Anxiety Sucks

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The first time it happened, I was talking in front of a group of people.   I was no stranger to public speaking, and had performed similar tasks hundreds of times.  However, something was different this time.  I was sweating profusely,  my heart raced, my ears were ringing, and I couldn’t catch my breath.  I was disoriented and felt helpless.  What was going on?  I stumbled through my presentation and tried to gather myself.  

I eventually went to the doctor, and submitted myself to several medical exams.  My mind feared the worst, but the news I received was the unknown.  I had an anxiety attack.  A what?  I was familiar with the term, but honestly, I doubted the legitimacy.  I mean, what mature and confident person can’t handle a bout of nervousness?  I quickly received a crash course in the legitimacy of anxiety attacks.  

I decided to visit an anxiety specialist to better understand and manage this condition.  “Specialist” is code for therapist.  I didn’t want to type that word because there is a stigma associated with attending therapy.  Judge me if you want, but talking to my therapist was incredibly helpful. During my first visit, he asked me, “How does this (anxiety) make you feel?”  I struggled to convey my feelings, and eventually settled for, “Frustrated. Confused. Pissed”.  He laughed and said, “It sucks.”  I exhaled , laughed, and agreed.  It sucks.  Therapy gave me an outlet, and helped me understand the origins of my anxiety.  Simply stated, my lifestyle choices were to blame.

Prior to my battle with anxiety, I worked… a lot.  I didn’t have any real hobbies, and I sacrificed my personal health and well-being to boost job performance.  I drank copious amounts of coffee.  Let me rephrase, copious sounds reasonable.  I drank ridiculous amounts of coffee.  I would begin most days at 5:00 a.m. to catch up on email.  I then worked a full day before returning home to spend a little time with my family.  I routinely stayed up past midnight to work on graduate coursework.  I did this for years and I took pride in my work habits.   When I was 16, I put in  60 hour work weeks during the summertime.  In college I worked at a trucking terminal from 4:00 p.m. until 12:00 a.m. while taking a minimum of 15 college hours each semester.  When I began my career in education, I poured myself into my work.  

Little did I know that this lifestyle came with undesirable side-effects.  I juggled a ridiculous schedule for over 15 years, and excelled during this time.  To me, this reaffirmed the value of good work habits and the belief that I was indefatigable.  I can work 14 hour workdays and get 4-5 hours of sleep.  I would scoff at people who “only” worked 40 hours a week.  Leisure was a waste of time; activities should be productive, not relaxing.  My work habits were at their zenith when I had my first attack.  I can vividly remember sitting at my daughter’s dance competition that spring.  Between performances, I worked on my dissertation, answered email, and prepared my schedule for the week.  I remember thinking, “How are you doing this?  This schedule is ridiculous!”  Mentally and physically I was exhausted, but I ignored the warning signs.  Later that same week I had my first attack.  I had 3-4 other attacks over the course of a month. Fortunately,  I have only had 3-4 anxiety attacks during the last 16 months, but I think about them daily.  

I hate writing this because I hate being vulnerable.  I used to excel at presentations and have always been at ease in social situations.  They are now anxiety producing.  I still work very hard.  I love my job and find it very rewarding.  However, I learned over the last 16 months that there is more to life than work.  Life is meant to be lived and enjoyed.  It’s great to appreciate your job, but we are infinitely more complex than our roles at work.  I now take time to enjoy being a husband and a father.  I’ve taken on new hobbies, and I take time for myself.  I sleep at least 7 hours each night and exercise 6 days a week.  

Battling anxiety sucks.  It’s maybe the most difficult thing I have ever done.  I am aware of the stigma that comes with the admission of anxiety.  I just want to share this because I know other people are experiencing this too.  If you are, know you are not alone and it will get better.  There will be good days and bad days.  For me, life is on the upswing and the good days far outnumber the bad.  I’ll close with a quote by Ernest Hemingway that encapsulates my experience with anxiety.  While frustrating and humbling, it has made me a stronger person.  

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”

– Ernest Hemingway

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The Power of Words

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Words can be impactful in many ways.  The poignancy of words, spoken or written,  is dependent on on many things, but I believe atmosphere and tone are especially important.  Words spoken in the right environment, and with the appropriate tone,  can be powerful and motivating.  Of course, the opposite is also true.  

This is my 16th year in public education, and during this time I have participated in innumerable meetings.  Some are productive, while others are endured; nearly all are believed to be necessary.  I believe it is paramount to meet and discuss critical issues.  It affords opportunities for stakeholders to ask questions and express concerns.  The process is just incredibly inefficient.  An hour of conversation might produce one or two outcomes, or worse, it results in another meeting date with no resolutions.  

Over the last 16 months, I have had the privilege of working with a group that is the antithesis of routine committee work.  I was asked to help facilitate a technology steering committee.  It has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. Copious meetings and conversations have produced abundant and meaningful results.  

