Thursday, May 25, 2017

Difficult vs. Complicated: Don't Get it Twisted!

So I'm in a real, honest-to-goodness work lull right now.  I've got exactly 1 class that I'm teaching at the moment, and exactly one student that I'm tutoring.  Yes, this feels weird.

For the last few years, I've been doing that whole Gig Economy thing.  I've been tutoring, adjunct teaching, doing my Reserve drills, and then slowly but surely building a dividend income stream alongside those other incomes.  This whole state of being sort of came about accidentally/incidentally, as the 'side gigs' were originally intended to support a main effort involving a business that I started in b-school.  (Looking back, it's easy to see that I was "all thrust and no vector" but hey, sometimes lessons need to be learned the hard way).  If you add up all my income sources, it basically comes out to be pretty much what you'd expect from someone a couple years out of an MBA program.  On the bright side, it's been more independent...on the not-so-bright side, it's led to the state of 'perma-work' that I've described in some of the sporadic blog posts from that period.  If you currently hold a full-time, salaried, steady job with benefits and vacation time, then becoming a Gig Economy perma-worker is just about the LAST thing I would ever wish upon you. As my friend Rick would say, it's "no way to run a railroad."

I don't want to jinx anything but it looks like I *might* be starting something more traditionally full-time (and salaried!) in the near future, final details pending.  That means I'll put those reindeer games behind me...I'll miss some parts of that at times, but I'll also enjoy not taking the 9:45 p.m. train from North Station each night (really? Yes, really), and it'll be better on the family front, too.

Now that I've caught you up on all that, I want to share just one observation (more will be forthcoming) that I learned over the past 4+ years as a GMAT tutor:  Many answers in life are difficult, but not complicated.  But many people don't *want* difficulty, so they fall back on 'complicated' as a crutch.  

Let me explain:  I can tell you exactly what you need to do in order to get a great GMAT score. Believe me, believe me, believe me, believe me -- this, I know.   Of course, there's a bit more to it, but in a nutshell, there's a huge body of material that you need to work your way through, and you need to closely examine every single error you make.  You can't just casually brush mistakes off under the guise of 'yeah, yeah, yeah, that's what I meant to say' after seeing the right answer, and you can't just dismiss all your mistakes as 'careless.' You need to painstakingly do this, and your process needs to be repetitive to the point that it almost physically hurts.  You need to determine what it was that you missed in the statement, what math rule you didn't know, or what strategy you didn't employ in order to tighten the wiring between here and there.  And then you need to make that flashcard, and review it so many times that you curse it, and that you curse my name for making you do it.

Simple enough, right?  No.

Here's the rub:  That process absolutely sucks.  It's a huge pain.  EVERYONE nods along during our first session together and earnestly tells me they're quaffing my Kool-Aid, but NOT everyone really does.  Those who embrace it?  770s, 740s, 750s, name it, my students have scored it.  My proudest 'jump' ever came from an international student who started sub-500 but wound up with a 660 through a combination of equal parts brainpower and willpower.  Not every story, however, ended with the Rocky theme music playing, along with text messages that had twenty exclamation points following each short sentence.

So when it went wrong, what went wrong?  Most people don't want to do things that completely suck. As Kevin Hart would say, "Everybody wants to be famous...nobody wants to do the work."  

Maybe that's obvious, though -- what male ever made it through adolescence without a behind-the-woodshed talk about work ethic from Dad?  Maybe saying that people avoid hard things is like saying water is wet.  A slightly more interesting spin on it, methinks, is this:  Sometimes, as a way of shirking away from the World of Difficult, people seek solace in ComplicatedLand.  In other words, to specifically avoid doing something difficult, we convince ourselves that some clever way forward -- if only revealed to us -- would get us to the desired pot of gold, sans the sturm und drang along the way.

"But isn't there something you can do...with data?  I mean, can't you analyze one of my practice tests and then just tell me what I need to do, and then I can just ace this thing?"

