Is it up to you

The seventh chapter in my The Obstacle is the Way project is titled “Is it up to you?” and opens with this quote from Epictetus:

In life our first job is this, to divide and distinguish things into two categories: external I cannot control, but the choices I make with regard to them I do control. Where will I find good and bad? In me, in my choices.

That is, basically, the entire chapter in a summary. The chapter talks a lot about Tommy John, a pitcher (I find it hard to relate to athletes) who played professional baseball longer than anyone.

The only bit that personally found inspiring was the part where he gets cut from the team and then asks his coaches if he would get a fair chance as a walk on at spring training the next year. They tell him they’d give him a look, and he trains up and (no surprise) makes the team.

Another bit of wisdom that I liked in the story was this:

He understood that as a professional athlete his job was to parse the difference between the unlikely and the impossible. Seeing that miniscule distinction was what made him who he was.

I hope that, someday, they’ll say “Toby was able to parse the difference between the unlikely and the impossible.”

The chapter talks a bit about the serenity prayer and how it’s easier to battle only alcohol than it is to battle alcohol and the fact that your childhood was miserable. I think there’s some truth in that.

Further, after a list of things that are outside of our control, Ryan Holiday includes a list of things that are in our control and I find it rather inspiring:

  • Our emotions
  • Our judgements
  • Our creativity
  • Our attitude
  • Our perspective
  • Our desires
  • Our decisions
  • Our determination

I like thinking that, in the mind of Ryan Holiday, at least, those things are under my control. It makes me think that I have a lot more tools in my toolbox.

Combine that with the overall lesson of the chapter: that there are far fewer situations that call for the use of those tools and it seems almost freeing to think that I have more tools than I thought I did, and need to fix fewer things that I had planned.

Even taking into account the additional time that will be required to wield “my desires” or “my attitude” as a tool, I should be freed up to do so much more of the stuff it takes to be me.


The Road Ahead

As I look at my coding journey, I realize I’ve stagnated a bit. I mean, I’m super proud of the Dynamic Worksheets program, but, to be honest, I’ve moved away from coding.

Lately, the coding work that I do is realizing that something is broken, and then spending an afternoon mostly realizing that my code really does make no sense. And then, eventually, finding the problem and fixing it. It is not as rewarding as actually building the thing was.

And, it’s not for lack of ideas. Or, really, for lack of time (though discipline is a thing that needs to be trained and maintained). I’ve kinda reached a place where I’ve lost track of my next steps.

So, it might help to write through this.

Logical next steps for the worksheet site

I had really hoped that I’d have users for the site before the end of 2017. And, though I shared it with a few people, only one of them actually went through the steps of making worksheets.

So, if I set “making a community of teachers who actually use it (in Germany, at least) to make their classes better,” what are the logical next steps?

Here are the things it makes sense to work on in 2018:

  • Establish a list of exactly which “behind the scenes” tools I want before I advertise, and make them.
  • Draft the series of “welcome emails” as well as “explainer videos” that users will be sent/invited to view with time.
  • Write out a plan for how I’ll approach the market, planning on times to ‘force’ written reflection on lessons learned.
  • Implement the plan.

I’m not going to lie. Most of those things feel more like work to me, than like the play that creating the site was. I look forward to having people use something that I made, and think it’s fair to say that it’s not fully finished until people use it and value it.

So, what are the things I’m excited about doing?

Logical coding goals for the near future

I have ideas for other projects. They meet the standards of “things I would like to use” and “things I think would make the world better.” The thing is, starting a new project seems so daunting now that I see how hard it is to get a project truly finished.

Nonetheless, there are things that I think I can do to get ready for the next project. More than one Code Newbie podcast has included a guest saying something like “there is tons of Javascript in the world that wouldn’t need to exist if people would only learn CSS.” So, as an ongoing project, it seems to make sense that I find a good course and learn CSS before I get around to learning Javascript.

There’s something I’ve meant to get done that isn’t especially sexy. I’d like to create a bunch of reusable Django boilerplate that I could use for basic user management with projects in the future. This is based on the fact that I think I did users badly in the dynamic-efl project.

Django includes a basic User model, but I found myself wanting a lot of other things (some of which I haven’t implemented, yet) like email verification links, something to automatically delete accounts that haven’t been verified or logged into in the last year. There’s more, and I should write it down.

