January 23, 2007

Time Off

My friend Jess Prosser with whom I used to do ComedySportz with in high school had one of the better outlooks on professors’ sabbatical:

“Essentially, the university pays you to go on vacation for a semester, so you head to a cabin or chateau and proceed to find the meaning of life for a couple of months, cutting yourself off from society. Near the end of the sabbatical you write some stuff about what you learned, get it published, and continue your job."

Seems simple. Seems fun. I’m more than 90% sure that a professor’s sabbatical is more intense and research focused than it is a few rounds of golf or sitting naked in a cabin the woods. The concept of getting away from it all is important to our livelihood.

You know the feeling of getting a new job, or buying a new item, or moving into a new place? There’s that magical glow or feeling. Everything is sparkling, simple, Unfettered by previous trials. Your brain starts over. Formulating a new plan for an ongoing life. During this time there are some neat by products. Maybe you get up a little earlier because of the newness. Maybe you get more work done. Maybe everything else seems perfect.

Then the tragic day comes. The scratch. When I first bought my car I was so paranoid about it getting dirty or messed up. I washed it constantly, parked extra carefully in public areas, and even got snippy at people who slammed the doors or played with things in the car (I remember having that classic feeling of getting older where you channel the voice of your dad scolding you for doing the same). The car was new and beautiful and glistening.

Then my friend RJ and I tried to move a grill, almost twice the size of my car, from Wal-Mart back to Mizzou. He and I will still get a chuckle of him riding in the back holding the hatch down while heading to our residence hall. But laughter was not the first emotion of the evening. Sadness, disappointment. The bulky, awkward grill slid from our grasp and hit the side of my car, right over the back left blinker light.

The first scratch.

It’s disappointing. You feel like this big positive perfect thing is now ruined forever.

As we work longer, the cracks begin to form. We notice the broken office light, the toilet in the washroom that doesn’t flush properly, the increasing annoyance phone call from the same customer over and over again. The cracks will always be there. From job to job, moment to moment, bad days or experiences are sure to rear their head.

I have much respect for those who have maintained a positive outlook while dealing with the day to day grind. One of their tricks, vacationing. Your boss isn’t just suggesting vacation time for the sake of expending hot air. She means it. Getting away, outside of your home, your work, your day to day life, sort of forces the most important step in dealing with the cracks...letting go.

Physically leaving your area eliminate the temptation to think or worry about that project coming up. From there your brain starts to free up some of the space it was using to worry about whatever. Then being free, your brain starts to process all of the items which were tied up in mental traffic. It’s kinda like dreaming, except you’re not picturing your friend from 9th grade with the head of a dog, moving in slow motion.

You feel freer to say things like “I don’t have to worry about my diet today” or “I’m gonna go treat myself to a massage.” As you’ve spent the time reliving a newness in your life, you remind yourself that newness is state of mind, not just a physical locale or status.

By the time you return to the grind, everything seems new. Even that pestering phone call or leaky faucet. Now the small problems return to being small. You realize that life’s problems are easily erased with easy day to day reflecting. And you have a new cache of good memories to share with friends.

So as the new year has now passed and it’s months before any type of major holiday break, take a sabbatical, for your mind’s university.


January 13, 2007

Challenge and Support

Can you learn a lot from video games? Can they be an educational tool? Can they tell us something about who we are as people? Or are they simply a way for our brain to start to ooze our of our head?

The Nintendo Wii has been quite popular. An initial guess for this popularity stems from the recent (5 years) craze of arcade games which involve some type of physical movement. I emphasize arcade because the Nintendo Power Pad existed for a while and that didn't seem to really catch on. Nintendo capitalized on the fad and decided to find a creative way to bring it home to the younger generation.

While Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft duke it out for first place in the video game wars, video games have transcended to 'norm' in our cultural milieu. While I don't believe they have replaced anything (although I'm sure there are some folks who complain that family game night is gone, or some parental watchdog group nervous every time a Grand Theft Auto game comes out) I do believe that time has come to except that video games are just for geeky kids.

Educationally I do believe video games can teach us one basic thing about who we are people. No matter what the game (sports, action, adventure, role playing) video games offer an amount of problem solving. And how the gamer decides to adjust to that level of challenge must have some correlation to how that person, on the average, deals with problems in life. I will out my own geekiness as an example:

One of my favorite video games was Final Fantasy II for the Super NES (probably one of the best systems of all time). When I first played that game I remembered the instruction booklet indicated that average time it took to complete the game was 30 hours. I remember thinking how cool it would be to beat it in under that time. Needless to say at the time I was far more interested in the story than I was in the actual playing experience. This level of impatience often caused me to have my characters run from the 'day to day' battles then find creative ways to beat the big bad guys, usually marking a turn of events in the story.

I made it to the end of the game, in about 29 hours, but could not beat it with the way I developed my characters. After a while, I decided to bite the bullet and start from scratch. The one thing I changed: fight every battle no matter what. The second time around my characters were at such a high level that I beat the game with ease. And in under 20 hours. Since then I have always played most video games exploring the first time through (which really takes up a lot of time) and then playing them a second time, knowing where everything is, sometimes finding a way to challenge myself (like the time I attempted to play Legend of Zelda without getting the wooden sword-which is the basic weapon until you get the white sword-and yes it's possible).

