Geetanjali Mukherjee

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Learn By Practicing

One of the mistakes students repeatedly make when studying for an exam is to simply read over the textbook or their notes over and over, and think that they know the material and are sufficiently prepared for their test. A few books I have been reading lately discuss this issue in more detail, particularly an excellent book on study tips and learning quantitative skills - A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra. The better strategy for studying is instead to test your learning - try to solve problems on your own or answer sample test questions. This is harder, but it cements your understanding better.

In the same vein, I realize that even as adults we seem to keep making this same mistake. We read dozens of self-help books, that sound great and make big promises about how the material will change our life. Even after reading and re-reading the book however, we are no closer to solving our problems, or changing our life (or finances or weight or relationships, whatever the purview of the book). I am myself definitely guilty of this quite often, and sometimes conclude that such books can't possibly help me to change myself.

But maybe the problem lies in this same fallacy that reading equals learning - "the illusion of fluency" is how some academics term it. Learning anything, whether its calculus, or assertiveness, requires re-tooling your brain in a sense. You may have pre-conceived notions, or previous habits that need to changed - maybe the habit of looking at a maths textbook and deciding that you just aren't smart enough to tackle it, or reverting to passiveness when faced with a situation where you would like to be more assertive, but don't know how. It takes effort to get through one calculus problem at a time, getting the hang of first the easy techniques and tackling harder problems, till you change how you approach math.

It is the same principle I think with learning new things as an adult that we don't traditionally think of as "learning" - new skills in the workplace, better inter-personal skills, even something as simple as managing one's time better or overcoming procrastination - we don't usually associate any of this in the same category as learning the history of the civil war or calculus - but essentially for the brain - its the same thing. We need to practice the new skill, fail at it or not do as well as we had hoped, take a step back and evaluate where we went wrong, and attempt it again. Maybe every time we read a book that promises to change some aspect of our life, we need to remember that simply reading the book will not help us - soon we will have forgotten most of it - we need to set aside time to implement the information - however imperfectly - and that will be far more effective than deluding ourselves that just because we understand what to do, we now will be able to do it (the skill we are hoping to learn). Just like reading the recipe for making apple pie doesn't get me any closer to baking
one, reading how to be an effective time-manager (or leader or public speaker or whatever), doesn't get me closer to actually getting more done unless I start to put in practice what I read.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Take Steps, Not Leaps

I'm reading this incredible book, How To Fly A Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention and Discovery, and although there are many interesting insights for us creative people trying to improve, one really stood out for me so far.

We often think of being creative or innovative as taking a giant leap forward from the status quo - be that our own or others. We write a best-selling book, or create a product that wows everyone, or discover a cure for a deadly disease. One moment there was the old, and the next there is this new, improved, radically different 'thing' that we have created. So the myth goes that we need to become capable of these huge leaps -and we think, how can I write a best-selling book, or design an incredible product? The pressure mounts,  and we reject plenty of good ideas right off the bat, because none of them sound like the next big thing. Not yet anyway.

What I'm learning, from this book, and serendipitously, because I'm thinking about it, from myriad other sources as well, that big changes happen in small steps. You take one step forward in a direction that seems promising, then you re-evaluate, learn something new, make some changes and take another step forward. This may not seem glamorous, may not make for good story-telling, but its closer to the truth than the proverbial light-bulb moment.

Well you may be saying, most of us have had a light-bulb moment or two. So what about that then? Those don't count do they? Well, actually they do - but they usually don't encompass the entire work - maybe you get a spark of an idea for something, but the rest has to be worked out by you, painstakingly, one page or note or prototype at a time. And that idea - it probably wasn't a giant leap. Most of my ideas, are just one step up from a book I read, or an amalgamation of several books and articles and things bouncing around in my head. Nothing just comes completely out of the blue that is 30 steps away from what I'm doing. And here's the thing - when it does - I'm just not ready for it.

I had an idea for a book on philosophy in college, while I was supposed to be studying legal theory for an exam. The idea was so big, to me at least, it scared me. I didn't think I knew enough, or had enough ability, to write this book. This book stayed with me over the years, I was really excited about it and I kept telling myself that I should start working on it, but really I never did. It was still too big for me. Now I don't really feel its too big anymore, but most of the excitement about the book has gone. I didn't write down my idea in too much detail, so I'm not sure at this point what exactly I was trying to do. Plus the ideas no longer feel like such a leap - there are similar ideas out there now, even if in different forms.

