Month: September 2017

Control your Emotions

This is part of my continuing series on reflecting on The Obstacle is the Way, by Ryan Holiday.

This chapter begins with a quote from someone I’ve never heard of, Publius Syrus:

Would you have a great empire? Rule over yourself.

And, as you may have guessed, the rest of the chapter is dedicated to supporting that idea. The examples running through the chapter are primarily taken from NASA’s astronaut training and the idea that NASA had to–and was able to–train the panic right out of astronauts.

Obviously, we should learn to train the panic out of ourselves.

I think the paragraph that best exemplifies the thinking on panic presented in this chapter is this one:

Uncertainty and fear are relieved by authority. Training is authority. It’s a release valve. With enough exposure, you can adapt out those perfectly ordinary, even innnate, fears that are bred mostly from unfamiliarity. Fortunately, unfamiliarity is simple to fix (again, not easy), which makes it possible to increase our tolerance for stress and uncertainty.

So, because I think the sense of what he’s saying here is clear, let me begin with the obvious: I love the parenthetical “again, not easy.” Because there is a clear difference between simple and easy in this case.

I think that there are a few ways I can apply this to my own life. The last time I can remember panicking was probably during the fiasco of moving my software from the development system on my notebook to the Linux server I rented from Linode.

My emotions during the whole process were not helpful, and the thoughts they conjured up “the last months of work were pointless if I can’t get this software to work on a server” were destructive. I’ve since thought I should write a guide to putting your Django project on a Linode server — as much for me as anything else — and I realized that I no longer really know how I got it to work if I ever did know. I can recall several resets, and late evenings (with wine, which clearly didn’t help), where I would wind up changing things in configuration files “just to see what happened.”

Could I have managed that better? Certainly. Did I learn from it? I don’t know. Was the panic I felt in any way constructive? No. Should I have given in? Of course not.

I like that this chapter suggests that the exposure afforded my by having panicked once will help me face my panic next time. Now I know what it feels like, now I know how destructive it was.

But I’m not going to go looking for it.

The glorification of failure.

This all feeds into a minor rant that I could easily expand on. It’s this: from a distance, it seems as though silicon valley and, by association, startup culture in general really glorifies failure. I’ve heard things on podcasts like “nobody takes you seriously in the valley until you’ve had at least three failed startups,” and wondered “don’t they risk incentivizing failure?”

Incentives are a big thing in my life. I have three small kids, and I see the world around me in the terms of carrots and sticks. When parking fees are high, and tickets are cheap, isn’t the city incentivizing illegal parking? That kind of thing.

And I don’t like the idea that failure is incentivized. I think that trying should be incentivized, and failure accepted. There’s a clear difference (in my mind) and it wouldn’t have hurt whatever anonymous speaker made the “three failures” quote I mentioned above to have reworded: “Nobody takes you seriously in the valley until you’ve made at least three serious attempts at a startup.”

To me, there are worlds of difference.


Having the same conversation seven times

I’ve been thinking about what I can say that is of value to people who are considering becoming EFL teachers. I have a niece who wants to live in Europe and thinks teaching EFL can be her ticket. I told her two things:

  1. Learn another job in the U.S., because the most in-demand teachers are the ones who have experience in something else, and can teach specialist vocabulary. Also, because…
  2. I don’t think my job will be around in the future. Machine translation will be a much more affordable way to do the communication that I teach most. Sure, it won’t help much in vacations, but the people who pay for my work, bosses don’t care about their employees’ vacation experience. For what they want, machine translation will be great.

However, I’m collecting a couple of tips that I think might help people who are thinking of teaching EFL or are starting off. Today’s tip is this:

Get good at having the same conversation fifteen times, but making the person you are talking to feel like you’re having it for the first time.

No joke, I think this is my greatest strength as a teacher. It saves me thinking of something to speak about for every lesson, and the students think I’m the fun teacher who always has a different, wacky idea.