I've noticed that in life when met with new tasks or responsibilities I am very much the same way. The first time through I usually try to look all aspects of what I'm doing and making sure no stone is unturned. The second venture through a process I tend to find ways to maximize my time and effort. If it's something I've done for a third time, that's when I tend to look for creative challenges. Although I would say that development is a natural part of my personality I noticed it more when playing video games and have been able to actualize for other things I do.

On a last thought, the game de jeur for me is Lego Star Wars II. Just like the first one, it's one of those great games designed for kids (although the Stormtrooper running around in a speedo is a little disturbing), but easily playable for adults. One interesting thing about this game is that there are some really hard parts of this adventure game. Things that cause you to go well beyond being an agile button pusher. Yet this game also rewards after a while. Throughout the game you collect studs (like money) and can purchase things which can strengthen your character. These in turn make things easier enough for you not to give up but there are still some challenges that even if you have them present some critical thought and effort.

As an allegory to what we do in life, this is a great example of mentoring. Being there for someone and finding ways to provide reasonable challenges, offering support when things are getting rough, and rewarding them by reinforcing the strengths they possess as people. And all that just from playing a silly video game.


January 04, 2007

Rationalizing Ratios

A couple week back I was contacted by a former associate who was interested in talking with me about something. Not knowing what new venture he got himself into but curious nonetheless I decided to share a cup of joe with him. A great speaker, and a salesman at heart, he was looking for me to invest in his company which sold various health and beauty products. Problem is, I myself, am not a salesman.

During his presentation he introduced a concept which I’ve been fascinated with since then but only have anecdotal evidence and experience to share, but I believe to be very true. He stated that the average person can only manage 2 people at a time. This would go in conjunction with the brain only being able to recall 9 digits at a time, and so on and so forth.

Have you ever played bingo before? As a child I remember being delighted with the game. It was easy, there wasn’t any strategy to it, and you got to play with shiny little plastic gems, Did you ever see a seasoned pro play bingo? They got their dauber, they got their caffeine, they got their strange ability to instantly stamp all 10 bingo cards at once. You can’t blame the logic. You have a 1 in 10 chance of winning...why not add 9 more cards?

Higher education follows this same thought as well in some areas. When I worked at the University of Missouri, their Freshmen Interest Group (FIG) program broke students up into clusters of 15 to 20 students. Each group was assigned 1 student staff member who lived with them in the same residence hall (most of the time the same floor) and taught a 1 credit class on adjust to college life. According to their assessment, FIG students were more likely to persist in college and be successful than non-FIG students.

I remember being a freshmen at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh and being told that all English classes had no more than 25 students in it at time (the number I believe has risen to 32). It was no wonder, part of the experience of literature is a good discussion about people’s interpretations. I can’t see how that would work in a pit class. Truthfully in most of my pit classes I couldn’t really conceptualize how 100 students could feel engaged in such a large group with one tiny professor yelling up at everyone.

What is an effective ratio size? I actually can’t imagine that 1:2 is perfect when it comes to managing people, but it sounds effective. Yet, it also seems too close for any business to have that management structure. What about a pool of writers for a magazine, or artists for greeting cards? How large is too large where the group feels disconnected? How small is too small where the individuals feel micromanaged?

Maybe there isn’t a golden ration. Or maybe it’s too dependant on circumstance and environment. However, there are a couple of things I’ve learned that aid in creating an effective ratio:

Recognize Different Levels of Experience

Not everyone in the ratio is an us vs. them. It’s not a management vs. underling. For management there’s obviously assistants which can help break the ratio down further. However for the larger number it helps to have veterans in there. People who have been around the block, but don’t have that title/responsibility to supervise. They are often the ones who make that “hey we’re in this together” sentiment before the supervisors do.


I’ve seen effective managers, supervisors, advisors take time to empower other leaders. I learned this from my friend Jason who was a National Communications Coordinator (NCC-kinda like an ambassador to other colleges) for our campus. He selected two delegation leaders when he took us to conference. By doing so he changed it from a 1:15 ratio to a 1:7 ration (you see he was at business meetings so the two delegation leaders we then leading a group of 14 people).

Blur & Firm The Line

My favorite philosophy teacher as an undergrad, Dr. Messner, did a great job with this. During discussions in class he put us in a circle and joined the circle. As he held us accountable with turning in papers late, he did the same for himself when returning papers to us (if he was late, he brought treats for us). At the same time we knew through his expectations and initial leadership in class that he was the teacher. Blurring and firming the mythical line that separates the ratio is a helpful way to make the ratio seem to not exist.

I am off in search of this mythical number. Maybe the perfect number does not exist. However, while we try to find an effective balance for all involved, there’s creative ways to bend the ratio. That’s why I’d hire someone to help me stamp my bingo cards.