Two weeks ago our school district distributed over 1700 Chromebooks.  All students in 8th -12th grade received their own device.  Watching students receive these devices was extremely gratifying.  This seminal moment made me think about the beginning.  In May of 2016, 17 people gathered in a small meeting room to outline district technology needs.   We met every 2-4 weeks throughout the school year and engaged in open and honest conversation.  We were driven by a common purpose, and focused on solutions, not problems.  We had limited time to solve dynamic problems, and managed this time wisely.  We respected differing opinions and listened to concerns.

Prodigious results originated from ordinary conversations. Words spoken in a purpose driven environment, with a positive tone.  Harry S. Truman popularized the saying, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit. “  The people listed below embody this expression, but I think it’s important to recognize their efforts.  Because of their dedication, 5000 students will be afforded new and exciting learning opportunities.  

Special thanks to the Jackson R-2 Technology Steering Committee- you rock! 

Andy Helle, Cory Crosnoe, Danna Bruns, Liz Seaton, Erica Cooper, Janelle Pope, Janet Silliman, Jennifer Bennett, Jen Pehle, Jay Spurgeon, Kelli Guyot, Lance McClard, Sam Trankler, Seth Harrell, Tom Schreiner, and Travis Dambach.  

 

Holiday Road

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Exactly one week ago, my family and I stuffed the back of our Honda Pilot with luggage and drove south.  While flying maximizes time, the road trip enhances the holiday experience.  There is something special about the American open road.  

There was the gas station in Alabama with brevity, but no gasoline.  “Nope”, was the concise answer to the question of fuel availability (they did have boiled peanuts).  

We had a dull radar for gas stations, but a keen knack for local eateries. Dreamland Barbecue in Montgomery, Alabama was a divine experience.  The menu outlined the genesis of the restaurant.   In desperation to make ends meet, a local mason prayed to God for guidance; his prayers were answered in a dream while mine were answered when lunch arrived. A symphony of smoked pork was complemented by tea containing profuse and possibly profane amounts of sugar.  

There was the anticipation of crossing state lines and watching pine trees transition to palm trees.  We sang with the radio and played the license plate game.  A New York plate at the Florida border created quite a stir.  

We laughed and we fought.  My daughters are best friends and arch rivals.  I channeled my father and pulled the car over to the side of the road at least once.  When you are in a car for twelve hours you talk….a lot.  Amidst the chaos I realized my daughters are growing up.  

The beach was great, but a lot of memories were made on the way.  

Start with Why

I am currently attending my first ISTE Conference.  I was extremely excited to attend this event with over 20,000 educators.  While I was eagerly anticipating ISTE, I now realize my focus was misguided.  I was fixating on how to incorporate technology, not why we should incorporate educational technology.

While preparing for ISTE,  I highlighted sessions related to 3-D printing, 1:1 implementation, and coding.   I certainly believe these resources can transform instruction, but I now realize my narrow focus on technology resources was problematic.  This problem is illustrated in a visual created by Bill Ferriter.

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While this visual has been around for over 4 years, I was reintroduced to it during a session at  ISTE.  It reminded me that students want to use technology to connect, collaborate, and take action.   Technology implementation is essential in a 21st century classroom, but we must reflect on the purpose of incorporating technology.  Are we using a new app because we learned about it at a conference, or are we using it because it will complement a lesson?  Will it help students take ownership of their own learning and allow them to make, create, and collaborate?

ISTE is a good reminder that effective tech implementation begins with “Why” not “How”.  Technology is a tool, not an outcome.

 

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The term fearless is used abundantly in our society.  I  recall hearing the word often while watching sporting events in my youth.  Jack Buck would describe Joe Montana’s pocket presence as fearless or unflappable.  Subconsciously, I began to see the absence of fear as an innate trait possessed by the fortunate few.  To me, living with the absence of fear was akin to living with “grace” as described by Elaine Benes of Seinfeld.  You either live without fear, or it is omnipresent in your life.  

However, my life experiences contradict the convictions of my youth.  I believe we all experience fear, we just manage it differently.  My earlier blogs focused on the art of decision-making and the works of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman.  Tversky and Kahneman found we often make decisions to minimize failure and maximize security.  This is known as risk aversion.  Life is fraught with risks, hazards and opportunities for failure.  However, these opportunities can be an avenue for professional and personal growth.  Those who are fearless have discovered the utility of trepidation.  

Fear is a primal trait and can be harnessed as a useful tool.  Use the energy and adrenaline that often accompany fear.  If you are worried about a situation or opportunity, research and prepare for the upcoming event.  Preparation produces competence, and competence encourages confidence.  Believe in yourself, live more and fear less.  A life of fulfillment and purpose can be found by embracing, not averting risk.  