Even more, after you have the conversation twice, when you go into the third group you’ll know better which questions to ask, you’ll be able to provoke conversation with “you know, I’ve heard…”

A go-to conversation topic for me.

An example I have is talking about when to say “Hello” in Germany. I think this sounds absurd to Germans and people who haven’t lived in Germany, but I can do a good job of moving from one point to the next in this conversation spontaneously, as though I’m asking this question for the first time. I should point out, my style is much more conversational than this, but here are the major points in the conversation:

  1. In the U.S., when I studied German, my professors taught us the words “Guten Tag,” and then emphasized that we should never greet strangers in German. “It’s the fastest way to let them know you’re not from Germany.” Do you think that’s true?
  2. Here’s the thing, I’ve been thinking about this, because my wife — who you know is German — absolutely hates one of our neighbors because “she can’t open her mouth to say hello.” Why would she hate her for not doing something she shouldn’t do?
  3. So I should say hello to my neighbors? Even if I see them downtown, shopping?
  4. If I see you guys when you’re shopping, should I say hello?
    1. From what distance? I mean, I have no problem yelling across the street “Hey, Marcus, it’s me, the English teacher” and waving, but I don’t see other people doing it…
  5. Now that I’m thinking about it, people say “Hello” when they walk into the Doctor’s office. What’s up with that?
    1. Are there other places I should say hello?
  6. My mother-in-law greets every hiker we pass when we’re hiking. Is that normal?
    1. Should bikers greet each other? What about joggers? What if I’m walking with a stroller, should I wave to other people with strollers?
  7. Okay, thanks… I think you’ve helped me in my goal to become a little more German. I really appreciate it.

The think about this conversation is that I’ve found people love being helpful. And so, I like to give them the chance. You can see in reading this that the conversation is based on an actual question that I once had.

My strength is in letting people help me again and again. I think it’s once you should develop, too.

Steady Nerves

In my continuing series on the individual chapters in “The Obstacle is the Way,” this is the third chapter, “Steady Nerves.”

The third chapter in The Obstacle is the Way is a short one, but it starts with a quote from Theodore Roosevelt, and who doesn’t love him?

What such a man needs is not courage but nerve control, cool headedness. This he can get only by practice.

The chapter is about the discipline of keeping your wits about you when it seems as though you should panic. It starts with some pretty impressive stories of General Grant keeping his cool even as things are exploding (or falling) around him.

Initially, I was a bit put-off by this chapter, because I’m going to get under cover if I’m fired upon, and certainly don’t intend to practice being unmoved by exploding artillery.

However, these are the two paragraphs that made it all much more approachable for me:

When we aim high, pressure and stress obligingly come along for the ride. Stuff is going to happen that catches us off guard, threatens or scares us. Surprises (unpleasant ones, mostly) are almot guaranteed. The risk of being overwhelmed is always there.

In these situations, talent is not the most sought-after characteristic. Grace and posie are, because these two attributes precede the opportunity to deploy any other skill.

I like that because I can see developing grace and poise as wise things to do, whether I’m strategizing how to be more effective or simply wondering how to grow as a human. And, there’s a wisdom in saying that, in addition to certain hard skills, you’ll need to be in control of yourself in order to develop them.

Like both the other chapters, it doesn’t take long for me to see where I can apply this lesson in my life:

  • Reading all the parenting books in the world won’t help  if I don’t have the self-control to apply what I’m learning in the heat of an exchange
  • Accepting that the worksheet app requires more administrative tools than actual worksheet-creating tools means I can buckle down to actually writing those tools
  • Learning to recognize when a ten-minute meditation would help me move my day forward is a good first step towards actually doing it

So, I guess I have something to think about in the coming week.


You might want to file this under “Toby processes another Twitter exchange in blog post format” and move on. That’s basically what this is.

I understand that I’m not great at social skills. I’m not bad at them, in the way Sheldon Cooper is, it’s just that I keep thinking I’m having fun and being told, after the fact, that I was a jerk. “Why didn’t you tell me this sooner?” Is something I said often as a younger man.