"No, actually.  All I can analyze from your test is what you did well, and what you missed.  As for the things you missed, I can show you the very best ways to turn those 0s to 1s, so to speak.  And I can't predict exactly what you'll see on GameDay -- no one can.  So you need to cover ALL of the Official Guide material -- I can't just cherry pick 30 out of the 300 problems and tell you, in good faith, to *just* study those. I'll help you unpack each miss, and as we systematically do that -- rinse, repeat -- you'll continually get better."

"Yeah, yeah, right...I can just look the answers up myself...but back to my question -- can't you just tell me exactly what I need to study in order to go north of 700?   What you're describing doesn't sound very efficient, or personalized to me."

"Well, yes, and no.  You need to know this huge body of material..." And so it begins anew.

I imagine this to be no different from a patient, thirty pounds overweight, who goes to see his doctor.

"Hey Doc...whaddaya got?  I'm trying to lose a few.  What can I do?"

"Well, have you considered exercising more?  Taking the stairs instead of the elevator?  Walking to your office from a different T station?  What about just going from two donuts to one in the morning, or starting your day by eating a banana instead?"

"Whoa,, no, that's not what I meant.  I mean, all those years of medical school, all those years in practice, and all you've got is 'diet and exercise.'  That's what got you all that sheepskin on your wall, doc?  C'mon...can't you figure out what's up with my glands, and just prescribe something for it?  Can't you just give me something topical to apply to my stomach that will give me washboard abs after a few weeks?"

Here, the doctor's initial Rx -- more exercise, healthier diet -- is not only time-honored, but it's essentially 'free' and it's more effective than literally any medication under the Sun.  But it's difficult. It requires sacrifice...and lifestyle changes.  Someone not ready to do either of those things can either: a) come to grips with that and try to find a way past it [by the way, the answer is incrementalism!! And I could, and probably will, write entire post(s) on that topic later on] or b) spurn it entirely, opting instead to believe in something much more complicated but far less difficult (some sort of advanced scientific solution that delivers the same solution, minus the burden on the patient).

I would suspect that much of this applies to nearly any common life goal.  Look at, for instance, people's New Year's Resolutions -- learning a new language, reading the Great Works canon, writing a novel, losing weight, learning how to play a new instrument, gaining new tech skills, improving their Army Physical Fitness Test two-mile run time, staying in touch with relatives, etc.  All of those goals are only met with a considerable level of difficulty, but are any of them really that complicated? 

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

What I Said Last April...Just More of It

Cliff Krieger has teased me a few times about going "RF cold" over here in Bloggistan.  It has, indeed, been a while.

The funny thing is, not much as changed.  In fact, I'm able to write today because of a cancellation (but it's a late cancellation, and yes, I'm getting paid for that time as I write this...but I still have to go Boston in a little while for another).

I figured I would write today about why I think adjuncting is actually great, despite some of the popular portrayals and the misleading, clickbaity headlines about "Professors in Poverty" and the like.

But I actually stopped to look at my own site and saw that I'd more or less written this back in April of 15.

It's still true today, though -- once you really get your calculator out and figure out the math, adjuncting is a more than okay way to make a living.  Especially if you love to teach.  Living in Boston certainly doesn't hurt (I realize geography helps make the adjunct hustle more doable here...though I suppose the Internet sort of wipes away some of that distinction).  I supposedly make a lot per hour tutoring but my effective wage, coupled with some of the qualitative factors, reveals to me that adjuncting will be in the cards for me for many years to come, whereas tutoring will not (but, to badly paraphrase that line from Brokeback Mountain, "I just can't quit you.")

I still play in the NFL...that is, the No Fun League.  But it's a situation that I've carved out, and as I tell my wife sometimes, it would be just as hard or probably an even harder route if I had done something more traditional post-MBA.  As I like to say, people who spend their time vilifying the 1% need to spend more time around the 1%.  Then, make fun of them all you want (of course it's your right!) but you might change the way you view their work ethic.

