Iron Ring reflections

Friday, February 12, 2010

Hi everyone! Given that it’s been a week and a half since my last post I’m sure you’re all just aching for more pensive words from David Hewson, Esquire. For those of you who were hoping for another marathon post of 2500+ words, I’m sorry but you will be sadly disappointed – I do like blogging but it’s just hard to find the time.

Last week’s post didn’t really give you much of an update of what I’m up to, and for the most part it’s been more of the same in many ways. I have five engineering courses to stay on top of, my Beyond Borders course, plenty of things to think about to prepare for my trip this summer – at the moment, I have to think about the shopping list of immunizations against a plethora of diseases whose symptoms do NOT sound like fun in the slightest – and still a long way to go on the fundraising front. In the past weeks I’ve begun to finally iron out most of the wrinkles in my Soup and Stew for Peru fundraiser and start to sell my frozen homemade soups, stews and chillies, and the initial response has been extremely positive which is always nice to hear. I’m also spearheading a band night fundraiser (called Music with a Mission differentiate it from the band night last term haha) that our group will be holding in March.

However, last weekend stands out for me in a very important way, because after 4.5 gruelling years, the 2010 UW Engineering class finally got their Iron Rings. For those of you who are entirely unfamiliar with the Iron Ring, let me digress: the Iron Ring is traditionally received by graduating engineers during their final academic term, in a secret ceremony whose details are not meant to be made public (so don’t ask me to tell you about). After the ceremony, the participating students emerge with an Iron Ring on the pinky finger of their working (writing) hand. The iron in the ring (it’s actually stainless steel these days) symbolizes the iron in the Quebec Bridge, which collapsed twice during construction due to faulty engineering, and caused the death of several workers. The idea behind the Iron Ring is to remind engineers of their duty of care to the general public, who trust that engineers will do their work in a thorough and ethical way and will not harm them. By wearing the Iron Ring on the outermost finger of their working hand, engineers constantly feel the presence of the Iron Ring as they work and are reminded of this responsibility.

Personally, I strongly identify with the idea of the Iron Ring and the message it conveys, and ever since I have received my ring I haven’t been able to stop playing with it and feeling it on my hand as I write. It’s also made me reflect on where I’m coming from, where I’m going and probably most importantly, where I am right now. In many ways, I have (voluntarily) branded myself as an engineer – or at least an engineering student – and yet, it was something I was never so sure about. When I applied to university, engineering was just one of several different programs I applied to, including Arts, Arts and Science, and Environmental Sciences. One of the reasons I chose Environmental Engineering is that if I didn’t like it, it would be easier to switch into other programs than if I wanted to switch from Arts or Sciences into Engineering! Throughout the first couple of years of university I often felt like I really didn’t belong in the program, and that I should have done something else. However, as we began to start applying things we learned about in class to real-life designs and were encouraged to solve problems for ourselves, things became lot more interesting. The excitement I’ve felt about engineering this year, which really hit me when I finally felt the cold ring on my hand made me realize: I had been so used to being unhappy in my program, how would I deal with the fact that I now kind of liked it?

At the same time, I’m trying to fight off the influence engineering has had on me, or at least trying to balance it with something else – and this was one of the reasons why I decided to apply to Beyond Borders in the first place. I had always been interested in issues of social justice, equality and development, but I hadn’t really had the chance to focus on them in an academic sense since high school. The program did not disappoint, and as we ploughed our way through readings and confronted issues and emotions that I hadn’t truly addressed in years, I realized that I had changed as a person in the intervening time...arguably ways that made me more of an “engineer.” I was definitely more results- and action-oriented, and more focused on tackling problems that had clear possible solutions than in considering problems that seemed inherently hopeless. I also noticed that I was much more critical of people who did not share these priorities – to the point that I could see my “new” self being impatient and frustrated with my “old”, pre-engineering self. Many people would argue that this shift to being more practical was a good thing, but I wasn’t so sure. For example, I remember on several occasions being upset by my inability to focus on my engineering work after doing a Beyond Borders reading, since I just couldn’t focus on flows and fluxes and fluids when I had just been forced to reevaluate my opinion about one issue or another. Pre-engineering Dave would have delighted in his world being spun on its head, but post-engineering Dave found it disconcerting and annoying. This, of course, is the whole point – as an anonymous wise lady once told me, whose identity will remain anonymous (her name is Joanne Benham Rennick), “if you’re not frustrated, you’re not learning.”

