Saturday, April 16, 2016

Becoming Irrelevant

Aging is a process of becoming irrelevant. It happens over a long time, perhaps a whole lifetime. But it is now, as I am entering my senior years, that it is beginning to become apparent to me, and it is not a happy discovery.

Throughout my career, I have been such a hardworking person, striving to accomplish more every day than was truly possible. I have been motivated by new and more difficult challenges. I have moved up the career ladder, struggling with and then mastering each new set of expectations. I have climbed a mountain and arrived at the top, sweaty, aching and exhausted, only to discover the next mountain beyond that one. This has happened again and again, and has defined my working life. 

Now I have finally reached the last peak. I am stepping away from the career trajectory that I have been on since I went off to my first year of university. It has been hard to let go, and hard to accept that this is it. All that I am going to accomplish in my career has already happened. 

That sounds pathetic. But for me it has been a sad and bitter realization. I have always set very high expectations for myself. Although I never thought I had it in me to become a Piaget or an Einstein, deep in my heart I did think that I was capable of some pretty great achievements. I didn't get there. I have had a good career, and I have made useful contributions. But not great, not outstanding. 

So it took me a long time to decide to step away from my position and my upward striving. Choosing to begin moving towards retirement has meant coming to terms with the fact that this great big career project I have been toiling at, and that I have devoted most of the days of the most productive time of my life to, is over. It's over and there is, as it turns out, not much to show for it. 

Strangely, now that my decision has been made and there are only two and a half months left in my job, I have discovered that I can't even remember what I thought was so important about my job. I wish I could walk away from it tomorrow, and never go back through that door. Yet only six months ago, I was working eleven or twelve hours days most days, and everything I was doing seemed so necessary and critical. Work was so all encompassing that when I broke a bone in my foot last Fall, I couldn't even find time to rest and put my foot up and the bone failed to heal. 

Just as I have been discovering that my work is not so important after all, many of my colleagues and staff members, now that they have found out that I won't be in my role much longer, have begun to treat me as irrelevant. It is understandable. I won't be around to see projects through to completion. There is no point in me starting new things as soon there will be a new boss in my place, and that person will have different ideas and ways of working. In the meantime, they have to form alliances and new ways of working together. My leaving creates a power vacuum and an opportunity for each of them to position themselves differently within the organization. 

I have seen this happen to colleagues before. It is the dead duck administrator phenomenon. The person leaving loses their ability to influence others and to effect change. The people around them experience a period of shifting relationships and alterations in how they do things. I was expecting that it likely would happen to me. 

What I didn't anticipate is how painful it would feel. My closest team leaders are kind and respectful, but although they try not to show it, they no longer really have time for me with all their responsibilities and frenetic work lives. It is strange and sad to realize that most collegial relationships exist to be primarily in service to the maw of work tasks and deadlines. Some other colleagues, the office bullies and the very ambitious seem to be wanting to make sure that I am aware that I didn't matter to the organization anyways. Good riddance to bad rubbish. Ouch, that hurts. To some others, I am now suddenly invisible, and my insights unnecessary. 

And then there are those good, decent colleagues who treat me the same way that they always have. I am so grateful for these people. For them, my knowledge and skills have not evaporated just because I will be leaving soon. And for them, the human relationship supersedes the pragmatic utility of the relationship or the authority of the role. 

Although I have focused this piece on work, I believe that this insight about my own increasing irrelevance will hold for the aging process in general. Once I am no longer of use to them, contributing to society and caught up in the culture of the workplace, I will become irrelevant to most people. As an older person, unless I fight it by finding ways to contribute and to have a voice, I will begin to exist on the margin of society.

Quite a few gloomy thoughts. 

Thursday, March 31, 2016

A Painting Challenge

Tonight I blocked in my newest painting. I have painted the sky, using manganese blue, phthalo blue, titanium white and a touch of alizarin crimson. I have blocked in the rest of the canvas using thin paint and a limited palette. At this point, I have not worried too much about precise colours, but have aimed to place the main shapes and cover up most of the white canvas. I have also indicated the darker shadow areas.

Quite often, before I have finished blocking in, I get distracted and start putting in detail, or trying to represent the exact hue that I see in my reference photos. Usually, that just leads to trouble! A colour that looks just right on the white canvas will look wrong once other colours surround it. 