Maybe I should have pursued that idea more. But maybe there is also a lesson here - that when things are genuinely a leap, we may be intimidated into not following up. Or there is a lot of pressure - I'm going to be the next Stephen King, not I'm going to write a fun, kooky story and see where it goes. Or you don't yet have the tools to take the leap - like I felt handicapped by my lack of background in philosophy - but you might have the courage to take a small step - maybe I could have written the introduction, or the easiest chapter. Or even turned it into a blog post. Maybe books that I have lately loved started out as blog posts that resonated enough with readers that they were turned into a book.

So go on, take a step in the direction you want to go, and don't worry that your shoes are itty-bitty and delicate and your step is only small and tentative. Its moving forward, and if you keep stepping, maybe you'll get there faster than any leap.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Making Time For Your Art, When Everyone Wants You To Do Something Else

There's something I have been noticing recently - that time is really less about actual hours and minutes and more about perception. It is relative. You can have a lot of time if you are relaxed, feeling good about yourself, and decide to just sit down and work on your art. You could also have no time if generally you're more stressed out, people are pulling you in different directions, and you spend time thinking about all you need to get done.

Lately I have been trying to put in long hours towards completing the first draft of a new book. I was hoping to be done a while ago, but the draft is taking longer than I expected. As each day goes by, I get more stressed and anxious about how long it is taking and how much I'm getting done each day. I am writing far more than I usually write, some days twice my usual amount, and yet, compared to how much I still have to write, I am perceiving that amount as not good enough. And I noticed that during this time, anything I have to do that when I'm less under pressure I get mildly annoyed by, or just register as something I would like to avoid but end up doing anyway, now it seems like a huge burden. I'm looking at some of my obligations and thinking - they take up way too much time, it seems like this is all I am doing with my time, and this is why my work isn't going as well as I had hoped.

In fact, these past few weeks, every time I had to do something for a certain voluntary obligation, or attended a meeting, I would calculate how much writing I could be getting done, and felt resentful. I seethed with what I saw were other people's lack of planning, leading to inefficient use of everyone's time. I complained to people about how much time I was spending on this particular commitment, and considering pulling back, or even leaving it altogether.

Then a conversation I had with someone regarding their own similar issues struck me with the idea that what I was particularly resenting wasn't the amount I was doing for that particular obligation, but how much of my own work I was getting done. When I wasn't on deadline, I was getting relatively more done, compared to what my goals were, and the time commitment didn't seem excessive. Now the commitment hasn't increased, but how much I need to get done for my own writing has, and in comparison the commitment seems like it has expanded.

So perhaps when we are struggling to complete all the tasks for our job, tend to the needs of our family and friends, and still make time for our art, if we aren't really feeling enough progress in the making art front, we may start to get resentful and blame the environment for putting obstacles in our path. Sure most of us have more commitments than we strictly have time for, but we are probably overlooking crucial strips of time that we re-position to do our heart-work first.

By art I mean whatever your heart considers is important to your well-being - it could be painting, writing, making quilts, decorating your living room - something that fulfils you and makes you feel happy. Sure, spending time with friends and family and being fulfilled at work can also do that - but many of us have an urge to do something different - but often that urge gets buried under everything else we have to do. Maybe we are genuinely very busy, but I have also come to realise that our perceptions may also be skewed. If I have a spare 30 minutes, I may disregard that as time that I have to do some writing, because I think I need at least a couple of hours to really get going. If someone calls me and asks me to do something when I was writing, I will put my writing aside and do what they wanted, even though it wasn't urgent, and then resent them for it.

We may not get large swathes of time all to ourself to do everything we would like. But we do get choices. We can decide to spend an hour doing something that is important to us, and ignore or postpone requests for our attention to a later time. We can look closely at everything we have committed to, and see if we can reduce that list, either by quantity or quality. For example, I am very often the emcee for a monthly meeting we have for my volunteer commitment, and I used to get stressed about writing a written script for each occasion, despite the fact that I have done this so often I can ad lib without a script, just by looking at the agenda. I still continued to write a script, thinking that was the professional thing to do. One day I didn't have time, and realised that it really didn't matter, and just added to the list of things I had to do. I stopped writing the script after that, and its been a huge relief.

