Self-Regulation and Cognitive Distortions

I recently completed a class on Emotional and Social Intelligence, also known as ESI. One part of the course was about self-regulation (or self-management), one of four competencies in emotional and social intelligence.

Self-regulation includes self-control and adaptability. It builds on self-awareness — we have to recognize our emotions in order to regulate them. One way we can use self-regulation is to recognize and think about our feelings to avoid becoming a victim of emotional hijacking.

A thought pattern of emotional hijacking is called Cognitive Distortion. Cognitive distortions are ways our mind convinces us of things that aren’t true. This way of thinking can reinforce negative thinking and emotions, keep us feeling bad about ourselves, and interfere with our ability to self-regulate.

I wanted to share this post about cognitive distortions because I recognized some of this type of thinking in myself. By sharing, maybe others will recognize this type of thinking, too, and learn how to address it before it gets out of hand.

In this post, I’ll provide a few examples of cognitive distortion, plus a few humorous examples from pop culture. I’ll then share 6 strategies for self-regulation and a few resources to find more information.


Examples of Cognitive Distortion

A few examples of cognitive distortion provided by the class include:

  • Polarized Thinking
  • Overgeneralization
  • Labeling
  • Jumping to Conclusions
  • Personalization and Blame
  • Magnification and Minimization

Polarized Thinking

Seeing only in black and white.

An example of cognitive distortion includes polarized thinking. That is, instead of seeing variation, this line of thinking excludes all possible outcomes to only black or white options: success or failure, win or lose, friend or foe, etc. But there’s often more nuance than those two extremes.

Overgeneralization

Something is everything.

Another example of cognitive distortion is overgeneralization. In this case, it means taking the negative outcome of one event or experience and concluding all similar experiences or events will result in the same outcome. Or concluding that the one bad outcome was due to an inherent character flaw. Ex: Going on one bad date means you’re terrible at relationships.

Labeling

You are not a clumsy fool.

In this example, you identify with your shortcomings. This is the same as tripping on a broken sidewalk and instead of saying, “The city should fix this sidewalk. It’s dangerous,” you say, “Oh, of course I tripped. I’m clumsy!”

Jumping to Conclusions

You are not a psychic.

There are two examples of this. One is called mind reading. This is assuming other people are reacting negatively to you, even though there’s no evidence for it. Ex: The security guard at work didn’t say hello this morning, so you assume it’s because they don’t like you anymore. It could be because they were distracted or having a bad day.

The other example of jumping to conclusions is fortune telling, which is predicting things will turn out badly, also without evidence. Ex: You decide not to apply to a job in which you’re objectively qualified because you tell yourself you won’t get it anyway.

Personalization and Blame

Who really done it?

In the case of personalization, you may blame yourself for an outcome that you weren’t entirely responsible for. For instance, you’re on a creative team for a big client. Unexpectedly, the client decides to cancel all accounts and withdraw from the agency entirely. While there are multiple people working on this client’s account, you put all the blame on yourself for their decision.

Blame is when you overlook how your own behavior could have contributed to an outcome. For instance, perhaps the security guard from above didn’t say hello to you this morning because you never say hello back, and today was the day they just stopped trying.

Magnification and Minimization

Live in a van down by the river! or Tis but a scratch!

In magnification, this is an example of taking a single bad outcome and blowing it way out of proportion. Ex: You went on a date that went poorly, so this means that for the rest of your life you’ll never find someone to settle down with…which means you’ll die alone and no one will come to your funeral. Or you didn’t get a perfect score on the SAT, which means you’ll never get into Harvard, which means you’ll have to go to community college…which of course you’ll fail out of and then end up homeless on the street.

Minimization is taking something that should rightly be of concern and shrinking it’s importance. Ex: You have pains in your stomach, but tell yourself it will go away on its own. A child in 3rd grade is still reading at a 1st grade level, but it’s overlooked instead of trying correct it or understand why this is the case. There’s find incontrovertible evidence a spouse is having an affair, but it’s dismissed. You discover financial fraud at work, but say it’s no big deal.

If you want to read a few more examples, there are links at the end. But first, here are a few examples from pop culture.


