The Four Processors: A Neogeneralist Problem?

Dec 22, 2016 by

My husband has been joking for years that my brain has 4 processors. He says I can’t relax unless at least 3 processors are turned off, but that’s not an easy thing to do. When one processor can’t solve the problem it is stuck on, my brain brings up the next-most-interesting processor and begins working on that problem instead.

Often, I wake up at 5am to find that one processor has kicked out a solution to a problem and then it is impossible to go back to sleep. Sometimes I can’t sleep because the processors are occupied with such interesting problems they won’t turn off.

The interesting part is what happens if I do not have enough interesting topic matter to supply to the 4 processors. They don’t seem to redistribute existing problems and work in parallel. The other processors are uninterested if one processor is handling the problem. Rather the remaining processors become unsatisfied and depressed – they feel under-appreciated and unfulfilled.

Recently, I read The Neogeneralist, by Kenneth Mikkelsen and Richard Martin. Neogeneralist “are people who are able to find connections across fields, to continuously learn specialties and apply their learnings across disciplines.” As I try to figure out how I want to be spending my time (for neogeneralists, where you go is what you do), I’m starting to frame this problem as a 4-processor issue. Suppose I can (have to) focus on four major areas/problems/realms.

As Director of Learning Design at WGU, there were four major realms my brain worked on:

  1. Instructional Design
  2. Learning Technology Design
  3. Infrastructure/Organization Design
  4. Process Design

While these were all worthy problems, I felt increasingly locked into the job in a way that made me feel as though I was suffocating. None of the problems gave me the chance to interact directly with learners or faculty (which is odd, I know).  In this position, I was solving problems every day, but so far removed from “users” (students) that I couldn’t ever see whether the solutions would bear fruit, even at a small scale. I am used to having a “petri dish” to experiment in (a MOOC to teach, a course at a college). While my job originally encompassed “Improve Learning at WGU,” there became organizational and technological barriers to actually improving learning from this position as the organization grew and reorganized.

The other thing (but pretty normal at a growing organization) that happened at WGU was that we began to carve out some of these major realms of focus to other parts of the organization. Theoretically, this would be great because as an employee I’d have more time to focus, but here’s the reality of what happened:

  1. Processor 1 is unfulfilled and sad
  2. Learning Technology Design
  3. Processor 3 is unfulfilled and sad
  4. Processor 4 is unfulfilled and sad

Normally, this is where I would find some other project to work on in my free time to keep a processor or two occupied, but WGU had a very strong “no outside work” policy. There was a startup I wanted to spend time pursuing, but this would be “outside work.” I could teach as an adjunct somewhere, but this would be “outside work.” On top of that, Processor 3 became completely occupied/obsessed with a fundamental problem of the design of the organization and could not find any way out of the problem (and also lacked a position with any possible influence over this issue).

  1. Processor 1 is unfulfilled and sad
  2. Processor 2 is trying to figure out what job actually is
  3. Processor 3 is trying to solve organizational design and is stuck in an infinite loop
  4. Processor 4 is unfulfilled and sad, starts to catastrophize about T presidency

As organizations grow, they necessarily want employees to be more focused and less of generalists, but that is a problem if you happen to be a neogeneralist. Our unique abilities come from being experts in several areas and using cross-pollination of those areas to solve problems. If you’re going to shut down our ability to focus on multiple areas at work, don’t also shut down our ability to seek out new and interesting problems in our free time. It’s going to end in disaster.

Self-employment can also be rough, because if your processors aren’t fully occupied, then at least one of them will spend time in panic mode about not finding enough work. For the first month, the processors were occupied like this:

  1. Startup
  2. Trying to find clients to sustain income
  3. Trying to find long-term plans that would still work if 1 & 2 fail
  4. Unfulfilled and sad

Now onto the new problem. If I intentionally design my life, what do I really want the processors to be occupied with? Are they all fulfilled? Can I convince cofounders, investors, etc that I am simply not going to be happy with extreme focus? Probably most people keep at least one processor completely focused on their children, but I don’t have childeren. So I really do have 4 to allocate.