I started a business, and it basically went sideways.  I emerged, relatively unscathed, but with some lost time to make up for on a couple fronts.  Got my entrepreneur Campaign Ribbon but (thankfully!) no Entrepreneur Purple Heart.  To borrow from Gen. MacArthur, "I shall return."  But smarter next time.

I have a neat project on the side, and it's income investing.  No magic tricks here -- there are companies and funds who will pay you a residual income for buying and holding their shares. Companies with long track records of dividend increases tend to work particularly well here, as they create a sort of 'double compounding' effect when these divs are reinvested.  This is all about temperament, and has nothing to with IQ -- if you're someone who gets excited by the idea of a drop becoming a trickle becoming a creek becoming a stream becoming a river becoming an ocean making tidal waves, then it might be up your alley, too.

Oh, and one thing about recent events before I retreat back into my lair -- if you like to opine about the strange habits of other people who supposedly can't help themselves from "voting against their own interests" then I would just wonder how you'd feel about someone saying the same about you.

They wouldn't, though, would they?  You're probably too enlightened.  

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Privileged? Oh, Let Me Count the Ways!

I am a straight, white, Protestant male.

I didn't choose any of that -- except, sort of, the next-to-last one -- but I benefit from unearned privilege in an immeasurable number of ways, large and small.  I could write a lot more about these ways, but here are two specifics for you, for the sake of brevity and for the sake of the students whose exams I need to grade en masse, pronto:

(1) I often walk home late at night from Gallagher terminal to Canal Place.  It's a pretty easy jaunt and there's a pretty direct way to do it.  Sometimes I'm not the only one taking that walk.  Whenever the temperature finds its way above the freezing mark, I wear flip-flops.  These flip-flops make a distinct 'clackety-clack' sound as I traipse uphill on Thorndike...err, Dutton...or whatever you call the uphill portion of the sidewalk I'd be on if the South Common were to my immediate right. Sometimes there is someone walking in front of me -- and bear in mind it's VERY late at night and there are very few people out.  Sometimes the person hearing that 'clackety-clack' getting closer turns around, sees me, and expresses relief.  Why?  What is about me that caused that?  How might they react to a 'me' that wasn't quite so pale?  

(2) Three of my jobs involve some sort of transfer or explanation of technical or mathematical knowledge that I might be qualified to actually present.  That's not some awkwardly insincere self-effacement, that's just the truth.  With each semester, I get better at CS101.  With each seminar on Big Data, Online Tracking, or Trends in Tech, I get stronger on the material.  But getting to this point has certainly had a significant 'fake-it-til-you-make-it' component.  You think my gender and race helped me do that?  I do.  I think that when people close their eyes and imagine who might be teaching them GRE combinatorics problems, or who might be teaching them about binary number systems, or demystifying PageRank, they picture someone like me.  So how does this help me?  It means I start with the benefit of the doubt.  If I confuse 'bit' with 'byte', I won't be treated like the female sideline reporter who asked Jerry Rice about his many interceptions and never lived it down...instead, people would just think, "He must be mixed up right now."  

And believe me, from where I started to where I am now, I've gotten plenty of benefit of the doubt.  

When I see the way people react to the Baltimore riots, I am reminded of two much more important ways that I benefit from unearned privilege:

(1) No one is ever going to pity me or excuse my behavior.  Every time I see a well-meaning left-winger write something on Facebook about it being 'understandable' or 'natural' for certain people to throw bricks through windows, or to stomp on windshields, or steal toiletries from CVS, I cringe. And I cringe because I know that MOST people in West Baltimore don't, and won't, do any of those things.  A tiny subset of a tiny subset (mostly young males) might commit heinous acts like that, though.  And I also cringe because I know the people writing that would NEVER make such apologies for me.  If I were to go out and commit seriously antisocial acts of aggression, people would rationalize it in ways that were individualized to me, and to me alone.  "He must have gone crazy," or "What a privileged ass-hat."  What they're really saying is that I'm accountable for my actions, but some poor kid from West Baltimore is not. And what does that tell me?  It tells me that the power structure that currently works in my favor -- and very much AGAINST that kid whose image is on the news -- will remain just as it currently is.  

