Your Job, Learning, and Having Fun

I just had a conversation with a professional friend about work. It reminded me of some of my earliest professional experiences, so we talked a bit about those. I hadn’t spent much time thinking about that period of my career lately, and the context I’ve gained with time helped me understand it better–and helped me understand the approach isn’t as common as I thought at the time. It also helped me shape advice I could give a new professional:

Your job is to do excellent work, but to learn and have fun while you are doing it.

Our conversation started out about isolation in libraries, and how often there’s no one in the organization to talk to about your work. You have the position you have because the library recognized the need for someone to fill the role and they hired you. There’s no one else in that role. (Even if you’re in a position like “reference librarian,” there are often differences between each person’s work.) It’s nice to have someone who gets it and can share perspective from their background, approaches they’ve tried, pieces of news related to the work, and a passion for what you do day-to-day.

I dealt with this isolation in a number of ways over the years. One way was to join professional associations. Another was to get involved in social media. Another was to instigate or organize field trips to get to know other local librarians (doing my job at other libraries).  But my favorite way  to combat isolation was to form community while doing something interesting. Where did that something interesting come from? I would think of something that sounded like it had potential, or I’d be part of a conversation with someone that led to something interesting, or I identified something that our users might need. These ideas came from all over: professional literature, popular media, conversations with users.

Once I thought of something interesting I thought about who my partners might be… (because this was about combating isolation, remember?) I would consider who I could learn from, who had more experience than me, who could lift my moods if the project wasn’t working, who would say “yes, and…” and colleagues that would want to grow with me through doing this project. And I would float the new idea/concept/project by those people. Every conversation was a chance for the idea to become a little more concrete. And if the particular idea gelled, it was already clear who was interested.

Most of the time this does not lead to amazing output. For example, there was a period of time where some colleagues and I discussed making a magazine based on our collections. That never happened. But we felt a little more connected to our community and we learned a lot in the process. In the magazine planning discussions we talked about the scholarly process, special collections, web technologies, design, and our personalities and how we might work together. All of these made us better professionals in our day-to-day work and in future projects. Several ideas that never happened still would make it on a list of best experiences I’ve had in the office. I got to know colleagues very, very well. I learned more about their approach to work and their expertise. I learned about how to approach those types of project if I were to do it in the future. I gained experience that helps me collaborate, meet deadlines, run meetings, delegate, communicate, motivate others, and be a good colleague today. These projects might not represent my best work, but they do represent some of my best learning, the times I’ve had the most fun at work, and points when I gained more enthusiasm for my place of work and what it is doing.

All that said, I’m not advocating any librarians shirk their job. I am advocating for carving out a little bit of time to to work on your own projects. I’m advocating looking for ways to connect to colleagues and to learn in every opportunity that you have in your position. I’m also advocating to have fun at work: because it makes work more fun, but it also helps you avoid burnout, gain closeness within the community in your workplace, and feel like you’re part of the same team pulling in the same direction. What might this look like? Here are some tips:

Things to consider:

  • Get ideas by scanning the larger information environment. What’s happening in the literature, popular culture, technology, or publishing?
  • Think about what you want to learn and what projects might enable you you to pick up those skills.
  • Think about your colleagues that might have similar interests, skills that you like to learn, or that might have something unique to the project. Chat with them about the idea before committing to it. (Everyone wants to contribute… so be genuinely flexible when approaching collaborators.)
  • Determine your outcomes: to learn? to building relationships? to help the user? Knowing your outcomes will help you structure a project that will be successful for those outcomes.
  • Be open to the idea that every project won’t pan out. Even “failed” projects can help you learn things.
  • Be open to stopping the project if it seems like it won’t help users, is growing to be a burden (more time or stress than is warranted for a side project), or isn’t working as expected.

Things to avoid:

  • Cliquishness. Please invite anyone actually that is interested in the work. Be quick to involve your colleagues.
  • Flying too low under the radar. Many libraries will be okay with you taking initiative if the project is small, but every supervisor I’ve ever know would want to be in the loop about something that’s taking up bandwidth. Some of my projects have been small enough I just gave a heads up. Other times I’ve gotten approval. Each library (and every manager within a given library) has a different threshold for when projects need to be approved. Your job as an innovator is to learn where that line is and work with it. Try to understand this before getting into deep.
  • Expecting everything to be perfect. Any work in this vein should be thought of as a pilot. If the project is a success for the user, then celebrate that surprising twist of fate!
  • Don’t be too invested in the project. Remember that your outcomes are just as much about learning, getting to know your colleagues, and having fun. Those outcomes are important, and they’re the things to be invested in.