I also have a pretty strong history of allocating 4 processors. Here’s the processor allocation for my undergraduate work (I got 3 degrees while working close to 30 hours a week):

  1. Math
  2. Chemistry
  3. Biology
  4. Improving learning (TA, tutor, grading papers – payed the bills)

Here’s the processor allocation for my Masters graduate work (2 degrees, plus working):

  1. Math
  2. Business
  3. Improving learning (TA, adjunct for another college, doing learning research)
  4. Math curriculum work (writing texts, learning the assessment world, curriculum production)

Here’s the processor allocation for my PhD work (1 degree, full time faculty, consulting on the side). I still feel sorry for my PhD advisor for having to “manage” me. There were two years where “PhD” basically got bumped out when something in category 3 became a full-time processor job for a time.

  1. Teaching for MCC (5-5-2 load, typically 2-3 preps a term)
  2. Improving learning (experimenting, reading, writing, speaking)
  3. Math curriculum work (writing curriculum, building paper and digital math games)
  4. PhD Higher Ed Leadership

So what am I doing now?

  1. Startup (curriculum / learning design)
  2. Client work (product management / UX / LX, software) – also pays the bills 🙂
  3. Improving learning (teaching, reading, writing, speaking)
  4. Math curriculum work – also pays the bills and an area where I have a lot of time invested

As the startup grows, it will likely have to occupy more than one processor, and then the hard part – what goes? I don’t think I will be happy if I “improving learning” is not a category. It seems to be a consistent theme throughout the last two decades. My brain finds “Improving Learning” to be a fun distraction – what others might consider something akin to a “hobby” (though to most people, it is a job not a hobby).

I have strategies for managing conflicting priorities (good ones, in fact). I’ve always had strategies that keep my brain balanced.

If you’re still reading, wow. This is really an attempt to work through my own “post mortem” of why I felt so compelled to leave WGU a few months ago. There were a few other reasons (loss of authority, changes in leadership, nasty colleague) that probably just pushed me over the edge of the cliff, but not worth sharing the details – those things happen and there wasn’t anything I could do to change things. If I had been fundamentally happy, I would have stayed.

I’m trying to do a more intentional “Life Design” now, which I’ve come to realize is possibly different than what we traditionally consider “work life” balance. Yes, I should get exercise every day (I do). Yes, I should spend time with friends and family (I do). But those are necessary conditions, not sufficient ones. Sufficient, for me, means having a brain that is fully occupied solving problems that makes it happy.

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My New Work Colleagues

Aug 16, 2013 by

Last month, I took a new position as Director of Learning and Innovation for Area9 – they build personalized learning software and learning simulations (e.g. LearnSmart, SmartBook, and SmartLabs). In this new position I am something of a learning software ninja. I propose, improve, design, spec, manage, test, and document new software features. I get to follow features and improvements from conception to completion and it is super fun!  I even write a little code here and there, which I haven’t done seriously since I was a chemist (a long long time ago when I was just out of college). I think the most rewarding thing is that in this job, I’m using almost every domain of expertise that I’ve accumulated over the years: math, science, social media, eLearning, student learning, research, higher education, game design, analytics, and personalized learning.

Since Area9 is based in Denmark, I am now a remote worker (a daily commute to Denmark seemed a little much). I get up super early (5am … my choice) in order to have some overlap in work hours with the Denmark office. While 5am may sound awful to you, the bonus is that my work day is half over by 9am (see, that part doesn’t sound so bad, does it?). Also, my commute time from bed to work is approximately 2 minutes (I have to stop in the kitchen for coffee). I do remember to take showers and get dressed properly, but sometimes not until lunchtime.