Pop Culture Examples of Magnification and Minimization

I guess this type of distortion can seem so wildly ridiculous it can seem hilarious to others, and we can find examples in pop culture. It is funny, but it also shows that it’s not uncommon. It happens so often, to so many people, and going back so many centuries…we can all be in on the joke. (So if you find yourself identifying with one of these examples, remember to not identify with your shortcomings: you’re not a magnification-ist!)

A few examples of magnification and minimalization are from Saturday Night Live, Monty Python, and Shakespeare.

Example 1: The Saturday Night Live skit, Van Down By The River, is a funny take on magnification. A motivational speaker is brought in to talk to the teenagers about drugs and their future, but he blows everything out of proportion and says that if they keep making bad choices they’ll live in a van down by the river — just like he does.

Example 2: Monty Python and The Holy Grail has a hilarious take on minimization in the Black Knight scene. Arthur reaches a “bridge”, which is defended by a knight dressed in black. He’s offered a position at court, but the knight doesn’t accept and refuses to let Arthur pass. A battle begins, with Arthur eventually cutting off one of the knight’s arms. Instead of conceding the battle the knight says, “Tis a scratch!” and continues fighting. Despite further devastating injuries, the knight remains obstinately defiant, saying things like, “I’ve had worse.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Knight_(Monty_Python)

Example 3: There is a similar line from Romeo and Juliet, after Mercutio and Tybalt duel. Mercutio says, “Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch. Marry, ’tis enough. Where is my page?—Go, villain, fetch a surgeon.” Ironically, Mercutio is not engaging in minimization, as he promptly asks for a doctor. He has recognized the seriousness of his injury. But, by calling it “a scratch”, he uses irony to convey his message which perhaps causes others to minimize the seriousness of his wound, because they assume that he’s joking.


Self-Talk: Where Cognitive Distortion Begins

Part of the reason we begin engaging in this type of thinking is because we let our self-talk get out of control. Self-talk is that inner voice we all have. But sometimes it can become negative and damage our ability to self-manage. We let our inner voice create our outer reality.


Strategies for Self-Regulation

The course discussed a few strategies for self-regulation.

  1. Take control of your self-talk. Recognize when you’re doing it and when it’s getting out of control.
  2. Focus on your freedoms, not your limitations. Getting stuck on your limitations is demoralizing and can conjure negative feelings. Focus on remaining flexible and open.
  3. Find something to learn from everyone you encounter. This can be hard, but try to do it even after encountering people you find irritating, annoying, or critical of you. Perhaps you will learn patience from those people. Try to find something to gain from every encounter.
  4. Stop and think. Take a moment to stop and think before responding. Hard to do in the moment! Try to think about how you can learn from the situation.
  5. Focus on a purpose. I strongly recommend this Coursera course on learning to live a life of purpose: Finding Purpose and Meaning In Life: Living for What Matters Most. I wrote two posts about my experience with this course. Read Part One and Part Two.
  6. Talk less and listen more. Listening doesn’t mean agreeing, but it does mean making an effort to understand. This effort will demonstrate empathy and make for a better relationship.
Journaling

Another strategy is to try journaling. Journaling can help you become more aware of your thoughts and help you catch destructive or counterproductive self-talk. You can write about concerns, accomplishments, disappointments, interactions with other people, and positive and negative incidents in your life.

Greater Good Magazine has several articles on journaling for gratitude, to avoid rumination, and to help get through hard times. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/search?q=journaling


Summary

  • This post began with a brief introduction to self-regulation as a key component of emotional and social intelligence, or ESI.
  • I introduced cognitive distortion which is a way our mind can convince us of things that aren’t true.
  • A few examples of cognitive distortion include polarized thinking, overgeneralization, labeling, jumping to conclusions, personalization and blame, and magnification and minimization.
  • Pop culture examples of magnification and minimization show that cognitive distortions can be very common and widespread. No one should feel unique if they find that they’ve been thinking this way. (Don’t label, overgeneralize, or personalize!)
  • I explained that cognitive distortion can begin with negative self-talk — that is, we let our inner voice become negative.
  • Finally, I gave a few strategies for self-regulation, to help get back on track.

Self-Reflection: As I mentioned at the top, when I learned about cognitive distortion, I recognized some of this type of thinking in myself. Although it’s better to avoid this type of thinking, it was a comfort to have a name for it. And the pop culture examples helped me see it’s so common we can joke about it. I hope this post is helpful for someone else.