If you're feeling like other people's agendas are preventing you from making headway with your own, don't try to change everything all at once. Start by carving out time for your art in your current schedule, using any bits of time you can steal. Put off requests if you can't say no. Spend 30 minutes on your art first, then respond to others. You will be surprised how much more positively you can respond when you have given something to yourself first. And your perception of how much others are taking up will change, because they are no longer taking something away from you, and you can enjoy being with them, and even doing those pesky guilted-into obligations, a little more.

How do you make time for your art?

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The What of Productivity Along With The How

We seek to have empty inboxes and complete everything on our to-do list, we read endless life hacks and suggestions for saving a few minutes here and there, and for wasting less time on playing games on our mobile and getting more done. But are we consistently thinking about what we are doing with the time that we are saving?

Two recent tragedies, of different scales, the devastation of the Nepal earthquake, and the sudden death of David Goldberg, have reminded me that no matter how easy or difficult life is, how good we may be and how successful we may be, life ends, and sometimes abruptly. Or circumstances can change, and what was possible before may no longer be possible. We really can't take our current life, however hard we have worked to order it just so, for granted. We don't know how much time we have, before we either make "the ultimate climb" or simply move to a different ladder or hill or valley.

This realisation is something that I would rather not have, I would rather not think about how things might change. I don't like change, not really. But I recognise the need to prepare for it, and at the very least, to evaluate what I am doing with the time I have now. As someone said, the days are long but the decades are short. Time goes by quite quickly, and all you do remember are the dreams you accomplished and the time you spent with the people you love.

Something that came up over and over in all the obituaries of David Goldberg was how he made people feel, how he took time out to help anyone out who asked for it, and never made them feel like it was an imposition. As someone who looks up to his wife, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg as a role model, I have always admired how secure Goldberg seemed given all the attention she got. You can sense that he made a lasting impression on the people he knew, and they thanked him with the outpouring of touching remembrances after his passing.

All of this made me think - am I spending my time optimally - redefining optimal for myself as doing things that I will look back on and feel proud that I worked on, and being the kind of person that I have always wanted to be. I started to ask myself, am I spending enough time with the people I cherish most (whether in person or through some other means)? Am I working on my most important goals - not goals that are imposed or will make me look good in some way, but goals that make my heart sing? Am I grateful for what I have at this moment, instead of constantly focusing on what I don't have yet?

This may be trite advice, but it nonetheless true - in our frenzy to save time and get everything done, we really do need to take stock and determine whether we are living our lives true to our larger values. If we are, at least when circumstances change, we won't regret that we didn't take any action on our big dreams, or that we hardly spent any time with our loved ones, or that we spent what little time we do have being stressed out, crabby and unhappy in pursuit of someone else's idea of what we consider an ideal career or enough success. As long as we live our lives in accordance with our own values, we may wish we had more time, but at least we will know we did something good with the time we did have.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Writing Tricks That Work and Other Advice

I love to read and collect writing advice books and articles. Over the years I must have read hundreds of books that give advice on writing. However, its not often that I apply the advice, for various reasons. Mostly because I think the advice doesn't apply to me (usually if it is specific to fiction writing), sometimes because I think my issues with writing are too complex for a simple 'trick' to solve the problem.

One such piece of advice I have read about many times is Ernest Hemingway's technique of leaving a sentence unfinished, so that he would have something to start the next day off. He thought that it would be a lot easier to start a session of writing if he had something easy to start with, so we would stop the day's writing right in the middle of a sentence or thought.

I have read this advice in several books, and many writers recommend it. I never applied it myself. or rather I never deliberately applied it. It did happen sometimes that I inadvertently had to stop in the middle of what I was writing because I was interrupted - and I never somehow could remember what I was planning to say next. That was the main reason I didn't intentional employ this method. Besides, my blocks are usually more complex than not knowing what first sentence to start with.

Or so I thought. The other day, I had started an essay for a book I'm currently writing, but had to stop after one sentence of the second part of the essay. I came across the sentence when feeling blocked and contemplating giving up on writing, at least for a few hours. It was a complete sentence, but the first one of a new point. Somehow it triggered a cascade of ideas, and a few pages just poured out.

I am ashamed to see that 'tricks' do work, and that perhaps not knowing how to begin is truly my problem more often than I realise. I read recently that 'good' inertia sets in - when once you start to move, you keep on moving. So once the words start to flow, however mediocre they may be, they bring more along for the ride, and they usually improve with speed and volume.

My advice: try advice that you hear out for yourself before reserving judgement on its efficacy! [And if you're frequently blocked - try leaving a sentence of a new idea to add to on your next writing session.]
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