It’s a bit strange to think that I used to work in an environment (a College) where I interacted with hundreds of people every week in person. Now my in-person world is much smaller.  I actually take a couple-hour break in the late morning to exercise and go out to lunch with friends just to get out of the house and make sure that I have some human contact!  But I do have some company at the little home office – here are two of my colleagues:

So far, I’ve found that this new remote worker lifestyle is giving me greater flexibility (duh) to actually place some emphasis on having more balance in my life. I’ve gone back to taking karate and yoga classes. I have time to learn some of the things I’ve been meaning to (like programming in Python). And I’m really looking forward to winter because I can easily put in my work hours and then go snowboarding any afternoon I want!

Back in 2011, when I finished my Ph.D., I’m not sure what I imagined myself doing (I probably didn’t imagine myself as a remote worker living in Utah), but this new position seems like a particularly good fit!

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Momentary Lapse of Memory

Oct 7, 2012 by

I feel like I’ve been in life free-fall all summer.  I didn’t begin the summer intending to quit teaching, change jobs, and move 1000 miles away, but that’s what I did, and it still catches me off-guard sometimes.

It’s amazing how rooted your brain can become in patterns of behavior.  I keep having these momentary lapses of memory, especially when I travel.  I’ll wake up in a strange hotel room and my brain will begin searching for the “teaching tasks” I have to do (paper grading, class prep, test writing), and then all of a sudden I will have this realization that I have a new job, live in a new state, and am no longer teaching classes.  It’s a strange mental shift every time it happens.  It leaves me with this uneasy pit in my stomach.  I left a pretty safe predictable job for one with a much higher degree of uncertainty, where I’m still feeling out my job duties and I rarely know what to expect to be assigned next. I suspect this feeling of uncertainty will pass with time, but for now, it’s a strange way to wake up in the morning.

I always worried that I would miss teaching if I left, but so far that hasn’t happened.  Perhaps it’s because my job keeps me pretty busy. Like teaching, there is an endless list of things I could be accomplishing, so I’m never bored.

I’ve been trying to understand work-life balance as it pertains to my new position.  As an educator, there was no work-life balance during the semester.  If you weren’t teaching, you were either planning to teach, grading papers, or doing a post-mortem on something you taught and trying to figure out how to make it better the next time around.  I worked from the moment I woke up till the time I dropped into bed exhausted, 7 days a week, week after week.

There seems to be a little space for the possibility of a life outside of work now that I’m not teaching.  Email slows to a trickle (if any) on the weekend.  There’s a definite lull in work activity after 6pm every day as people go home to their families and spend time with them.  This has been the strangest thing to get used to. Students communicated indiscriminately throughout the week – no time was sacred and responses were always expected and expected quickly.  How strange it is to turn off email on a Saturday and not worry about an angry student escalating their problem to an administrator while you enjoy a day off.

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New Chapter: Life Reboot

Jun 29, 2012 by

For the last year, I’ve felt this yearning to do something different. I’ve been a full-time faculty member for a decade now, teaching many of the same courses semester after semester after semester after … yeah, well, you get it.

A series of conferences and events in the last 6 months has made me realize that my “alignment” between my passions and my job was off.  I attended the UpToAllOfUs un-conference in February, and felt a strong pull to do something different, something more amazing.  I attended the TEDxSummit in April, and coming back to work was like a rude awakening after being in a liquid network of ideas for 5 days. And then I attended the LAK conference and really just felt unsettled about how I was spending my time.

Since I began blogging in 2007, I’ve learned about so many things in my free time: education technology, the scholarship of teaching and learning, social media, data visualizations, professional development for faculty, higher education, leadership, learning analytics, eLearning strategies, game design, writing, speaking, technology for productivity, mobile apps, and … well, probably a lot of things that aren’t coming to mind right now.  In this decade I’ve finished a Ph.D., made a name for myself as a futurist, and connected with instructors, innovators, and futurists around the world.

Now, the time has come to shed one identity (math faculty) and take on a new one.  It’s actually an identity I’ve been donning in my “free” time for a while now, I’m just shifting the focus to it full-time now.