All that being said, please don’t think I’m arguing for library-driven decisions. I believe in the power of data driven decision making, going to our users for feedback and ideas, and being responsible stewards of our time. What I’m talking about is a side project that takes a few hours a week. This side project concept is about building skills, knowledge, collaboration, innovation, and motivation in library staff. In former jobs I carved this time out of my schedule. In my current job, I’ve made sure everyone that reports to me knows they have the freedom to do this. 10% of everyone’s time is open to this type of work.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • The “fun” project can be a tool to motivate yourself to do more maintenance work. An example from my past: I wasn’t particularly excited about selecting books on a given morning, but I would allow myself to work on the fun project in the afternoon if I ordered X books before lunch.
  • The experience is the real product. If you get a good product out of it, that’s just icing on the cake. The product you’re guaranteed is closer colleagues, broader understanding of the field and what the information environment is like, skills that will be useful later, etc.
  • Things don’t last forever, but experiences do. Let’s say your thing worked! And users like it! And it’s awesome! That’s awesome! But even the best projects eventually become dated. When you focus on the experience, you’re saved some of the sadness that comes when the bright-and-shiny project is less shiny and eventually superseded by a new bright-and-shiny tool.

What I’m talking about is a small percentage of time. But if you’re lucky, and some of these projects take off, you will get stuff to talk and write about. Be aware: people will think it’s most of what you do. They’ll think it’s your only job. They may think that one successful project is all you know. It’s not. You have a job that fills the week. But the regular work isn’t talked about as much because people are familiar with that or they do it themselves. The atypical work draws peoples’ attention, and (in my experience at least) is what people want to hear about. Try to remember to acknowledge the team, and don’t get too comfortable. There’s more to learn and new ideas to try out!

New Years, Resolutions, and Leadership

Over the past few years I’ve stopped making New Year’s Resolutions in favor of a word or two. I’ve found this very helpful for a number of reasons: You never feel like you’ve failed the resolution if you miss a day, instead you just remember to think about it again the next day. You have to continue to think creatively about how to incorporate the word, rather than just following a checklist you set up 100 or so days ago. By the end of the year you haven’t made a habit of something new, or checked a box, but rather it’s become a part of how you think about the world.

Last year I worked on mindfulness. That manifested in being more present with family and friends, using my phone less, an awareness of when it’s a good time to take on new opportunities and when to say no, and less mindless eating (leading to more healthy eating), among other things. Pretty good for a one word resolution!

This year my theme will be kindness. (Though I also added a bonus this year: more long form reading. I lose so much time to Facebook, Twitter, Instapaper, and Medium. I’d like to redirect some of that time to books. My to read list is huge!)

This approach resonates with a book that I spent a bit of time talking with my boss about last year: Essentialism. The book argues that you can’t be great at all things, so pick a few really important things and focus on those. You’ll note that both Brian and I decided to do that this year in our writing–without even having a conversation about it.

I’ve struggled with public writing for the past two years. Since arriving at Virginia Tech, my time has been spent entirely in administrative, management, and leadership work. Most of the time it’s great fun, interesting, and challenging. Though one of my colleagues and I often talk about the similarities between management and instruction, I am no longer teaching on a day-to-day basis, and my work looks very different than it did at Wake Forest.

I have resisted writing much because I’m very aware of audience. When I was writing about teaching, the chances of one of my students finding it was slim, and if they did, they would only learn that there was a method to my teaching approach. When a manager writes about their work, many employees will read it to learn more about their manager and what it means for their job (I sure would!), and they’ll analyze the writing for what it might say about their own work. I’ve avoided writing about things that are happening as well as things I’m learning because I don’t want to unduly stress people out about work, or what’s happening, or what might happen. I don’t want people to read too much into what I’m writing as I explore ideas that might not even amount to anything.

So, I’ve been thinking about it and trying to figure out my approach to this space going forward. When I look at my formal writing and presenting, it’s already moved into the realm of management and leadership. Those pieces tend to be very polished and I’ve thought about all the potential audiences before releasing them into the world. Blogs, by their nature, are a bit less polished. However, as I work through ideas in leadership and management I find more and more I want to share here. So, you’ll start to see some of that show up. I’ll still do the occasional piece on time management, higher ed, teaching, or technology, but I anticipate there will be more on the leadership side of my work. (It’s what I spend all day doing, after all!) But you can be sure that there will be quite a bit of intentionality about it, and a clear awareness of audience.