Now, I mostly avoid social situations with people I don’t know and — life hack! — the problem has solved itself.

Except, I try to relate to people, and it’s hard.

Weirdly, I think I can relate to some of the people I really don’t like: Donald Trump, John McCain. The creative writer in me can write backstory, fill in details for these people, such that what they’re doing makes sense from their point of view.

It’s the people who I mostly get along with, or who share my ideas and ideals with who are hard for me to relate to. Ultimately, I think that’s because I think we share a point of view, and I don’t invest a lot of time into thinking about theirs.

And, a lot of my conflicts comes down to this: Why don’t you set some priorities?

In my private life, it’s the divorced/separated dads who say they do everything to be with their kids… but are ‘forced’ into making choices that limit their time with them. (I’ve learned to not say it, but I still think “If the kid’s a priority, just say ‘sorry, that interferes with my goal of spending time with my kid.'”)

With liberals, it’s the agenda. If you care about stopping the ‘radical GOP agenda’ (not sure why I used quotes there, but it feels better than straight up calling people I used to like radical), make that a priority.

That brings us to the twitter exchange I mentioned at the top:


That ‘This Tweet is unavailable’? That comes from me being blocked by the user in question. Because I stuck to my guns on an idea that seems logical to me: if our top priority is stopping the President’s agenda, then we need GOP politicians to ‘switch sides,’ and if we want them to consider switching sides, then we have to incentivize their switching sides. And, if we want to incentivize their switching sides, then we have to accept that making them suffer for their stupidity — or gloating over ‘we were right and you were wrong’ — is a secondary priority and just won’t get to happen.

In the discussion — my first, long, prolonged discussion on Twitter with several people — everything was civil (except for the user who eventually blocked me calling me racist for not hating Sean Spicer sufficiently) but nobody’s opinion was changed.

I drew on every example I could think of where Dems understand that one thing is a priority over another: decriminalization of marijuana, gun buybacks, the embargo on Cuba. No dice.

And I wonder, what would a person who is as right as I think I am but also possessed actual social skills have done? Or, is Twitter just not a place where opinions are changed? Or, am I straight-up wrong?

Impostor Syndrome

Teaching and coding are more similar in my life than you might think. Not only am I ‘unqualified’ to do both, but at my moments of peak self-esteem, I think I’m good at both, and that my lack of qualifications is a strength.

However, in other moments, I suffer from impostor syndrome.

In Germany, there’s a difference between your job and your profession. Or, as one student put it, “What do you do?” and “What are you?”

And I don’t really have a profession. I have two Bachelors of Arts in German and Communication Studies. (Fun anecdote: When I got married (in German), my marriage certificate was supposed to have my profession on it and it was a very long discussion with the civil servant who was supposed to put it there. “If I write ‘communication scientist,’ is that wrong?” — “It’s not right.”)

But, I learned German as an adult, and feel empowered by that experience to teach English, especially to Germans. (They just learn everything backwards from what I did, easy, right?)

However, impostor syndrome rears its ugly head whenever I’m asked about English for situations that I never had to discuss in English. Many adult topics, such as taxes, financing a house, and divorce, fall under that heading. Even worse, so does the dreaded “‘Business English.”

I never feel more like an impostor than when I teach “office phrases” that I can’t imagine saying or that, worse, sound like something that annoying boss from Office Space might say in order to demonstrate what an utter insult to humanity he is.


However, I know that phrases that I’ve actually heard myself say in the lesson, such as “In the Army, I was required to answer the phone with…” are not helpful to people who (rightly) assume that the Army is not a language model for their mid-sized German business. So, my experience isn’t really helpful.

I’ve taken some pretty extreme (for me) measures, including taking Business English courses online, to ‘pirate’ phrases they use, as well as actually taking an office job here in Germany (I’m the office’s English-translator / guy to ask randomly for vocabulary) with the rationale that I’ll have stuff to think about in English.

