The view, though... the view was spectacular. Sunsets on the Togiak Bay are world class and my window framed them nightly. Right on the beach, this community relied on the Bay for fish, sea mammal harvests, and birds for protein. There were herring eggs on kelp, bird eggs, and clams galore, too! I wholeheartedly, though clumsily would be a better adverb, jumped into the subsistence lifestyle. With so much protein to choose from I nearly bored myself with moose, caribou, and rabbit recipes...

I wonder what I will think one day when I have to go to the grocery store and choose from 10 packets of ground chuck made from thousands of different hormone and toxin-laced animals for weekend BBQs. Will I appreciate the flavor of hot baby back ribs more than that of never-been-frozen-thirty-minutes-ago-running-across-the-tundra rabbit fricassee?

I'm not sure if I'll mind, but I want my children to experience this feeling. Life, nature, being part of the ecosystem. I am reading a fantastic book about modern consumerism, waste, and excess right now. It's one of those books that sucks you in with great characters and leaves you with soul-searching questions that rock you to your very core. Jonathan Miles' Want Not is definitely a must read for freegans and dumpster divers, hippies and hipsters, Prius drivers and even environmentalist, but most of all, normal people like you and me. Here is an excerpt from a Thanksgiving conversation between the character who seems to have everything figured out and a new acquaintance:

"Yeah we don't go in for all the isms. Once you're in ism you're political and that's a dead-end. The labels are just another domestication device. Look at environmentalism. Everyone's favorite pet ism, the golden retriever of isms right? I guarantee you that someone right now, maybe even on this block, is replacing an incandescent lightbulb with one of those compact fluorescent ones and feeling all nicy and righteous because they're helping the planet. And at the same time right now someone else is buying a hybrid car because they want to save the planet. And think about that word man buying. You just have to sit back for a second and think about the whole psychology there. They're paying their money they're doing their part. They can go to bed tonight knowing they're like on the side of the Angels. That there the good guys---" ~ "they're meaningless things. They're meaningless tools that the system has devised to make people think that they're doing something and to get them to buy something at the same time. It's like, okay this architect who got this big environmental prize from the president or something, is putting this so-called living roof on a freaking truck factory in Michigan. Planted native grasses and s**t up there called it a songbird habitat. I mean Jesus, just roll that around in your head for a while. Our environmental heroes are the a******* designing truck factories. I mean my fingers can't do those stupid air quotes fast enough." ~ "what I'm saying is that you can't fight the system or even change it if you're part of the system, if you're beholden to it. Because the only weapons the system puts in your hands are different lightbulbs and cars. Chemicals in the same bottle with a green label and flowers on it. The same old s*** with a different label. They comfort you by saying the way out is through non-systemic change. That's the whole Al Gore thing right? That we can all modify the system to quote, unquote, save the planet while maintaining the status quo. But it's b******* man it's beyond b*******. The status quo isn't sustainable. Non-systemic change doesn't help when it's a system that's the problem." ~ "Civilization is like like some drug that we can't get enough of can't resist that were helpless without. But producing that drug requires a systematic destruction of the planet. Every ounce of civilization requires like 100 pounds of soil and air and water, and then generates like 50 pounds of waste that math doesn't work, right? It's simple: at the end of the equation there's nothing but waste."

I have had the 9 years since arriving in Togiak to try to figure out what I want and have the scars to prove it. One year I tried to live off of $500 worth of groceries! I was a monster in the gym that year and lived off of protein. The really profound part of that year, though, was me taking from the land what I needed. Just like the taste of my first tips twenty years earlier, I wanted more. I wished I could live in a cabin off the grid. I wanted to be clean and pure, without chemicals and waste. I was dreaming. I could never do that, and neither can the people who now inhabit Bush Alaska.

I have heard many a crude remark toward "outsiders" and have been the butt of hundreds of racial slurs. We've lived here for thousands of years without "x," is a a common statement, but I fear that way of life is long gone, impossible in a global world. The fact that my cell phone buzzes between trips to another village or while hunting tells you something, doesn't it? The grid cannot be escaped.

So what do you do (I mean besides daydreaming about your zombie apocalypse team)?
What I've learned is simple: Want what you have, don't try to have all that you want.