I’ll be putting more time towards formal writing this year as well. And, as you probably know, the amount of writing that takes place in administrative email could populate several (long) blog posts a day! So I’m not promising regular posts… just a clearer sense of the space and a framework to make it easier for me to decide what to share.

To 2015, more reading, and more writing!

A Workflow For The Deluge of Online Reading

Something that I’ve been recognizing lately is that I have several workflows that I’ve built that help me in my day-to-day life that are used by others, but not as widely used as I would have guessed. I also have experienced shifting my own workflows over time and wish I had a better record of the processes I’ve used in the past. Since this particular one is something that’s come up several times in the past few weeks, I thought I’d document it here:

The Workflow for The Deluge of Online Reading

For the process I use, I require three tools: a smartphone, Instapaper, and Pinboard. There are lots of ways to do this. Some people only use Pinboard because it offers some of Instapaper’s functionality. Some people use Pocket or Readability or another “read later” app (Safari even has it built into the browser). Some people like Delicious or other ways of saving their links. I’m just outlining my process, which I arrived at over time, due to changes in the information environment due to ownership shifts in Delicious and other social/technological reasons.

Step 1: Gathering Reading

All day long we come across interesting things. We see it on Facebook, we come across it in Twitter, people send us emails with interesting links. Maybe you even subscribe to a collection in Medium or use a site like Longreads to find content. There was a point in time when I read as much as I could when I came across it. A “quick” check in on Twitter could grow to half an hour. I’d spend lots of time looking at screens but not recalling very much of it. My solution was to save all internet reading for later, and do the actual reading in batches.

Luckily, Instapaper helps with that! I added a little plugin to my browser which you can see here:

browser plugin

That letter “I” with a circle around it is the Instapaper plugin. When you come across anything that looks interesting to read on the computer, you just click the “I” and it saves. You can also do this on the phone.

iphone interface

I do this all day long. I don’t stop to read the links in the Chronicle emails I get throughout the day. I don’t follow links from Facebook other than to add them to my list. I just keep sending things to Instapaper.

Step 2: Reading

I save my reading for when I am putting my child to sleep. That’s the time I have for internet reading at this point in my life. So once my child is sleepy and won’t be too distracted by my phone, I open up Instapaper, set my phone to the darkest setting, and look through the day’s links. (FYI you can see that the story at the top of the list is the one I just saved in the previous screenshot.)

dark reading view

The trick is: you can’t read it all. If I was going to read everything in my list on any given day, I would not get back out of bed, and I’d be up until the early hours of the morning. My rules are:

  1. Read what still looks interesting
  2. Read what looks like it will be helpful for work
  3. Delete delete delete

Obviously this process only makes sense for inspectional reading. I don’t add things like Ithaka S+R documents. I save that type of reading for daylight hours where I can really think about what I’m reading and incorporate it into my understanding of things in a deeper way.

And it’s so easy to push aside step three, but it’s really the most important one. It’s overwhelming to have hundreds of articles in your reading list, and it makes it easy to lose the “important” things. Clearing the list means if I added something important that day, I will certainly see it and take the time to read it.

The reading process is quick and minimizes cognitive load. Formatting is simplified, ads are removed, only the main media associated with the article is presented. You can see one of the above stories here:

sample storyOther neat things to know: if you do save hundreds of things you can filter on aspects like length of article. You can read saved articles even when you don’t have access to the internet. If you have a premium membership, you can listen to a robot reading your content to you. It’s a great service.

Step 3: Saving

With the additions of extensions in the iOS platform, the step is even easier than it was a few weeks ago. Many of the articles I read, I just delete once I finish them. However, if there’s any chance at all that I think I might want to reference it again, I want to save it. My solution to that is to use Pinboard. Pinboard is a web-based bookmarking site that makes use of tags and descriptions to make your content findable. I add a lot of content to Pinboard: things I read on Instapaper, links to intranets that have logins so that I can find them later, links in tweets that I favorite, and so on. When I add something from Instapaper it’s as easy as clicking on the Pinner extension and filling in the relevant fields:

Pinner Extension  Pinner interface
Once I click Pinner and add the relevant information, I delete the article from my reading list. And here is what it looks like over on Pinboard:

Pinboard interface

You can see from this example how links are shown, how descriptions can be useful, where tags show up, the tag cloud, the source of the post (Twitter, etc). Even with all of that, I use search to find the things I shared later. It’s a really useful tool and has my bookmarks dating back to 2006. I highly recommend it (even though it has a one-time fee).


Take all of this for what it’s worth to you. Do you have a process that works even better for your reading preferences? Have you written about it anywhere? If so, please share in the comments. I’d be very interested in your approach.