I plan to continue learning more about cognitive distortions. I’ve included a few additional resources below with more information.

Learn More About Cognitive Distortions

Web

There are more cognitive distortions than the ones I included. Find out more about cognitive distortions here: https://www.healthline.com/health/cognitive-distortions

Book

David Burn’s Book “Feeing Good: The New Mood Therapy” (New York: William Morrow & Company, 1980, Signet, 1981), is apparently a seminal book on the topic. More information about this book can be found on the author’s website, feelinggood.com.

Purpose

Web: As I linked to above, Greater Good Magazine has many helpful articles which can help with self-regulation. Find them at greatergood.berkeley.edu.

Course: I took a great course that explained purpose and how to live a life with purpose. It is offered by the University of Michigan on Coursera. Finding Purpose and Meaning In Life: Living for What Matters Most. I highly recommend this course. Greater Good Magazine also has a course on finding happiness in life, though I have yet to sign up.


Cover image: Photo by Elina Krima from Pexels

The #1 Lesson in Constructive Communication

When I signed up for the course, Basic Skills in Constructive Communication, I have to admit that I was initially judgmental about what I thought the quality of the course would be. A few things I noticed about this course made it seem different from the many courses I’ve taken online.

It was from a university I had never heard of and didn’t know the reputation. Also the instructor had a strong accent and sometimes chose strange words to convey his points. I questioned whether this class would provide high-quality information.

Despite my initial impressions, I eventually did come to appreciate the lessons as having high-value when it comes to improving my ability to verbally communicate.


#1 Communication Advice: Ask Clarifying Questions

To distill this course down to a single lesson, it would be this: ask clarifying questions. You will not get better advice when it comes to verbal communication.

The reason why this is such good advice is because we have a tendency to misunderstand and miscommunicate. There can be a substantial gap in understanding between what we think we’ve heard another person say and what they actually meant for us to understand.

Sources of Misunderstanding

Here are four reasons why we might misunderstand:

1. Presumption

Assuming we know what someone else means to say before they’ve finished their message. This may result in interrupting or trying to finish their sentence, because we think we know what they’re going to say. Not only could our assumptions be wrong, but the other person doesn’t get to finish their statement.

2. Move Too Quickly to Judgment

Making a judgement on someone’s statement before we’ve fully understood what they mean. We don’t like what they’re saying and want to argue against it. Instead of listening to the meaning of their message, we start thinking about how we’re going to respond.

3. Rejection Based on Communication Style

We discount a person’s opinion because they’re expressing their opinion in a style that we wouldn’t choose for ourselves. Maybe they have an accent(!?), or they chose words we would not have selected.

4. Ego Stops Us from Listening

We simply believe our opinion is more important than theirs. We don’t listen because we think we don’t need to listen. Our opinion is already right, so what’s the point. A decision will be made, without even letting another person speak.


The Damage of Presumption, Judgment, Style, and Ego

There can be a few problems when we don’t listen or take the time to clear up potential misunderstandings. Imagine how a decision maker could miss out on potential opportunities or make poor decisions in the following scenarios:

  • Cutting someone off before they’re done speaking, because we assume we know what another person means.
  • Discounting a good idea because didn’t like how someone said it.
  • Making decisions without gathering enough information, because we haven’t given others an opportunity to speak.

For example, I initially judged the course based on style. If I had let my judgement prevail, I would’ve missed out on very good information.

In addition, miscommunication can be seen as rude and lead to interpersonal conflict. A conversation can easily become derailed, as the communicator responds to the response, rather than the substance of the conversation.


Asking Clarifying Questions is a Sign of Emotional and Social Intelligence

When we ask clarifying questions, we get away from our assumptions and our ego. We listen to what another person has to say. We take their message for what it is and we try to understand. Only after we’ve fully understood, do we decide how we want to respond based on our own values and judgements.

You may think that asking someone to explain themselves could be seen as annoying. However, making an effort to show that you’re interested in understanding another person’s point of view, whether you agree with it or not, can deepen relationships and is a sign of emotional and social intelligence.


