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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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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Year in Review 2010

Dec 31, 2010 by

Clearly, the best of 2010 is yet to be published (happy to report that the last two chapters of my dissertation have been turned in to my advisor).

Time seems to bend towards the end of the year in a way that I don’t actually remember all the things I’ve done in this year (every year feels like three years to me).  So, it’s always useful to me to reflect on what I accomplished during the actual calendar year.

Places I visited (for speaking engagements, conferences, meetings or fun*):

  • Arizona: Scottsdale, Phoenix (twice), and Sedona*
  • California: Mountain View
  • Florida: Orlando
  • Georgia: Savannah
  • Indiana: Indianapolis (twice) and Bloomington
  • Illinois: Chicago
  • Massachusetts: Boston (twice)
  • Michigan: Ypsilanti, Detroit, Flint, Ann Arbor
  • Missouri: Kansas City
  • North Carolina: Raleigh
  • Oklahoma: Oklahoma City (twice)
  • Texas: Ft. Worth, Houston, Austin, San Antonio, and El Paso (all different trips)
  • Virginia: Fairfax
  • Washington: Seattle
  • Wisconsin: Madison
  • International: Germany, Belgium*, The Netherlands*

Presentations I built this year (at 20-30 hours per presentation, this is no small task):

  • Algebra is Weightlifting for the Brain (slides or video)
  • Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age (mindmap)
  • Math Technology to Engage, Delight and Excite (slides or video)
  • Mathematweets (Prezi)
  • Playing to Learn Math? (Prezi or video)
  • Playing to Learn? (Prezi)
  • Play and Learn (mindmap)
  • Levers of Change in Higher Education (Prezi or video)
  • Future Proof Your Education (Prezi)
  • Learning is the Future of Math (mindmap)
  • Digital Learning Projects for Math (slides)

Conferences I attended:

  • TeamUp in El Paso, TX (January)
  • Tech Tools in Scottsdale, AZ (February)
  • ITC eLearning in Ft. Worth, TX (February)
  • Oklahoma Association of Community Colleges, Oklahoma City, OK (February)
  • TeamUp in Indianapolis, IN (March)
  • TexMATYC in Houston, TX (March)
  • ICTCM in Chicago, IL (March)
  • TeamUp in Austin, TX (March)
  • TeamUp in Orlando, FL (March)
  • MAA-Michigan in Ypsilanti, MI (May)
  • Innovations in eLearning in Fairfax, VA (June)
  • Games, Learning, and Society in Madison, WI (June)
  • World Future Society in Boston, MA (July)
  • MCC Math & Technology Workshop in Muskegon, MI (August)
  • TEDxDetroit in Detroit, MI (September)
  • Kansas City Regional Math Tech Expo in Kansas City, MO (October)
  • ETOM in Flint, MI (October)
  • TEDxFlint in Flint, MI (October)
  • Geekend 2010 in Savannah, GA (November)
  • AMATYC 2010 in Boston, MA (November)
  • MichMATYC hosted in Muskegon, MI (October)

One-day Math & Technology Workshops

  • Phoenix, AZ
  • Ft. Worth, TX
  • Seattle, WA
  • Muskegon, MI

Major Learning Areas for 2010

  • Game design
  • Learning Analytics
  • Futuring
  • Social Media
  • Data Visualizations

Publications this year

Other notable events from this year:

  • The Calculus Tweetwars (which got a mention in The Chronicle of Higher Education)
  • Several presentations featured in a Dutch book on Prezi (translated to English next)
  • Several presentations featured in the Slideshare and Prezi showcases
  • 3rd MCC Math & Technology Workshop in August 2010 at MCC with 42 participants
  • We hosted MichMATYC at MCC (and that was no small deal)
  • Launched Themed Studies program at MCC
  • We built two Math ELITEs at MCC
  • Launched The LIFT Institute at MCC (working on that website)
  • Carried out dissertation research and turned in all chapters of dissertation
  • Gold Medallion status on Delta Airlines
  • Launched this blog for my futurist and learning-related posts

I’m trying to figure out a way to pay for an assistant so that I would have more time to write (if you have any brilliant schemes, please let me know).  I will tell you that if you’re not following along on twitter, you’re missing a lot of the great resources I find.  If you haven’t taken the plunge yet … well, it IS time for New Year’s Resolutions. 🙂

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Mental Reboot 2009

Dec 27, 2009 by

After a truly crazy 2009, I decided to take an end-of-the-year mental reboot. Joel and I traipsed off to Punta Cana (in the Dominican Republic) for five nights. We participated in one excursion while we were there (dune buggy ride, see pic below).

This is my proof that Joel did actually dip his toes in the Ocean.

Otherwise, I spent five days reading for fun (in the sun), while drinking Caribbean cocktails, with one of two views. Just for the record, these are not just feet with some photoshopped views in the background.

View #1: The Beach

View #2: The Pool

I am pleased to report that I accomplished two things on this trip. First, I read the entire Sookie Stackhouse “Southern Vampire” series from start to finish. Second, I achieved Silver Medallion status on Northwest/Delta airlines (which I will get to keep for 2010).

This will come in handy, since I already have trips booked to El Paso TX, Scottsdale AZ, Austin TX, Indianapolis IN, Oklahoma City OK, Boston MA, Houston TX, Chicago IL, Washington DC, Dallas TX, and Sedona AZ.

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Year in Review 2009

Dec 16, 2009 by

I’m about to leave on a five-day mental reboot: no computer, no Internet, no cell phone, and lots of sunshine and pleasure reading.  For the last month I’ve been feeling kind of drained of energy and motivation, and a vacation away from all my high-level thinking and technology obligations sounded like a good idea.

While I was feeling kind of unproductive and slug-like, I began reflecting on what I have done this year.  This is my version of a Year in Review.




  • Attended Edward Tufte Course in Indianapolis August 24
  • Built new mindmap: Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age
  • Presentation to faculty on my campus on August 27
  • Wrote technology column, Jing and Math, for MathAMATYC Educator (September 2009)
  • Webinar for ITC (Organize Your Digital Self) on Sept 22
  • Final push for completion of new book: Algebra Activities, 1000 pages (August-October 2009)



Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the 140 blog posts published on this site in the last year. (Wow! That was a LOT of writing!)  You can view collections of some of my favorite posts about general topics, about math, and about Wolfram|Alpha while I am away from the digital world on a vacation mental-reboot in Punta Cana.

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