(2) I'm never going to see myself as a victim.  Even the one protected class to which I do belong (veterans) is not really something *bad* societally.  Yes, there might be isolated instances of anti-veteran statements, like when that CNN reporter implied veterans might be starting violence in cities, but that gets shouted down pretty quickly.  But the flip side of the above paragraph is that I believe I'm fully in control of my destiny.  That doesn't mean it's all easy street -- just ask my wife, the only other person who really knows about my schedule.  But it does mean that I honestly believe tomorrow will be better than today, and the day after will be better than tomorrow, and so on. Why do I think this way?  Some of it may just be natural disposition, but my life experiences tell me that hard work is rewarded and that a seed planted today will be worth more in the future.  Not everyone who is born and raised in West Baltimore is shaped by similar experiences, to put it mildly.  If it means that I don't make excuses, then even my legendarily endless days are just a reflection of that shaping...kinda like the way a privileged kid from San Mateo outworks everyone else in his field, year after year, and still shows up first to camp after ring #4.  

But anyway, back to Baltimore for a second.  Watching the way various people have reacted just reminds me that anyone who thinks one side of the political spectrum is "Correct" when it comes to issues of racial injustice and poverty, while another side is "Incorrect" needs to look at things a bit more closely.  

Even putting aside the issues of the Freddy Gray case, I think all sides can admit that the issues that lead to intergenerational poverty are complex. 

The solutions aren't simple either.  Just look at how many billions (trillions?) of dollars have been funneled through the Great Society programs intended to 'fix' places like West Baltimore, or East St. Louis, or the South Side of Chicago.  

I'm not saying I have the answers, but I do have a strong hunch that any 'solution' that doesn't come with buy-in from the community in question itself is just going to lead to more status quo.  If it's simply "give them more stuff" or "we should stop using words that offended a Baltimore City Councilman" or "we should pay urban school administrators more," the problem is that none of those assume efficacy or agency on the part of the people being 'helped.'  

The more the solutions can come from within that community, and the more that people can benefit from the privilege that come with high expectations (of oneself and for oneself), the faster we'll be able to fix the structural problems that are on display right now in one of our major East Coast cities. 

But the more the American political intelligentsia, or the elite 'leaders' in Baltimore, want to have discussions that de-emphasize the power and responsibility of the people in the community -- who, by the way, can make the choice NOT to throw bricks through windows, or to take Oreos and Pampers from CVS -- the more we'll ensure that people who look like me continue to enjoy their unearned privilege, and that most of the people in West Baltimore will not.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Adjuncts, Wages, and Poverty

I've read a few articles lately about adjunct salaries.

Some have quoted adjuncts at various universities who talk about how they earn a poverty wage, how they're on food stamps, how they're considered expendable, etc.

Some of the quotes have been pretty misleading.  I won't even try to delve into the bigger-picture issues here about who should -- or shouldn't -- be teaching at universities, but I will say this:  I teach six courses a year (two per term, including summers), so I'm familiar with some of the general issues and arguments that are swirling around about this.

In exchange for teaching these courses, I receive what I consider to be a fair supplement to my annual household income.

By itself, it would qualify me as poor.  By itself, it would leave me without health insurance.

But I never understood full-time wage and benefits to be part of the deal when I agreed to a part-time job.  As it happens, the supplement that teaching gives me helps put me over the hurdle I need to clear each month to get by -- truly, it's a wonderful thing, and I'm quite grateful to have received the opportunity to do it.  

Some of the articles I've seen have included quotes that implied that a courseload like this (2 per term) is a full-time job.  It isn't.  It's demanding, it's important, it's taken seriously...but it's not full-time.