So, put all that together, and it seems that it seems as though it would make sense for me to set the following coding goals in the near future:

  • Pick a CSS course and learn it. (Possibly, also Javascript)
  • Practice writing a Django app that can be re-used
  • Write out what I want the Eternal Customer Model (working title) to be and do
  • Code the Eternal Customer Model and, finally, use it in a project such as
  • The Latin drill program.

That gives me stuff to work on. Look for updates.

The November Fitness Review

So, November was the first month I really wanted to stick to a written training plan. Ultimately, that training plan, while not very ambitious, was something of a stretch goal. I didn’t get it done but did do more than I would have without it.


I’m counting the fact that I still try to get my plank workout in each day as a success. It doesn’t always happen (happened early today, I’ve learned that I’m more disciplined in the morning) but it happens more often than not. And, as an extra plus, my back, shoulder and arm pain is much improved, if not yet eliminated.

My foot hurts less severely and less often. I’m chalking that up to the foot exercises and will continue them.

The realization that running form matters. While out on what should have been a hard run, I decided to focus more on form than intensity, because my food had been acting up. I was surprised that it was just as effective — as measured by speed — as focusing on intensity would have been, but not quite as mentally draining. (Focusing on actually doing something seems easier than just trying to push myself.)


For a variety of lame reasons, I only hit my three-times-a-week goal twice in November. And, that was evident in the fact that I slowed down for the first time ever in my monthly 5k for time. It was 28:38 this month, as opposed to 24:37 in October.


It’s ridiculous to think I’ll get a lot of exercise in in December. December is the month that I spend the rest of the year trying to work off. Still, the experiment was good enough that my next step will be making a plan for December. At least, for the time up to the holidays.

Alter your perspective

This is another post in my ongoing series on the individual chapters in “The Obstacle is the Way.” I don’t know how useful or interesting it will be out of context.

This is the first chapter in The Obstacle is the Way that didn’t really blow me away. The fundamental lesson seems like it can be summed up very briefly: how you look at things changes the way you react to them. And, either I haven’t properly internalized how profound that is, or it’s not Earth-shaking news following up on the previous chapters.

I get this. I was frustrated yesterday because I tried twice to make a sort of explainer video for the worksheet project. Both times, the webcame video didn’t record. (And I even put on a nice shirt for the occasion.)

I already said I was frustrated. I didn’t have time for a third run-through before work.

But, on the other hand, I had two great rehearsals. In the first, there were a few minor things that frustrated me. (I wanted it seamless, and there were a few vocabulary that didn’t have definitions in the system when I made it, to there were about two minutes of me entering vocab.) And the second one was smoother and much shorter.

When I get around to recording the same thing today, I expect it to be tighter, shorter. And that’s valuable.

I probably would not have, on my own, run through the whole video twice in preparation, but the whole webcam-not-recording thing upped the quality of the finished product.

That’s changing the perspective, according to the book. The obstacle itself cannot be changed. The idea seems to be that changing your perspective doesn’t necessarily change the amount of work you have to do, it changes your perception of the work, and that can be enough.

I’ll finish this with the two paragraphs that finish the chapter:

How we interpret the events in our lives, our perspective, is the framework for our forthcoming response–whether there will even be one or whether we’ll just lie there and take it.

Where thehead goes, the body follows. Perception precedes action. Right action follows the right perspective.

More of the internet should cost money

Here’s an unpopular opinion: we should pay for more of the Internet. By ‘we,’ I mean the people who use it.

Let me put down a bit of foundational work:

Advertising leads to tracking

My argument is this: I would rather pay Facebook, or Google, the money myself, rather than have them collect data on me and target ads. Further, think of the resources that these “engines of innovation” are dedicating to tracking us and serving ads, when they could be dedicating them towards solving problems.

For a savings of $20/year, I have abdicated the ability to be the final customer of Google, Twitter and Facebook, and instead became the product.

That alone would be a reason to consider paying for websites and leads me to what I think is a bigger point.

Advertising prioritizes eyeballs over experience

These tech companies are keeping their customers happy, but we’re not the customers (see above, but none of that is really a new idea). But I don’t think people emphasize enough the social costs of this.

Ask yourself, if the cost was $5/year for a Twitter account, would there be 48 million bots on Twitter? Further, what if Twitter spent the energy they now invest in finding advertising customers and serving ads in actually cleaning up the user experience? The could have actual people and not A.I. checking abusive tweets. That alone would be a step up.