Types of Clarifying Questions

It just requires a little imagination to come up with clarifying questions. These are a few questions I’ve found useful:

  • I’m not sure I fully understand what you mean by ____. Can you explain a little more?
  • I’m not sure I fully understand what you mean by ____. Could you describe an example of what you mean?
  • Thank you for sharing that feedback. I want to fully understand you, but I’m not exactly sure I do. Can you elaborate a little bit?
  • Thanks for that question. Just so I’m clear, when you said ____, did you mean ABC or XYZ?

This is not a comprehensive list, just some examples. As you can see, I try to emphasize that my intention in asking the question is to understand their meaning further. This generally leads to a very positive response.


Summary

In a conversation, it’s easy to misunderstand another person’s message.

If there’s any doubt in the meaning of another person’s message, ask a clarifying question.

Presumption, premature judgement, style, and ego are four reasons why we might miscommunicate, intentionally or not.

Clarifying questions will not only help to clear up any misunderstandings, but the effort alone can help deepen relationship. It is also a sign of emotional and social intelligence.

In my experience, asking questions that emphasize your intent to understand are the best framework to use.

Tips for Improved Time Management & Productivity

Three time management and productivity tips anyone can use to account for time, plan ahead, and prioritize tasks.

Overview

I recently learned some productivity and time management tips and tricks, after attending an online seminar from the New York Public Library and a course on Coursera. I decided to make a blog post after several weeks of using some of the concepts and tools.

In this post, I will share 3 tips I learned on how to:

  • Better account for time on task
  • Schedule long-term and complex tasks
  • Prioritize difficult tasks with a change in mindset

I also have some research on the importance of timing.


Time Tracking: Accounting for Time

One of the tips I learned on time management was on the importance of getting an accurate recording of how you spend your time. There were a few suggestions around this:

  • Create a calendar with 30 min slots of time and then write down what you did
  • Create a task list for the day, and prioritize what needs to get done vs what can be postponed
  • Generally schedule time for the inevitable distraction

I haven’t yet tried the 30 min calendar, but I have been planning for being distracted. Or to put it a better way, I’ve been using a digital countdown timer to account for how much time I spend on tasks.

Smart Countdown Time for PC and Mac helps me account for how much time I spend on a task.

The product I’m using is Smart Countdown Timer, which is available for Mac and PC. It has two benefits so far:

  • Stay focused on a task
  • Time-block different activities, both scheduled and unscheduled

For scheduled tasks, if I have my list of tasks to complete, I can set the time for how long I want to work; (ex: 30 min, 20 min, etc). I know that I will have worked for at least that period of time. And when that time is over, I can reset the clock again, or move on to another task. It’s also great to keep track of how much time I’ve been sitting in one place!

For unscheduled tasks, like if I get a text, or I just have that feeling to check social media or email, it helps me in 2 ways:

  • First, I can look at how much time is left to finish my scheduled work. Then I can decide whether it makes sense to put off my distraction or just go do it. For instance, if I see there’s only 5 minutes left for my task, I’ll just finish my work and then go check my email. If it’s longer, that’s a different decision but you get the idea.
  • The other thing it helps me do is put a time limit on how much time to allow myself for a distraction. For instance, after I finish my work and want to reward myself with a little distraction, I can give myself 12 min, or whatever, to make tea, check email, etc. This way, I still get my distractions, but I don’t get carried away with the time.

For both of these scenarios, when I need more time, I can just add it. But the main point is to stay on task and hold my time to account.


Task Management: Keeping a 30-60-90 Calendar

Another tip I learned was to create a special type of calendar to keep track of longer term goals and tasks. It’s called a 30-60-90 calendar, which stands for 30 days, 60 days, and 90 days. The idea is that it can be hard to take action on 1-year plans or 5-year plans…if you can even plan that far ahead! But 30 days out is a little bit more manageable, as well as 60 days or 90 days. So this calendar is a method to help get some of those longer term goals started and accomplished.

Example of 30-60-90 calendar for tasks scheduled 30 days from the current date.
Using Google Sheets

For my calendar, I use Google Sheets, with different sections for the chunks of time. I use formulas for the dates, so they’re always accurate relative to the current date. My columns are:

  • Activity – The task to be accomplished
  • Date Assigned – The date I added the task to the calendar
  • Deadline – Either a hard deadline, like taxes, or n+30, n+60, etc.
  • Est Time – How much time I think it will take, though I don’t always enter this information
  • Priority – I don’t always include this and instead rely on order
  • Progress – See below.