Other models may be far better than the one currently in place.  In a perfect world, universities would find ways to hire more adjuncts as full-time teachers -- pay them a *real* wage, and let them *really* teach.  Hire and retain only the best teachers.  While you're at it, keep fewer six-figure administrators with amorphous job descriptions on staff.

Maybe we'll eventually get there.

In the meantime, anyone who wants to basically write his or her ticket as a full-time adjunct can do so by affiliating himself/herself with several schools, really teaching full-time, and really pulling down a wage that will allow this lifestyle, for all its pros and cons.

I realize how frantic and hectic that would be, as well as the quandary it would still leave people in, benefits-wise.   But I also realize there's another, albeit possibly equally unpalatable option to take -- they could always get a day job. 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Hello (Again), World

I'm not sure what motivated me to think about blogging today, but here are three quick bullet points before I head back to grading and preparing for tonight's class:

  • No Bushes, No Clintons. I don't necessarily support or even *like* any particular candidate who is or who might be running for President in 2016.  What I do know, though, is that it honestly worries me a bit that the front-runners, or at least near front-runners, for our two major parties are a Bush and a Clinton.  I hope the nomination process brings us someone ELSE for at least one, if not both, parties.
  • Being slightly more rational.  Subscription-based business models are wonderful...if you're the business.  For longer than I care to say, I've steadily maintained my "Y" membership despite not having actually used it.  Why be so irrational?  Well, you see, although I may not use it in practice, I use this membership in theory.  Actually cancelling the membership would force me to say that I don't use it in either sense.  Well, finally my credit card expired and I thought, "Well, okay, that sort of did it for me."  But apparently not.  Even after the card expired -- and suffice to say I had not entered the joint since said occurrence -- the Y continued to send me statements w/increasing "amounts due" at the bottom.  This got me to FINALLY say, "Okay, the jig's up. Time to stop pretending that I swim there, or whatever it is I think I do, and just cancel this thing."  I went in this morning, knocked out all the paperwork, and learned that they have one-day passes for military members for $3.  So the story ends quite well -- no more $38/mo charged to my card, and whenever I decide to do the *actual* kind of swimming, as opposed to the theoretical kind, I can do it at a solid 12 times a month before I even hit the break-even point.
  • Perma-working.  Only because I looked, I know this was the last entry I did before this.  I still perma-work, and will continue to do so until my passive income hits the right threshold.  I sometimes wonder how many people perma-work (I bet it's a sizable chunk of people; I'm not trying to sound special or play a woe-is-me card here).  I'm nowhere near a one percenter (believe me, I just filed my return, I know this).  But things are trending in the right directions, and I eventually plan to get there. When I do, no one else -- except my wife -- will really know what it was like during this part the climb.  I have no idea what I'll be like when I'm on that side of the table -- I hope I don't become a pompous jerk -- but the more I see and learn about the world, the surer I am that very few of those bashing the one-percent would be game for the 4 a.m. wakeups on days that end with the last train home.  

Monday, December 8, 2014


Lots of time has elapsed between entries, so thanks for coming back.

Things are good.  I'd say things are 'busy' but as I've written about before, the word 'busy' doesn't seem to have much meaning today. 

I would say that I exist in a steady state of 'perma-work.'  That's not necessarily a good or a bad thing.  I'm pursuing an entrepreneurial dream -- and yes, there's some Skunk Work-ish type stuff up the sleeve -- but in the meantime I'm basically 'working to support my entrepreneurial habit.' 

When the sideshow stuff crowds out the main effort, it can seem frustrating...but the seasonality to it all is that Labor-to-Turkey is always going to be the nuttiest time of year.  So things are easing up a bit now. 

In many ways, I've learned as much or more about business in the past few months actually running one than I learned in four semesters of b-school.  I've learned that costs tend to be steadier than revenues.  I've learned that any business model that relies on the specific effort/time of a particular person or group of people (basically, anything non-scalable) is quite, quite limited. 