I have accepted a position as the Director of Learning and Research at Instructure (they build the Canvas learning platform), in Sandy, Utah.   The position will give me a chance to grow professionally, to use all the skills I’ve learned in the last five years, to work with some really amazing, talented, and energetic people,  and (bonus) I get to move back to the mountains.

The view from the Instructure building.

Why Instructure? After all my complaining (for years) about the state of the LMS market, I began using Canvas in May and fell head-over-heels in love with it. It is, by far, the best learning platform I’ve ever seen, and Instructure is innovating like mad. I have always said I’d know the right job when I saw it, and this is it!  I want, more than anything, to help Instructure  to build and spread the best learning platform the world has ever seen, and I am super-excited to get started.

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Self Evaluation: List of Fives

Jun 6, 2012 by

"Fives" by Leo Reynolds

Whenever I hire a new assistant, I have a list of questions I ask to get a feel for how we can best work together.  I want to make sure I take advantage of their strengths and provide them the opportunity for growth.  I think that good working relationships are developed when each person’s skills are valued and when they can learn about the things that they enjoy.

So, I’ve developed my “List of Fives” to feel out the strengths and growth areas for someone I’m going to work with, and I try to use it to help us to take advantage of synergy whenever possible.

1. What are your five biggest strengths?

2. What are five things that you enjoy learning about?

3. What are five topics you’d like to learn about that are unfamiliar to you?

4. What are five skills or strengths that you’d like to get better at?

5. What are your five favorite sources of inspiration? [books/websites/articles/poems/videos/songs]

As a little reflective exercise today. I answered these questions for myself today.

1. What are your five biggest strengths?

Problem Solving
Knowledge of Ed Tech Space

2. What are five things that you enjoy learning about?

Science of Learning
Learning Analytics
Social Media
Game Design
Data Visualization

3. What are five topics you’d like to learn about that are unfamiliar to you?

User Interface Design
PHP or WordPress coding
Science/History of Futuring
Science of Multiple Choice Testing
Artificial Intelligence for Learning

4. What are five skills or strengths that you’d like to get better at?

Leadership / Managing a large team
Fundraising / Raising capital
Conflict management (just not much experience)
Contract negotiation (no experience)

5. What are your five favorite sources of inspiration? [books/websites/articles/poems/videos/songs]

My Twitter network
Book: Theory of Fun for Game Design
Magazine: Technology Review
Magazine: Wired

It’s an interesting little exercise to help you to see whether your current job is actually utilizing your skills and providing you with growth, isn’t it?

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Powerless (aka Life Without Internet, Round 3)

Sep 27, 2011 by

On July 5, 2011, I walked in to a Sprint store to make absolutely sure I was locked in to an ironclad contract for unlimited data service off my mobile hotspot.  The service representative (henceforth known as just another idiot sales person) swore that I could continue to receive the exact same level of service as long as I continued to make timely payments on my monthly contract.  I asked for double clarification.  I stated that I was willing to lock myself into a 5-year contract if necessary, just to keep my data plan.  “Oh no,” said the idiot sales person, “there’s no need to do that. Sprint will take care of you.”  Based on this information, I cancelled my satellite Internet service (the backup plan for Internet at my house).

Yesterday, I learned that Sprint will be placing a cap on mobile hotspot data – how I get broadband Internet at my house.  When questioned, the customer service rep told me that Sprint can change their contract at any time.  Nice.  Exactly the opposite of what the other rep told me.

Our home Internet usage will be cut back to 5GB of data per month, but we get to pay exactly the same as what I’ve been paying per month for the last two years.   Try to imagine (though this will be difficult for most of you) that you have to carefully think about whether to click on each link.  Is the data it takes to watch that TED Talk worth it?  Is that journal article really all that important to read?  Should you Skype from home or drive back to work so that you don’t have heavy data usage?