The Undoing Project and Pasta Sauce

In my last post, I mentioned subsequent blogs would focus on the art of decision making.  I have always been fascinated with the psychology of decision making, and this interest was rekindled after reading “The Undoing Project”.  The book is written by Michael Lewis (“Moneyball”) and explores the friendship and scholarship of Israeli psychologists Amos Tversky and Danny Kahneman.  Their work revealed people, even really smart people, make irrational decisions.  People make poor decisions because they tend to ignore or minimize factual information, preferring to use their instincts.  We as educators are not immune to this phenomenon, but we can make better decision for students and staff by making a few simple adjustments.         

Work Collaboratively and Think Independently

Earlier this year I wrote about the dangers of groupthink.  This occurs when a group of people make decisions without dissenting viewpoints.   This is unfortunate because it is critical to examine multiple angles of every decision.  A classic example of groupthink is highlighted in “The Undoing Project”.  A team of trauma doctors assessed a car crash victim and discovered an irregular heartbeat.  They attributed this to the patient’s pre-existing thyroid condition.  The supervising physician acknowledged this was a possibility, but challenged the staff to think of a more probable cause for the irregular heartbeat.  Quickly, someone discovered the patient had a collapsed lung.  Once treated the condition improved.   Left untreated, the condition could have been deadly.  The doctor only asked two or three questions, but his well-timed questions were essential to the patient’s well-being.  Healthy group dynamics and a spirit of cooperation is critical for any team, but it should be accompanied by a culture of inquiry.  Ultimately, we should work collaboratively, think independently and….

Ask Good Questions

If you want to make sound decisions you must first ask good questions.  Recently, I listened to a  TED Radio Hour podcast entitled, “Decisions Decisions Decisions”.  The broadcast reinforced the importance of not only asking questions but asking the right questions.  Good questions are essential and help us gather information to guide our decisions.  However,  we frequently ask questions but forget to listen.  A good case study of this phenomenon is Howard Moscowitz and Prego pasta sauce.  Moscowitz,  a psychophysicist and market researcher, was commissioned by Prego to make their product more profitable.  Moscowitz found that Americans liked three different types of sauces: (a) spicy; (b) plain and (c) chunky.  Moscowitz discovered nearly a third of Americans preferred chunky sauces.  This was significant because you could not purchase chunky pasta sauce at this time.  Certainly, food companies conducted market research prior to Moscowitz’s findings, but they failed to ask the right questions.  By asking good questions and listening to respondents Moscowitz and Prego discovered an untapped market.  

Educators can make and encourage improved decision-making by fostering a spirit of inquiry and listening to their audience.  Too often, a better decision (or pasta sauce) is only a question away.

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Pickles:  The Prize of Poor Decision Making

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We make many decisions each day, and we all strive to make good decisions, or if we are being honest, we hope to avoid making bad decisions.  I’ve made a lot of bad decisions in my life, but one of my earliest gaffes in judgement is particularly memorable.  I was seven or eight years old when I accompanied my Mom to the local grocery store.  I should mention I was obsessed with the vending machines located at the store entrance  This row of red , metallic  apparatuses would exchange quarters for adolescent treasure.  These jewels included Super Bouncy Balls, temporary tattoos, chewing gum, and everlasting jawbreakers.   I was defenseless against their allure, drawn to them like a moth to light.  

Upon entering the store, my mom informed me that she was out of quarters, whisked me past the machines, and grabbed a cart.  However, she made the critical error of stopping to organize her grocery list.    I instantly sprinted  to a machine and searched desperately for stray quarters, only to come up empty.  I quickly assessed the situation and made a bold decision to reach into the bowels of the machine to retrieve a free prize.  I quickly began to panic as I realized my hand was stuck.  I could feel the heat of my Mom’s glare as she walked over to assess the situation.  A crowd gathered and store employees decided to page the night manager.  He was a young man in his early twenties, with a scruffy beard and a large key chain that made his pants sag to one side.  After working steadily for 20 minutes he freed me from my self-inflicted  prison.  

My Mom was embarrassed and assured me my father would be handling this when we got home.  I walked up and down several aisles, fighting back tears, and shuffling my feet slowly.  I promised my Mom (and myself) that I would listen and make better choices.  While reflecting on my earlier faux pas I noticed a shiny display of pickle jars.  They were stacked at the end of the aisle, balanced delicately, one on top of the other.  While marveling at this architectural wonder of pickle perfection, I felt an indescribable urge to touch the display.  Almost immediately, a row of pickle jars fell violently to the floor, leaving a trail of pickle juice and shattered glass.  To make matters worse, the same night manager arrived at the scene with a mop.  We left the store immediately and I wasn’t allowed back for a long time.  My penance for this visit was to work at this same store as a teenager; cleaning up the messes of curious adolescents and careless adults.  

It’s understandable that an eight year old would make a couple of bad decisions (even if this eight year old was incredibly awesome and intelligent), but in this age of information why do we continue to make bad decisions?  Do we inefficiently gather data?  Do we misinterpret information, or lack the skills to analyze data accurately?  I certainly don’t have all the answers, but my next few blogs will explore the art of decision making and how an enhanced understanding can impact education.