I've learned that the FICO score of a principal in a business is very important, at least until the business establishes its own credit.  Then, in turn, I've learned that I need to retire a great deal of personal debt before I can make the kind of deal that would vault the business to the point where I didn't need to be doing quite so much on the outside.  To do so, I've got to put even more of the outside work...which crowds out even more time that would otherwise go towards the main effort. 

Sometimes that all makes me think of the kids' story "I Don't Know Why I Swallowed a Fly," in which the protagonist swallows a series of increasingly-large animals to solve her initial problem (swallowing a fly, which in turn needed to be swallowed). 

At some point, you might rationally ask, "How does any of this even make any sense?  Why not shave, put on a nice suit, and go knock on the door at State St. to see if they'd take you?" 

As well-intentioned as that question is, there's an information asymmetry between me and the person asking it.  There are some neat trends that have been set in motion, and some (very delayed) payoffs that will result.  There are some corporations and institutions involved that you've heard of.  But for today, it's dirt-under-the-fingernails and an obscene setting on my alarm clock. 

To paraphrase Robert Duvall speaking to Sean Penn in Colors, it's all about the bull walking down the side of the valley to [fraternize with] all of the cows.

There's a seemingly-minor note in Walter Isaacson's bio of Steve Jobs, in which he describes a condition Mike Markkula made before writing the first big check that Apple ever received (at the time, the only Apple peeps were Jobs and Wozniak).

To paraphrase, "Woz has to quit H-P" was the demand. 

Woz said, "But no, I can just keep doing H-P full time, but do this Apple thing on the side in Steve's garage."

To which Markkula said -- again paraphrasing -- "The hell you will." 

Eventually, they had to get Wozniak's Dad involved, but the ultimate result was Woz leaving H-P and then Markkula cutting the check. 

Markkula was no dummy. 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Why Quarterly Goals Matter... A Lot

Yes, it's been quite some time.  Thanks for coming back.

I love to write, and I don't care how many times I've said it -- I love the way this blog sort of passively keeps me in touch with a small group of friends I don't see that often.  So now back to the blogging...

Here's a quick thought before I turn in for the night:  Quarterly goals are hugely important.  Without them, any fledgling venture can fall victim to what I'll call the "roadside litter" problem.

Here's what I mean by that:  The world is full of shiny objects.  It's easy to let them distract you.  It's easy to say, "No, no, no THIS is the THING!"  and thereby let a shiny object rope you in.  It occupies you until you see another, and then you abandon that last thing for the latest the previous thing becomes a piece of discarded, roadside litter.  Rinse, repeat.

So that's why the quarterly goal thing is so critical.  Assuming you're on calendar year quarters, this is the halfway point for Q3.  Whatever your team said mattered in late June MUST still matter (c'mon, it was practically yesterday), so the important thing to do is execute.

Got good ideas?  Save 'em for the review at the end of September.  Ice 'em until Q4.

Oh, and to the degree you can, formulate your goals in ways that quantifiable and clearly measurable.  If you say, "Do more business development" then it's just too much of a softball to check the box, or turn that part of your spreadsheet green.

Instead, say something like, "Make 200 more cold calls," or "Complete __ % of project," etc.  You'll know you either did it, or didn't.  At that point, it's not always about meeting everything 100%.  If your entire spreadsheet is green, maybe it means you didn't push yourself enough -- supposedly even Google only expects 70 percent completion of its OKRs (Objectives and Key Results).

But more important than the issue of where to set the bar, just be sure to set it in a clearly measurable way. To take it away from business for a second, say "Lose 10 pounds" instead of "take the stairs more."  With the former, you might *miss* your goal but still come away better for it...maybe you dropped 7.  But with the latter, it's too easy to just sort of shrug your shoulders and say, "Yeah, I guess that happened."