Roughly 30% of the U.S. population does not have access to high-speed Internet and my household is one of those.  While most of you have a variety of inexpensive choices for broadband Internet, we have very few.  We have no cable service.  We have no DSL service. And our phone service?  It’s got so much static on the line that it’s not even good enough to use for dial-up Internet.

Now I live in the woods, but not out of town.   I have neighbors within a square mile of my house that DO have cable Internet service and DSL.

Option 1: Keep mobile Internet and pay for the extra data usage.  5 GB per month of data usage a month costs $40 per month.  Between my husband and I, we use about 40GB per month.  I can keep my existing service if I just pay for the extra data usage. For every extra GB, the cost is $50.  At our current usage level, this will cost us $40 + $40 + 30*50 = $1680/month.  Um… not a good option.  Thanks Sprint.

Option 2: Keep mobile Internet and don’t use more than 5 GB per month on each account.  This will keep our costs exactly the same, but severely limit our ability to use the Internet.  There appears to be no way to track how much mobile hotspot data is actually being used (the data tracking includes both mobile web and mobile hotspot data), so the only really safe option financially is to turn the mobile hotspots off altogether.

Option 3: Go back to Satellite Internet.  For $79.99 per month plus the cost of a new satellite dish (my fourth), shipping, account startup, and installation, you can have 17 GB download and 5 GB upload per month.  If you go over this FAP, your account speeds will be severely restricted.  Experience has taught me that your Internet will basically be unusable if you go over (sometimes for weeks).  There is no ability to pay for extra data when it is needed.  This is the best satellite Internet plan I have been able to find.  The real problem?  Your upload speed will only be 256 Kbps.  That’s right, as fast as a dial-up modem (if you’re lucky).

Option 4: Use an “air card” of some kind.  Most of these plans run $40-$80 per month, with a data plan that is “unlimited up to 5GB” … leaving me to question whether marketers ever look at a dictionary.  Apparently the “new” definition of “unlimited” is up to a specified limit.

Option 5: Stop using the Internet at home.  Honestly. I thought seriously about this option last night and this morning.  We live without TV, and we’re probably better off because of it.

I’m tired of being screwed around by various mobile and satellite Internet companies.  Every time we find a solution and invest in the infrastructure to support it, the market shifts and we have to find a new solution.  The companies we “contract” with for Internet and cell service are held to no minimum standards of service.  They are allowed to change their end of the contract at a moment’s notice (and in this case, I have yet to be notified about the change that will take place on October 2).  But if I break the contract, I’ll pay penalties galore.

Powerless – this is the only word I can think of to describe how I feel today. Powerless.  Nobody is looking for real solutions to the lack of Internet for 30% of Americans and we are getting left behind, even more so as everything moves to the cloud.

Tablets, eBook readers, game consoles, and interactive TVs are all expected to run primarily off the wireless Internet in your home (too bad for you if you don’t have it).

This afternoon I resigned myself to my former life of satellite Internet (and a 2-year commitment to pay a little over $2,000 for the privilege of this somewhat questionable service with no minimum standard of quality. Speeds are only guaranteed “up to” a specified limit (oh wait, does that mean the speeds are technically unlimited?)  There is no recourse for a minimum speed, and if I cancel my end of the contract, I have to pay $15 for every month of unused service.  If my Internet speed turns out to be 1 Kbps, that’s allowed under the contract.  I’m paying for a complete and total gamble.

What you might not get yet is that we are all powerless in this new age of cell service and cloud-based computing.  They’re just coming for me and those like me first.  Anyone who has been relying on mobile Internet has now been cut off (Sprint was the last holdout for unlimited mobile hotspot data).  We got capped first, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be next.

These networks can’t sustain 70% of Americans streaming all their TV and games off them, and realistically, there is a potential gold mine in charging customers for data overages.  You might just think this is my problem and I could solve it by moving, but one day, this will be your problem too.  One day, they’ll come to cut off your unlimited Internet.  Can you live without it?

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