You can see in this one that I have suggested the texture of the reeds, the direction of the reflections, and the shininess of the pond. I have found that, even in the very early blocking in stage, I have to capture some of the key elements that I find interesting in the scene. Otherwise later on, I will lose the rhythm of the painting, or the concept I am trying to convey. I feel that I have been successful if I have left myself something interesting to work with in the next painting session.

Every time I start a new painting, I set myself a particular challenge. The challenges relate to things I want to learn, or issues that I have struggled with. With this painting, I have set two challenges. One is the long narrow landscape format of the canvas. I rarely paint in landscape format, but rather tend to choose a portrait orientation for my paintings (even though I mostly paint landscapes). And I have never tried a long narrow format. 

The other challenge in this painting is that I am aiming to paint with confident looser brushstrokes, rather than reverting to finicky, precise dabbing. I think this will prove to be particularly challenging for me, especially as I have chosen a complex composition.

In the previous painting that I just completed, Kettle River, Before the Fire, I had two challenges. One was to paint a large section of intense colour (the blue water). Although I am not afraid to use intense colours, I tend to daub it on in small bits, and therefore end up with very busy images. The other challenge in my last painting was to paint a large section of green trees. I find green very hard to work with, and always struggle when there is a lot of green in a painting. 

Other challenges I have set for myself in recent years include: painting nocturnes to force myself to use more dark values; working more with greys; using a larger canvas; painting large calm areas of muted colour; incorporating a figure in the landscape; incorporating buildings and other structures; painting en plein air, and painting waves or running water. I almost always run into trouble with a painting at some point. But I am always learning new things, and I never get into the rut of painting the same objects or themes over and over, in the same way, with the same palette of colours. For me, problem-solving a painting is half of the fun!

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Kettle River, Before the Fire

I have just finished another painting. It's the one on the easel, titled: Kettle River Before the Fire

Kettle River Valley is one of our favourite places to spend time in the summer. It is located in southern British Columbia, Canada, just north of Osooyos and south of Kelowna (accessible from Kelowna by the back road). The area is most well known for the Kettle River Valley Railway, which was dismantled and turned into an amazing bike trail. We have biked the 25 Km section north from Rock Creek, and have fantasized about doing a multi-day trip along it or connecting to one of the other trails in the network of old rail lines. I took this photo on one of our biking excursions.

About seven km north of Rock Creek, there is an excellent provincial campground right on the Kettle River. Or, I should say, there used to be a great campground. Last summer, a terrible wildfire raged through the valley. People camping in the campground got out with minutes to spare. The tiny hamlet of Rock Creek also burned. I think I remember reading that 14 homes were lost. 

Last summer, we camped in the Kettle Valley. In fact, we had just left the area the day before the fire started. There had been a drought all summer, and the valley was bone dry. It was one of many wildfires that razed huge sections of southern BC and northern Montana last August. 

So this painting has special meaning for me. It reminds me of the happy times in the Kettle Valley, before the fire. I started painting this picture at the beginning of September. And then I broke my foot. For the four months I was on crutches and in a cast, I stopped painting. I just felt ready to start again in February. I am part of a painting group that meets weekly. But because of my work schedule, I miss a lot of the painting nights. I usually finish a painting in 4-6 sessions, depending on how large it is. 

Here is a closeup showing some of the detail. As you can see, I had fun with the palette knife in this section. It is great to be painting again!

Friday, March 4, 2016


The following quote is from the book Ru, by Kim Thuy. Her book was the 2015 winner of the Canada Reads contest.


"My parents often remind my brothers and me that they won't have any money for us to inherit, but I think they've already passed on to us the wealth of their memories, allowing us to grasp the beauty of a flowering wisteria, the delicacy of a word, the power of wonder. Even more, they've given us feet for walking to our dreams, to infinity. Which may be enough baggage to continue our journey on our own. Otherwise, we would pointlessly clutter our path with possessions to transport, to insure, to take care of" (p. 41).

From this brief excerpt, so concise and poetic, it is clear why Thuy's book was a winner. I am going to have the great fortune to attend a talk by Kim Thuy next week.

I, unfortunately, continue to clutter my own path in life with possessions, as I have written about here.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Tim Harford on Success and Failure

It would not be an understatement to say that failure and success have been two key concepts that have defined my life. I know that some of the greatest opportunities for learning in my past have come about from big problems that I have faced and failed to solve effectively. Similarly, the greatest successes have not been arrived at easily and triumphantly but with struggles and stumbles. I have grown and become stronger and more insightful through both the failures and successes. 