I want to live a balanced life of minimalism. Keeping up with the neighbors, buying junk for my kids because the Saturday morning cartoon brainwashes them, and digging myself in debt are not my American Dream. I admit it: I cannot fix the environment, but maybe I don't care. I will affect change in my world and maximize happiness for me and mine. I bought a hybrid and biked to work before... maybe I'll do it again. Don't get depressed, just understand your limits and live within them. Admit it and move on. Acceptance is not acquiescence. There is a difference.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Being a Gentleman

"A gentleman eats without stuffing his belly; chooses a dwelling without demanding comfort; is diligent in his office and prudent and his speech; seeks the company of the virtuous in order to straighten his own ways. Of such a man one may truly say that he is fond of learning." AoC 1.14

This is one of my favorite quotes from The Analects of Confucius, one of thousands attributed to the Master, though in truth we will never know who wrote or spoke them all. Their value is no less and their impact on the last 2500 years of world history is nothing short of fundamental. I am an American, the son of arguably the most enlightened nation ever created on the Earth, a Christian, a follower of a prophet born 500 years after Confucius, and a resident of Bush Alaska, about as far from Ancient China as one could be. So, then, why study Confucius? Because I think. "To study without thinking is futile; to think without studying is dangerous." - 2.15

I love to study history and government, in my own terms: psychologically understanding the collective "mind" of humanity through case studies across the centuries. The father of modern political theory and personal/governmental morality, Confucius, represents to me a model of the quintessential teacher. He is paradoxical in nature at times, as I am in my job, my relationships, and my life. He models good behavior and preaches of correctness in civic duties, but held no posts of any real importance in life. It's like the familiar (hated by me, personally) adage: "those who can, do; those who can't..." well you know the rest. What I really love about confucianism and ethics/sociology in general, is the idea that through healthy, well-designed, self-motivated education, humanity has hope of improvement. Politics bereft of this concept are hopeless (yes, including the US).

The world is a scary place out there and the truth is we will never "get along." 

Most importantly Confucian education was humanistic and Universalist. Has the master said: AoC2.12 - "A gentleman is not a pot" (or also "a gentleman is not a tool") - meaning that his capacity should not have a specific then it nor his usefulness a narrow application. What matters is not to accumulate technical information and specialized expertise but to develop one's humanity. Education is not about having it is about being.
-Simon Leys

We will never agree that Allah is Yahweh or that Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva are the Trinity of Christ's Church. What we can agree on is that we are all human. We all have value. We all deserve a choice in life. Whether this choice is spiritual, ambition in the acquisition of material wealth, or educational pursuits, we should respect each other equally. The Master, always the teacher, chided to disciples often about moderation.

The key to education is positive change. A good teacher can change a student more that even the most motivated student can change themselves on their own. Negative education such as in Maoist China or brainwashing in Cambodia or the Sudan can do some of the most horrendous damage a human can withstand. Positive education such as the Buddhist enlightenment or the adoption of Ghandi's peaceful nonviolent philosophy can alter humanity in the most profound of ways. The assumption is always the same though: errant behavior comes from a lack of understanding or a lack of knowledge. Truthfulness in knowledge itself is subjective and society dictates its own norms and mores, of course, but the simplicity of the power of education is constant. The student need only realign their goals and their values to those of societies and they will become successful. In the words of the master "if only the delinquent could be taught and be made to perceive the mistake and nature of his actions he would naturally amend his ways." Confucian education is, at its core, universalist.

The utility of the education imparted is the priority. To define utility of course is also subjective. The value of hunting, fishing, and surviving in rural Alaska is eminently more important than that of classical philosophy or Latin. In a broad and general sense, Confucian education is about humanity. Essentially we should not be narrowing our focus to technical skills or career-specific abilities. Being well-rounded, polished in presentation, a life long learner, and a master of communication: these are the skills of a gentleman, not a "pot or tool." By confining yourself to a specific role in society you limit your ability to experience a deep and meaningful life.

As I described in a previous post (Schools vs Education), education is not about degrees, titles, and certifications, it is about improving oneself and expanding our horizons. It's less about doing something or attaining something and more about experiencing life or just being. Reading the story of Buddha, for example, we can relate that a world without real experiences is false and has no value whatsoever, regardless of the riches, joys experienced, and knowledge acquired. I am not on the Greater Path to Enlightenment nor do I worship my ancestors, but in all things I seek truth, justice, and morality, just as these titans of the 5th century BC. To quote the Holy book to which I choose to measure my success as a human:

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

On Leadership

Being a leader means you are a virtuous model of ethics and balanced in your desire to better yourself. Being afraid to make difficult choices or of being judged is not a fear a gentleman should have. If I am living my life in the way I should, I will be secure in the afterlife and content to be judged by others. "His conscience is without reproach. Why should he grieve and what should he fear?" - 12.4. Humility and a willingness to learn from others, especially subordinates, was essential to this style. Often the Master warned of being too authoritarian with those under your command or manipulating others to obtain the results you seek. This bred contempt and subterfuge. If a leader is too brash, his team will resent him. Leading by example and encouraging ritualization to structure desired behaviors, this is my definition of Confucian leadership. Scheduling and organization, it seems, are the keys to a happy life as well as a happy office.

"When nature prevails over culture, you get a savage. When culture prevails over nature, you get a pedant. When nature and culture are in balance, you get a gentleman." - 6.18

  1. a person who is excessively concerned with minor details and rules or with displaying academic learning.