In the progress column, I write down activities on what I’ve done to complete a task or notes related to that task. Related notes might be phone numbers, addresses, etc. For instance, I had a task to ‘Get dental X-rays’. The progress column kept track of my activity in locating a dentist, getting a quote, and finally putting in an address, phone number, and date after making an appointment.

Bonus Tip: Break apart big tasks into smaller pieces

And just to make another point on tracking progress, which maybe goes without saying: it can be helpful to break apart big tasks into smaller pieces and tackle each one at a time. For instance, getting dental X-rays could involve getting a quote. Getting a quote could involve calling multiple offices, and so on. So this task could be broken up in a few different ways.

In my experience, it feels nice to accomplish tasks and make progress, even if those tasks are small.

Creating Artificial Deadlines

This type of calendar can be used to create an artificial deadline on long-term tasks that don’t have one already. For my X-ray example, for instance, there was no real deadline for that. But I created one with this calendar by giving it a date 30 or 60 days in the future.

I’ve also found that this calendar is also helpful for scheduling calls with friends and keeping up with people, generally speaking. Rather than say, Hey, let’s talk later and then kind of forgetting about it, now I can actually put down that phone call for 60 days out. It’s like a CRM for friends!

Working Through Tasks

As I work through the list, I move tasks from bottom to top. When they’re completed, I cross them off and move them to another tab. I had a task, Publish a blog post on productivity resources, which I put on the list 60 days ago. Little by little, I added more and more detail, moving it through the lists. Here I am now, accomplishing that goal.

Calendar Modifications: 10 days, 20 days

One way I’ve augmented this calendar is to add more sections for immediate tasks. I found that the 30-day slot was too broad to help me prioritize things that need to get done in the next 1-2 weeks. So I created new sections for 10 days and 20 days, respectively. As I move tasks up the list, the new sections help me keep track of things that need to get done right away.

Downsides

While this calendar is helpful for future and complex tasks, I find that this list is not great for daily or routine events. Something like going for a daily 30-minute walk will never leave the list, because it occurs every day. If a task never gets finished, it can feel discouraging because it seems like there’s never any progress being made. So I recommend not using it for that.


Prioritizing Tasks: Eating Your Daily Frog

The final concept came from the productivity seminar. It’s focused on ranking your daily task list, from most dreaded to most favored, and tackling the worst of the worst first. It requires changing your mindset towards how you look at your tasks.

“Eat your frog” by prioritizing tasks.
Putting It Off

In the past, when I had a list of activities to get through, there would often be one that I really did not want to do. I would put it off! My mindset was something like this: “I’ll postpone it until I’m able to work myself into finally getting it done”. Whether it was a difficult phone call, or just a tedious task, I would put it off by doing all the fun stuff first.

Challenging That Mindset

The concept here challenges that mindset by reversing that order. It says: Take that worst thing and get it done first. The concept supposedly comes from a Mark Twain quote about “eating your daily frog”. It goes something like this:

“If you eat a frog first thing in the morning, this will probably be the worse thing you do all day.”

Mark Twain (maybe)

Eating your frogs means that by prioritizing your worst tasks first, you’ll be able to get them out of the way and work on tasks you enjoy more and more. It will be a relief that the most difficult task you needed to do is already done.

Putting It Into Practice

I’ve been putting this into practice and it has been pretty helpful. But some days I think, “Wow, I really have a lot of frogs today!” But actually, there’s another Mark Twain quote that goes something like this: If you have two frogs, start with the biggest one. 🐸

It can be a little difficult when unscheduled “frogs” show up. I don’t really have a solution for that, other than using the timer to account for my time. But for those that are on the list, it’s a helpful motivator.


The importance of timing

Unrelated to my course or the productivity seminar, I watched a talk from the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) YouTube channel. The talk, The Secret of Perfect Timing, was given by Dan H. Pink, who is the author of When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing.

The talk is about his research on the importance of time or timing. He argues that being mindful of when tasks take place can make a difference in their outcome. For some people, it can also be useful to help prioritize when tasks take place based on when their mind is most efficient.