I have not always known this though. When I am in the middle of learning and failing, it does not feel good. I do not like myself very much, and it always seems like a very big deal. My self-worth is on the table every single time. This is not only the case with the failures, but also with the successes, because the successes generally are the final outcome of a series of little failures, negotiations, and little successes -- never the glorious final "perfect" endpoint that I imagined. Sometimes the successes come about from making a second or third attempt to find a solution where I have previously failed. The successes are usually coloured by the failures, relationship dramas, and compromises that led up to them. 

Therefore, I was pleased to come across this talk by Tim Harford, economist, in which he addresses in a very straightforward and accessible way strategies for how to fail constructively rather than being beating yourself up over them. If you never fail, then you are not setting hard enough challenges for yourself. 

I have always feared wasting my life. I have always been motivated to make a difference to the world in some small way. This means that I have had to take risks, and with risk-taking failure is more likely. I ask myself, is the pain of sometimes failing worse than the consequence of living a narrow life because of choosing the safe path? If I am to have the courage to fail, it is helpful to have some strategies for acknowledging, coping with, and learning from the failures.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Life Path Dilemma

Imagine that one day you wake up and discover that you are in the wrong job. It is an epiphany. Suddenly you realize why every Monday morning feels so bleak, why every Sunday afternoon your mood progressively blackens and you end up staying up way too late trying to squeeze a little more time out of the weekend. The arguments that run through your mind -- that you work with wonderful people, that the work you do is a useful contribution, that several improvements in the organization have been accomplished in part by your hard work, that you made a commitment to this job and can't back out now -- seem hollow in the face of your emotions. Anger. Despair. Resentment. 

You counsel yourself to put your head down and keep working. You repress the angry helpless feelings, and focus in on the specific projects at hand. You nudge, mentor, meet, plan, and present, crossing off tasks until you are able to push another project through to completion. And meanwhile new tasks and projects prolipherate like weeds. Yesterday's finished project is barely noticed; now the urgent refrain is about projects W, X, and Y. Why aren't they finished yet?

Working, working, working, and you are another year older, and then another year, and then a decade goes by. What a naive thought to think it could be otherwise. Life ain't a bed of roses. It's about working and pulling your weight. They don't pay you the big bucks to sit around. Who ever said work was fun?

But wait! The question is not about working in this job or not working at all. It's not either/or. There are many ways to contribute to the world, and multiple paths to a good life. Although it is typical, once you become part of an organization, to embrace the beliefs of that organizational culture, it does not mean that organizational culture must become your destiny. 

You have one life, one finite stretch of time on this earth to invent yourself, to flourish, and to find a path on the twisted roads of time. The best you that you can be is the person who will give the most to your community and to the world. Whipping the tired, unwilling workhorse through another tiresome day of never ending tasks is not likely to be the way to your best contribution. 

Perhaps you are doing good work and perhaps you have made some useful contributions, but if your passion isn't in it, if it doesn't make your heart sing, then it isn't the right place for you right now. 

By you, I mean me. Dear colleagues, who are surprised and wondering at the suddenness of of it all, please know that for me it wasn't sudden at all. The knowledge was growing in my heart for a long time that I had wandered into the wrong tangled forest. It has taken me a long time to recognize that I needed to act upon my epiphany and make a change. 

I do not regret my years in this job. I have learned so much, and worked with some great people. But now it is time for me to invent another path, and to work and live with joy and passion.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Between Structure and Freedom

This morning as I was colouring in my adult colouring book, surrounded by soggy kleenexes*, I began to reflect on creativity. Specifically, I was thinking about some of the conditions that give rise to creative thought processes and creative acts.

As a child, I always loved colouring books. I especially loved ones with elaborate adventure pictures, fairy tales, pirates, or Ancient Greece. I remember once for my younger brother's birthday party, my mother bought colouring books, one for each party guest, and hid them around the house. At the word "go," the object was to race around the house looking for the hidden prizes. Each child would keep the colouring book he or she found, then help with the search until everyone had a prize. Prior to the books being hidden, I had inspected them and discovered that there was a very appealing Hercules colouring book. I really wanted to find that particular one. During the game, I ran from room to room finding all of the colouring books. (I was the oldest child present, and also I had a pretty good idea of potential hiding places in our house.) As I found each colouring book, I gave it to one of the party guests, and just kept looking until I found Hercules. My mother was quite exasperated with me for ruining the treasure hunt. "I should have just given you that colouring book to begin with," she said. 