Further, imagine the user who has already paid for a Twitter account. Most trolls have a separate account only for trolling. Maybe they still would, but how often would they pay the $5 registration fee after being banned for abusive behavior? In most cases (I’m willing to wager), a warning that “if this behavior continues, this account will be suspended” would be enough. After all, Twitter wouldn’t have to try and figure out if there were duplicate accounts, allowing users to create a second (or 48 millionth) account after suspension would be equivalent to a $5 fine for abusive behavior.

Would people still get trolled? Sure. Would trolls become more subtle? Yes. But, would the total level of trolling go down? I think so. And the customers — the users — would be much happier about it.

It’s easier to expand than to fix…

I feel like everything I learn about coding is already a well-known software truism. But, I wanted to report in on my progress with the EFL worksheet software by saying that it’s moved back to the top of the priorities list and I’m working on it, but slowly.

There was a bug where the gap fill sentences created for capitalized vocabulary (‘Baltic Sea’ and ‘Vienna’ are examples) didn’t work correctly.

I immediately realized that the code put the entire sentence into lowercase (with Python’s .lower() method) before looking for the word. No problem, I thought, I’ll just find where the word is searched for and have it search for the lowercase text of the word. Problem solved.

I genuinely thought that was something I could do quickly, by way of getting back into the coding game…

More than an hour later, I found the spot where I forgot the extra .lower() call and everything was fixed. But I needed a full hour to figure out where in my code that happened.

A full hour.

I’m discouraged that I had such a hard time finding my way through my own code.

If you want to teach English, be ready to learn

I’m going to say right now that I’m not a normal teacher. I didn’t like school, I wasn’t big on university, and I certainly didn’t want to be a teacher.

And, I believe, that’s part of why I’m a good teacher.

Why “teaching” doesn’t work

For better or for worse, the people I teach have been conditioned by years of experience that teachers teach and learners learn. And, as soon as they recognize that I’m teaching, most of their brain shuts down and they go into ‘learner mode’ which is just a step above ‘hibernation.’

And, learning (and teaching) does take place, but it’s an uphill, grinding process.

Sometimes, it’s what students need. But, I’m lucky that I hate doing it as much as they do, and they can see that. Then, they’re willing to accept that it’s something that I, in my professional opinion, think is necessary and know I’ll try to get us through it as quickly as possible.

The important thing is this: nobody thinks that I shift to ‘teacher mode’ to avoid demonstrating my ignorance of their work.

Learning is a better model

First, most EFL teachers will agree that we never understood English grammar so well as when we started teaching it. There’s something about teaching that makes you really understand a thing.

Once my students are able to start putting coherent sentences together, they learn a lot more if I ask them to teach me. Then, building on the fact that they’re fully engaged in trying to explain something — with pictures and gestures as well as with language — they’re quick to pick up vocab. (I only have to introduce the word ‘screw’ once, if it’s important for explaining how to use their product.)

This builds on a few things. First and foremost, most people in highly specialized jobs are used to (but not happy with) being surrounded by people who say “this is my husband, he is an engineer but I don’t really understand what he does.” They’re ready for someone to want to understand.

Second, most people are, by their nature, helpful. If I can find something even tangentially related and can genuinely need their help, they’re engaged and motivated to use the language.

How to be a teacher who learns

The trick, I think, is to be humble and curious. There is no shame in saying “I don’t understand your work, but I understand practicing an instrument. Is it like that?”

The first lesson or three with me is generally spent getting to know the person, of course, and establishing what they’re goals are, but my agenda is mostly to find the things about their job that I think are interesting. Once I have found those, I try to ‘master’ them if I can (“take me to your desk and show me how you do this”) and get to understanding other parts of their job relative to them.

I am blessed in that I enjoy building up my mental model of the world, and can be fascinated by the design processes of battery systems because they help me think about other things better. If you’re not naturally curious, I suggest you figure out how to be unnaturally curious.

An example

I will be restarting private lessons with a woman who works as the head of the accounting department in a company nearby. In the last block of lessons, she was willing to endure book exercises, but only really spontaneously used vocab when talking about sports (not what she was paying me to get better at discussing) or teaching me to appreciate the nuances of finance.

If I could find a newspaper story about a company selling its building and leasing it back, I knew I had an hour of conversation just by going in and saying “why does this make sense?” She was proud of what she did and happy to show me why some things that seem counter-intuitive (why sell something that you know you will need) actually can make sense.

As I approach restarting the lessons and I need a plan, I know we’ll stick with the book we had, but I bought myself a copy of Financial Intelligence for Entrepreneurs. If I ever want to be an entrepreneur I need to learn it, and I know that I’ll have conversation material for a half year’s worth of lessons.