So ask yourself this: are you a savage, a pedant, or a gentleman

Sorry ladies, perhaps you should read here: "savage, pedant, or gentlewoman" 

Monday, June 9, 2014

Tribute to Dad

Anyone can be a father, it takes a real man to be a dad... You've heard the cliche before, but it doesn't make it any less true. My father, my dad, is a one of a kind to say the least. I have learned so much from him and yet paradoxically, seek to be different from him. We are so similar it scares me.

As a technology professional I cannot deny his technophilic love for gizmos has shaped me in a number of ways. Even changing to education in college and becoming a teacher, the opposite of the analytical chemical engineering path I started on (in many ways to be like him), I soon found my way back to my roots.

In my personal life, he taught me to be adventurous and brave. Never be afraid to ask for what you want and never wait for something to fall in your lap. I took life by the reigns and have always lived life with passion and determination. This is what I love about my father. He is a visionary. He sees order in chaos and can solve any problem, no matter how complex, like unrolling a ball of twine.

Far from boring, my dad is a motorcyclist, world traveller, SCUBA diver, and all around lover of life. His passions have in many ways rubbed off on me.

No one has loved me like this man and maybe no one ever will. He is my champion, my great encourager, my hero. He loves like no other. He honors and respects me throughout all the trouble I have dropped on his doorstep over the yeas. Always supportive and never judgmental, I am so blessed he is in my life. 

I love you Dad, Happy Father's Day. 

Here's to you: 
(I call it the 'Dad-stach')

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Another school year come and gone~

 With another year under my belt I felt it time to reflect once again. As per usual, “Bush Sam” often takes a few moments to stop and recollect his actions when feeling as though a milestone is met. In this case it is the completion of my 9th year in educationally related fields.

As a refresher for myself, I think back to my earliest years as a teacher in Sulphur, Louisiana. I finished student teaching and was offered a position to teach Advanced Placement American History. What a learning curve! Goodness, I remember thinking to myself, “What have I gotten myself into?!” Every year since then I seem to start a new position or challenged myself professionally. Those words have become a mantra of sorts for me…

My next move was to Alaska in the summer of 2006, where I enjoyed 4 amazing years in one of the most bountiful and beautiful regions God ever created. Life was simpler, but the work was intense. I often found myself in the school before dawn and after dust and I am certain I averaged 10 hours a day including weekends throughout most of the year. Each year I asked to do more, teach more, coach more, or lead more. In the end I taught classes ranging from art, computer science, MS science, 3rd grade reading, government, all histories, and current events!! We performed mock elections, fund raised, worked as a team to solve 1000’s of complex local issues, and were visited by numerous elected officials. It was a blast, but it was tiring to say the least.

I left the Bush in 2010 to start consulting full time with the Chariot Group. The private sector was sexy and full of action. Everywhere I turned there were deals closing, training being requested, and travel events for me to enjoy parts of the state I never would have seen before! Altogether I visited 87 communities in Alaska, mostly off the road system, and worked with tribal organizations, schools, NGOs, and big businesses. Eventually I knew I had to exit the lifestyle, though.

Offered a coordinator position in 2011, I started with the Lower Yukon in January of 2012. Filling the role as best I knew how, the position quickly became one of on-the-job training to be a director. At 31 years of age, I doubted myself in many respects, but I chose to sign the contract and give it a shot.

This year has been nothing short of a tornado. It began with a lone Tech Director putting out catastrophic network “fires” like 20% of the school domain controllers failing simultaneously and 30% packet loss district wide. Soon I had 2 of the finest team members I could ever have imagined join me and we began cleaning up messes, making systemic policy changes, and rebuilt the entire department from scratch. Everything from wireless connectivity methods to hardware deployments was changed. We literally wrote the manual on how a technology department should be run (all 40 pages)!

We had our share of hiccups and set-backs, but it was a phenomenal year. Service providers eventually got their problems under control and users eventually began to trust us. I could not be happier with our performance in spite of it all. Now I wrap the year up with the busiest and most stressful days yet in my career. Opening two schools simultaneously, purchasing, readying, and deploying nearly $300,000 worth of new equipment while balancing a $6 million budget has stretched me more than I realized.
I think I am burned out though. I think I am tired. I think I am ready for the next challenge. This doesn’t mean I want to quit, though. Quite the contrary, I am ready to roll up my sleeves and attack the 2014-2015 school year with a renewed vigor. This response is coupled with the understanding that I must hold myself to a timeline now, though. With a date in mind (June 30, 2015) I can now identify the priorities and goals which must be met. Not just for me, but for my team. The students, staff, and communities of LYSD deserve my best. They deserve to be left better than where I found them. I aim to deliver the most functional and organized technology department this district has ever seen to my replacement in one year. I have half of the team I need to do it and 100% of the will to make it work.

“What have I gotten myself into?!” still sneaks in every now and then, but all in all I remain resolute and even happy with the anticipation of another year of adventure as Bush Sam.

I am ready.  I accept the next challenge with open arms. I am not afraid.