Chronicle Vitae: On advice

Truth in advertising. (Flickr: Alexander)

Truth in advertising. (Flickr: Alexander)

I’m back in Vitae this week, ruminating on the usefulness of personal advice — or rather, its frequent lack of usefulness.

The challenge with receiving and applying advice is to distinguish real, general principles from what may simply amount to another person’s recollection of a series of events that ended well. … Certainly in academia, as in any career, there are habits and choices that improve the odds of survival from graduate school to tenure. But simply making it to a particular stage doesn’t actually mean that you had all the right habits or made all the right choices — or even know which habits and choices will work for most other people.

In keeping with my established approach to these columns, I actually do circle back around to a way in which you can learn from other folks’ personal experiences, but you’ll need to read the whole thing to find out how.

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How to do chili

Not pretty, but it warms you right up. (jay)

Not pretty, but it’ll warm you right up. (jby)

We’re well into the time of year when, in Minneapolis, the air outdoors will freeze your nose hairs on the first breath, and snow has lost its charm. Here in Vancouver, the only substantial snow is on the mountains across the water, but there’s ice on the trails in Stanley Park, and the trees are lacy with frozen fog. In either city, it’s the time of year for soup: elaborately spiced pho, classic chicken-noodle, and chili.

I don’t so much have a recipe for chili as I have some rules of thumb. My preferred ratios of ingredients, and some of my spicing, are informed by the recipe in Mark Bittman’s magisterial How to Cook Everything, but really that one confirmed a lot of what I’d already arrived at through trial and error. This probably won’t win you a state-fair cook-off, but it’ll make a big pot of hot, hearty, fragrantly spiced chili of the sort that goes perfectly with some cornbread or over rice on a cold winter night.

Here’s what you do:

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In 2016, keeping an eye on the numbers

(Flickr: An&)

(Flickr: An&)

Whether or not it makes any sense, the start of a new year is traditionally when we come up with lists of things we wish we did more, or less, or at all. At least it’s a chance to place a psychological flag in the sands of time and say, now is when I start keeping track of whether or not I do this thing. Reading other folks’ academic resolutions for 2016, I’ve seen some things I’d like to work on for my own sanity and scholarly productivity, and there’s a meta-resolution that ties them all together: counting.

I’ve long had a skeptical relationship to resolutions about achieving specific numbers of things — losing pounds, reading papers, writing pages. It seems like a lot of cognitive load for payback that is nebulous, at best. But as I look back on years past, I have to admit that what I count is what I get done.

I’ve run eight marathons in the last seven years, and most of my actual training has been simply aiming to run at least 30 miles a week. Over last year that added up to 1,882 miles — I’ve run upwards of 1,500 miles every year since 2010. I don’t fret about pacing or getting in just the right mood or the specific route I take — I just make sure I get to 30 every week. When I got my first activity-tracking wristband (I currently have a Fitbit) and started logging calories, I actually did find myself making small, sensible changes — walking more, eating more vegetables — to keep my daily numbers above 10,000 steps and below an activity-adjusted calorie count. Tracking my reading on GoodReads hasn’t gotten me to a goal of 20 books in a year yet, but it’s definitely gotten me doing more pleasure reading than I was before I kept count. And on the career front, I started out the 2015-2016 hiring season by building a spreadsheet to track my applications for faculty jobs—and I will, in fact, manage to get to 60 submissions. (Which have led to a non-zero number of interviews, about which I will say nothing further in any public venue lest I jinx something.)

In conclusion, counting a thing is a good way to help (me, at least) get more of that thing done. So, in 2016, I might as well count some other things that I would like to do more. Two things that have fallen by the wayside while I’ve moved across the continent and done all that job-applying are keeping up with the scientific literature (apart from what I read in the course of grant- and paper-writing) and writing rapidly and often. So I’m signing on for 365papers and 50posts. And here’s hoping for a non-stop new year.

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