At some point a couple of decades ago, early childhood educators began to frown upon colouring books. Supposedly, they ruined children's creativity and discouraged them from drawing. It was thought to be so much better for children to create images from their own imagination. 

This, to my mind, is a misinterpretation of the research findings of the 1980's and '90's on discovery learning. Unfortunately this incorrect understanding was applied across a number of subject areas and teaching practices, to the detriment of a generation of students. 

Discovery learning is the notion that students are more likely to be engaged in and passionate about learning if they have the opportunity to figure things out for themselves and to use their insights in practical applications. So, to use a mathematical example, children can discover for themselves the relationship between multiplication and division by realizing that just as three groups of four makes twelve, twelve items can be grouped into three sets of four. This mathematical relationship is more likely to be meaningful to them when they discover it than if they are taught the times tables by rote memorization. A practical application, such as figuring out how to share twelve jelly beans equally between three friends helps to anchor the understanding. I very much agree with approaches to teaching that incorporate opportunities for student discovery.

Where the pendulum swung too far, however, is that some educators illogically concluded that if discovery approaches were good for learning, then all aspects of structure, memorization, and routine were bad. Out the window went grammar, spelling, mathematical formulas, and colouring books. In came new math textbooks that frustrated a generation of students and their parents by expecting children to guess mathematical theories and principles discovered by mathematicians over the past two centuries by scrutizing colourful diagrams, answering word problems, and responding to open ended questions. As a parent helping my kids with math homework, I remember asking the air angrily, "why can't your textbook just tell you the order of operations rather than trying to make you guess the rule?" 

I want to bring this post from my grumpy diatribe on teaching methods back to creativity. What I am going to postulate is that creative thought and creative action exist in the sweet spot between structure and freedom. Too much rote copying and stultifying routine smothers the creative spark. Too much structure cages a person within convention and does not grant permission to innovate. 

On the other hand, too much freedom paradoxically both overwhelms one with too much choice and simultaneously starves the mind because it has nothing to work with. Too much choice -- every artist and writer has been there, I'm sure. What medium should I use? Oils, acrylics, pastels? What size canvas, and will it be canvas board, stretched linen, or a gessoed panel? What colours, what topic, what style of painting? This paralysis can be addressed by learning and applying a few basic techniques. Start by sketching a few thumbnails of the scene to figure out the composition, then do a simple drawing on your canvas. Begin the painting by doing a light wash with transparent colours and solvent, working top to bottom, to block in the main shapes. The wash can be monochromatic to establish the values. Or it can be a pale version of the the local colours that you plan to end up with, or use their complementary colours. Once you have mastered those techniques, you can add new techniques or approaches to your toolbox. You have conquered the terror of the hugeness of endless possibility by doing something

Too little structure provides the mind too little to work with to achieve productive creativity. Think about the advice often given to writers: if you want to be a good writer, then read, read, read. The books that others have written provide the would-be writer content, structure, and instruction. The knowledge gleaned from books (and experience) allows us to build complex mental models of the social, emotional, historical world. Our own unique questions and ideas naturally emerge the more rich and complex our knowledge base becomes. Pursuing those ideas in thought, writing, or through art yields creativity. 

Reading also immerses us in language, and over time helps us to develop deep linguistic knowledge and appreciation for the nuances of language. By studying texts, we can learn how other writers write. In a beautifully written novel, I can observe how the author has drawn her characters, how dialogue captures the reader and moves the action along, and how those little particulars like the pottery bowl full of agates make the story feel real. The novel, or rather many novels, function as a writing course for a novel writer. 

The structure of our mental models provides a platform for creative thought and action. We build the structures of our minds by observing and experiencing the physical and knowledge structures surrounding us. The slippages, the tensions, and the mismatches inspire creative problem solving as long as each of us is allowed to have or chooses to have the freedom of agency to act and think.

As a final note, I want to point out that studying and observing, although necessary, is not enough. A creative person must also do. Read, read, read, but also write, write, write. Colour your colouring book, but also draw and paint, and try something wild like covering the floor with canvas cloth and flinging paint all around it. Active making, designing, and problem solving are the gifts of freedom. 

*I have a nasty head cold. I initially wrote soggy tissues but that brought to mind gory images of body parts, so I have used instead the product placement name kleenex that now functions as the common noun for tissue. 

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