It’s all been great material for lessons (I sound like a comic here, mining my life for material), but none of it has helped with impostor syndrome.

Are you an EFL teacher? If you are, how do you deal with teaching vocabulary that you’re not comfortable using in your day-to-day life? How do you get ready?

Another project idea

While practicing piano today, I realized I needed to work on more scales. My hands just felt weak (and, yes, it was a weird thing to realize), so I thought “okay, what key is this in, I need to get the scale and fingerings for it.”

And then I realized something else. A real strength behind Simply Piano (at some point, I’ll write a full-fledged review) is the way it breaks complicated songs down into components and drills you on those parts, quickly and briefly.

“What I really need,” I thought, “is music notation software, and I’ll just start making those drills for the sheet music I’m working on.”

Then, because I’m in a sharing mode right now, I thought “that’d be a cool online resource: PDFs of sheet music, but with various drills and exercises attached.” The idea ballooned in my mind. Songs that are in G (like the one I was practicing) could be tagged, and automatically also include scales and chords arpeggios…

Now, I have a whole new project that I want to develop, abandoning the many others I have in the pipes.

I won’t, but I want to.

Updating the Interface

I have been busy, and frustrated, as I work on the worksheet generation app. And, unfortunately, I haven’t been adding new functionality or improving the existing functionality. At least, I haven’t been improving it from the point of view of how the worksheets are made. I’ve been working on how people make the worksheets.

This is what the app interface used to look like:

old-formattingIt really isn’t bad, it’s just very basic. I knew I’d change it at some point — I use this site more than anyone else, and I have an idea how I want it to look — but I wanted to focus on features.

Then, recently, I invited friends and colleagues to try the website out. And nobody seemed to understand what it did. I told them (in emails, in person) and they loved the idea, but the interface that seems obvious to me… well, it obviously isn’t.

I had an idea: I’ll make a sort of tour you take, before you can sign up, that will explain the functionality with screen-grabs. 

But, there are so many things on my plate, I know the chances of me making the same tour twice are not great. At least, not in the same year. So, logically, the interface should be changed.

CSS is hard!

The thing about CSS is this: you can  download templates (like I did for the landing page, from a great resource called Start Bootstrap), and I figured I could easily adapt the rest of my page to match it.


To be fair, I haven’t yet come across a CSS problem that, once I figured out how to articulate it correctly, didn’t have a clear answer somewhere. (Also, I love the resources provided by W3Schools, but hate their search functionality. Are they trying to make money there?) But, every step felt like an uphill battle.

Eventually, I got to a point where I was starting to be satisfied with the result.

Hosting static files on django is poorly explained!

I’m starting a list of things that were hard for me to learn about django, to eventually explain when I feel like I understand them. One thing would be the deployment to linode (remember that?) and another would be hosting static files.

After a lot of googling and basically blindly trying things, I’ve stumbled into a configuration that worked. But, for a while, it only worked on the linode site and not locally and I was too frustrated to change it. So, every change I made had to be pushed to the site to be tested, which was also frustrating.

Then, I got around to working out my development file hosting and was able to test changes more quickly (and without feeling like I’d have ‘broken’ the site just then when a friend would try to use it), but when I pushed my changes to the linode server, I realized that I’d broken hosting there!

Now, things seem to be working both locally and on the server, and I’m going to not play around with it. But, I have other projects cooking, and I’ll need to wrap my head around this.

So, what does it look like now?

Obviously, after all that drama, you’d expect something amazing, right? Well, it turns out that I can fix individual problems, but I don’t really have much of a vision of an overall design. So, while the layout is basically the same, the new formatting is something I’d rather spend my time looking at:


It has a title bar that remains fixed as you scroll, and functions are presented as buttons (because they seem to suggest action) and, rather than telling you “there is enough vocabulary to make a memory activity,” it simply doesn’t show you the option unless there is sufficient memory.

I can live with this for the rest of the academic year, I think. Now, I just have to clean up all the pages and make a tour, as well as finishing up my ‘minimum functionality…’