Since then, I think I’ve begun to reach a balance between the two, and I’m incredibly grateful to Beyond Borders and the people I have met because of it. While I think that UW Engineering is an excellent program, I do think that in many ways, it can hurt your humanity. It’s not intentional, but I believe that the extremely technical nature of the program, combined with a heavy courseload that can make it difficult to find the time to do much other than work, led me to neglect important aspects of who I am and who I want to be. Ironically, I think that by trying to break away from the beaten path I could have followed with engineering, and by getting into Beyond Borders, I think I have developed more of the ethics that the Iron Ring supposedly promotes.

Earlier, I mentioned that one of the reasons I ultimately chose to study engineering was because it would be able to switch out of more easily than other programs, but recently my mom reminded me of another reason - one that I had totally forgotten. During the time when I was choosing university programs to apply for, Haiti was hit consecutively by three different hurricanes, causing widespread flooding and death. From what I was reading at the time, the extent of the devastation in Haiti was caused by larger problems, such as the massive deforestation that caused flash flooding whenever any significant rainfall took place and by the general poverty of the country, whose people could not afford to build structures that were strong enough to withstand the flooding. I learned that environmental engineers could help determine how to avoid the floods and the devastation they caused, by reforesting important water reacharge areas, and generally improving the environmental situation. I had completely forgotten about this until this year when Haiti was once again devastated by a natural disaster, this time by a massive earthquake in January that hit the most densely populated part of the country. My mom reminded me that "you went into environmental engineering for Haiti" - which isn't the entire truth, but it was shocking to realize that I had completely forgotten about that. So in a sense, getting into Beyond Borders was like coming home...maybe engineering hasn't changed me as much as I thought it did.

Lifting weights

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Note: I started this post as a comment on the blog post of another Beyond Borders student, Tina, who made an anti-procrastination declaration in one of her recent posts. While I was originally intending to write a couple paragraphs in response, I soon realized that my comment had mushroomed into a page or so of material, with plenty of thoughts left to go! At 2500 words, this is a pretty long post; since Tina was the one who inspired it, I have written it directed towards her, so it can be read as one giant long comment. For Tina’s original post, “making the first step…it ain’t easy.”, click here.


Ditto to what you and Raquel both have said...I am definitely a procrastinator and it feels good to stand up and say it. Apparently one of the 12 steps in AA, or NA, or any Addicts Anonymous, is to tell someone your intent to change in order to make yourself accountable, and I think you definitely did that with your post. Personally, I have made some huge strides in organizational skills over the last 8 months and I'm definitely ahead of where I was before...needless to say my first blog post of the term was submitted en retard as well. So there’s still a ways to go.

One of the things that really helped me was the realization that organization, time management, prioritization, etc, are SKILLS in much the same way that doing math, knitting a scarf and playing soccer or guitar are skills. Some people are naturally gifted with them and others aren’t…but as with any skill, even the most talented person will require some experience before they can achieve greatness! This is something that took me a long time to realize...that it was OKAY for me to not be automatically good at organizational skills. I didn't really need them in high school because the materials were presented at a slower place and my life was pretty structured, but university arrived with a much more demanding courseload and array of fun things to do that turned my high school routine on its head. Although my academic skills were sometimes up to the task, my time management skills were almost non-existent.

While I always knew that I was disorganized, it took me a few years to realize (wow, now that I wrote that I can't believe how long that DID take) that I just had to admit how dire my situation was. Once I did that things got a lot easier. To explain my point, I’m going to make use of an analogy that I think really demonstrates what I’m trying to say: lifting weights. (For the record, I only recently started lifting weights in the last several weeks, so I’m not that experienced personally, but I have been into running for the last eight years or so and a lot of my friends are in Kinesiology, so I’m pretty grounded in the theory of it all!) Every January, loads of people show up at the gym with New Year’s resolutions to get in shape, get fit, get healthy, get DIESED (he’s probably joking, but this is actually one of my friend’s goals for 2010), or whatever other goal they have. But it’s that first day at the gym which usually determines how things will turn out, and whether the person will keep up their commitment. If, on the first day, you try to bench-press 400 pounds, you’re probably not gonna last that long. A much better approach is to lift what you can, figure out your baseline and begin to test your limits.

In the case of organizational skills, I was eventually forced to admit that despite being in my 20s, I could name 8-year-olds (stupid kids!! with their elementary school agendas and non-mechanical pencils!!) who had the same organizational abilities as me. In weightlifting terms, I was benching about 10 pounds or so. It was embarrassing to be working in an office on a co-op job, supposedly “on loan” from one of the most prestigious engineering programs in the country, with employers who were just expecting me to be able to juggle multiple tasks of multiple importance, assuming that the time management skills were there. They weren’t. One of the lowest points occurred when I was working in Ottawa in the Fall of 2008, when I could not for the life of me write a report in the 2 months available to me during the work term, and I ended up writing it in the week or so before the actual due date. I was really hard on myself to the point of despair at times – I wanted to be able to do things, I tried harder and harder and beat myself up over it, but the only thing that seemed to change was how unhappy I was with myself. Months later, once I finally admitted just how poor I was at time management, I was able to start to build myself up from there. In a much more public way than me, you've already done this with your blog post, so congrats!

To continue the weight-lifting analogy, the way to get stronger is to keep track of what you are able to comfortably lift, and always try to lift a little more than that. The action of lifting slightly above your limit breaks down your muscle fibres, but without causing injury, forcing them to rebuild themselves to be stronger than they were before. Most personal trainers encourage people who are getting into weightlifting to keep an exercise chart, which they use to keep track of how much weight they lifted, or how many repetitions they did for a given exercise. After several weeks, new lifters can begin to see their progress, and also get excited about where they might be in the future! As long as you know where you are and are patient, you will begin to see yourself making steady progress, avoid major injury, and watch yourself become leaner and more toned.

To relate this back to organizational skills, I personally knew last summer that if I was going to do an international development placement in the future AND deal with 4th-year engineering in the fall (at that time, I thought I had missed the chance to do Beyond Borders), I would definitely need to get my crap together and figure out how to manage myself and my time a little better! So I spent a lot of my free time over the summer reading up on time management and organizational skills (I will add a few of these links to the end of my post), just to bring myself up to speed on the different strategies that were out there. For the first time, I kept a to-do list that I (not my parents, not my teachers) had created for myself, and I began to think about how I spent my time and organized myself. And I began to see results: the lady in the Environmental Engineering office, who was always frustrated with me missing deadlines, was pleasantly surprised with how quick my responses were to her questions about my academic status. With the help of my current roommate, I was able to find a lease for 8 months in a pretty nice apartment in Waterloo, despite the fact that I was three time zones away in BC! Keeping track of the changes and watching my stress level drop was really energizing, and kept me motivated to keep on getting better at organizing myself.

Back to lifting weights. Despite their general advice to slowly increase the amount you lift, on days when you’re feeling really energetic and great, a lot of athletic trainers will encourage you to really push yourself and go for it on the weights. Some days, everything falls into place, and you lift more than they ever have before. On other days, you crash and burn. I was on a rowing machine last week and felt really good, so I started rowing like a bat out of hell…I ended up exhausted and only able to row about 75% of the ambitious target distance I had set for myself. I guess it just wasn’t one of those good days.

In my case, I headed into September really motivated and looking forward to talking to Joanne (our Beyond Borders prof) about the opportunities that were out there for doing international development work. To my great surprise, Joanne told me that there was some space left in the Beyond Borders group and that since I had already gone through the interview process and been accepted, the spot was mine if I wanted it. Despite the fact that I knew Beyond Borders was one of the best chances out there to really explore the ideas behind international development AND do development work, I didn’t say yes right away, because I wasn’t sure if I was ready for it. Would I be able to handle my hardest terms of engineering thus far, as well as the demands of unfamiliar coursework, volunteering and fundraising? I wasn’t sure I could do it, and I’m still not sure that I can, but eventually I realized that I had to go for it – life was too short and I knew I would regret passing up on the opportunity too much. But one thing I do know is, had I started Beyond Borders in the same place I had been 4 months earlier, before all the research I did on organization and time management, there is a very slim chance I would have made it this far. Last term was extremely stressful at times and I didn’t get the marks I hoped for, but I made it through. This term I have bitten off much more than ever before, and I have a lot more on my plate, but I know that I am dealing with it better than David Hewson, circa Feb 2009, ever would have.

Not all personal trainers out there agree on this point, but since I agree with it (and since it fits in nicely with my analogy), I’ll throw it in anyways. Sometimes, you don’t feel like going to the gym, or for whatever reason, you just don’t end up lifting weights for a while. Maybe it’s because of a lack of motivation, or fatigue. In these cases, sometimes the best thing you can do is just stop, and give your muscles a break. You return to your old routines and habits that you’ve had for a long time and that you’re used to; but after a while you start to miss the gym and that exhausted-but-satisfied feeling you get after a good workout. So you head back and find yourself reenergized and stronger than before; if you can figure out what made you stop hitting the gym in the first place, you change things up so that it won’t happen twice.

For me, last December represented a sort of breaking point for me and my love affair with building up my organizational skills: I had a bunch of projects to do, plenty of exams to study for and I was behind on everything, and under the stress of it all I began to slip back into my old routines. And as soon as I did, I began to feel like was at home again, doing some of the things that made first-year university so fun - recklessly racking up sleep debt, watching mindless TV and having hours-long philosophical discussions with friends. These all represented areas of my life that just hadn’t fit in to the disciplined routine I had adopted. At the same time, however, I began to miss some of benefits of my disciplined routine…finishing all the schoolwork I needed to accomplish by 11 at night, being awake and able to concentrate in class, etc. So when this school term rolled around I went back to my to-do lists and organizer, but made a few changes so that more of the important things I missed from “first-year life” (more time with friends, the occasional late-night philosophical debate) were included, thus making it more likely that I would actually stick to my new habits.

One of the final connections I see is this: people who take no interest in lifting weights will have a lot of trouble succeeding, even if they follow everything that their athletic trainer lays out for them. Ideally, people should find something that they like and works for them – running, yoga, pilates, martial arts, mountain biking, etc – there are so many options for being active and getting fit. The main thing is that you find something you like. In my case, I was really unmotivated and unhappy in my engineering program for the first several years I studied it. It wasn’t exactly what I’d expected when I had enrolled in the program, and I didn’t exactly like where it was heading. It was no wonder that I had trouble getting my act together on organization and time management.

However, Beyond Borders has changed all that, because it is something I am really interested in. I found the readings last term interesting and challenging, as well as the way that Joanne chose to conduct the course (peer-to-peer, group-directed learning). I’m excited to do the volunteering, although I haven’t started it yet. The fundraising has also been a challenge, but I have really enjoyed being able to connect with you and Denise with my “Soup and Stew for Peru” fundraiser and gain the benefit of all the work you guys have done with “Cookies with a Cause”. Most of all, it has been fantastic to get to know 13 other awesome people (I’m including Joanne, Elyse and Sanja in this – who cares if they don’t have to blog this term) and have such fantastic collective experiences. And as a bonus, I have found that I really enjoy my 4th-year engineering courses, to my great surprise. This year we are finally starting to make use of everything we learned over the past three years, and working with my group on our design project as the “Landfills Expert and Head GIS Technician” has made me realize just how much I know and am capable of, while pushing me in new ways as well. Here’s where I’m going with all this: time management and organization become a lot easier to get a grip on when you love what you’re doing. I’ve seen you in action in the various aspects of our time together in Beyond Borders, and I have no doubt in my mind that you are excited about this program and where you are going with it. So in my mind, the time management and organization skills will come. When you find the right thing for you, the little stuff starts to self-optimize.

Lastly, and most importantly: just as one does not derive their self-worth and human dignity from the smooth, toned muscles of a rigorous weight-lifting regimen, human value does not come from organizational skills. There are lots of benefits to being healthy and fit, and able to juggle obligations and multitask, and it’s okay to put some pressure on ourselves to improve in these areas. But at the end of the day, we have to make sure that we are succeeding with our family, friends, values, actions, and in the other, most important areas of our lives. Last year I realized that the real reason why my time in Ottawa went so badly had nothing to do with my organizational skills, it was that I was hundreds of kilometres and more than a $100 bus ride away from my family and closest friends when I really needed them. I felt incredibly isolated and lonely; I hadn’t gotten the important things in my life right. As long as we are happy with ourselves and our relationships, and we get up every day and do the best we can to make the world a little bit better, then we are succeeding as human beings – and that’s the most important thing of all.

Some Links for Time Management/Organizational Skills

Mindtools - this one is my favourite, in addition to the time management/organization stuff there's also stress management, decision making and loads of other useful skills. - this one is geared mostly towards students. In some ways is actually more about how to get away with poor time management skills! haha
Steve Pavlina - I got this from a link at Student Hacks and this guy definitely takes personal productivity and time management to a ridiculous level...the dude is an organized gold for sure. But there are some really good articles, such as "How to become an early riser" and "10 Tips for College Students."