I also like that this research supports the idea of taking care of your most challenging or difficult tasks early, though even Dan Pink says that’s not universally the case.

The Secret of Perfect Timing | Dan Pink – 58:23

Summary

In this post, I reviewed three tips on time management and productivity:

Time Tracking: Accounting for Time

Tip: Use a digital timer to account for elapsed time.

  • A timer can help keep track of how long you’ve been working on a task, or even how long you’ve been sitting.
  • It can also help structure time, by tracking how much time is being allotted to scheduled and unscheduled tasks.
Task Management: Keeping a 30-60-90 Calendar

Tip: Plan ahead by managing tasks with a calendar focused 30, 60, and 90 day intervals.

  • This works best for long-term and complex tasks with clear ends, such as filing taxes.
  • It’s not great for recurring tasks, like taking a daily walk.
Prioritizing Tasks: Eating Your Daily Frog

Tip: Take care of your most difficult task first, rather than putting it off.

  • Change your mindset: Once your most difficult task is accomplished, everything else that day will be easier in comparison.
Video: Dan Pink, When

Overview: When a task is accomplished can make a difference, sometimes a big difference, in the outcome.

  • The video from Dan Pink’s talk, The Secret of Perfect Timing, goes into detail on how the timing of certain tasks can affect the outcome — e.g, when a decision is made, when a procedure is scheduled, etc.
  • Some people are more efficient at different times of the day, due to how their brain works.

That’s it! I hope these tips are as useful for you as they have been for me!

Psychology, Education, Women’s History, Medieval Literature, and Wine & Beer: A Shortlist of Future EdX Courses

This year I’ve taken some fantastic courses and I’m really excited to take something else. I’m not exactly sure I know what to sign up for — but I do want to be as excited for the new course as I have been for my previous courses.

I scribbled down this little short list of courses and it’s been sitting on my desk for weeks. I’m going to share them here so I can throw away this paper.

Even though I make these lists, I still end up taking courses that aren’t listed. I see something interesting and watch one video, and then end up in the whole course! For instance, I came across multiple courses on Islam, a business “MicroMasters” series from Bangalore, India, and two courses from Harvard. One on rhetoric and another on money and ethics. So, who know what I’ll get into. Actually, I’m already taking 2 other courses right now.

Most of the courses below have a preview video, so I’m including it.


Psychology of Activism: Women Changing the World

Smith College – SmithX

Learn what motivates prominent women such as Gloria Steinem, Loretta Ross, and others to become involved in activism in this political psychology course.

https://www.edx.org/course/psychology-of-political-activism-women-changing-th

For obvious reasons this year, I thought this might be a good course to consider.


Intercultural Competency in Education

University of Iceland – UIcelandX

Do you want to learn practical skills to become interculturally competent and aware as an educator? Take this course and learn to develop strategies to deal with identities in a fairer and more coherent way.

https://www.edx.org/course/intercultural-competency-in-education

After I took that Gender and Intersectionality course, I thought this might be another course to become more informed about intercultural issues. It’s actually more of a course for educators, but you never know when you’ll have the opportunity to teach something new.

I’m not surprised the University of Iceland has a course like this. The more I learn about Iceland, the more impressed I become!


Women Have Always Worked, XSeries Program

Columbia University – COLUMBIAX

Explore the history of women in America.

https://www.edx.org/xseries/columbiax-women-have-always-worked

This is a 4-course series. These XSeries of courses are meant to provide a deep exploration of a topic. They’re really a semester or a full year’s worth of education. Each individual course is broken up into like 8-10 weeks sections, so it’s pretty substantial. EdX estimated 10 months to complete all four courses, but if it’s your only course and you’re not doing anything else, you could get through it much faster.


The Medieval Iceland Sagas

University of Iceland – UIcelandX

Learn about the Icelandic Sagas, the characteristic literary genre of Medieval Iceland comprising roughly 40 texts.

The Medieval Icelandic Sagas

https://www.edx.org/course/the-medieval-icelandic-sagas-2

I’ve put this one on a short list because Icelandic sagas came up during the Gender and Intersectionality course I took. And, I’ve decided to take as many courses from the University of Iceland as possible. (There are only 6.)


World History of Wine

Trinity College – TrinityX

Explore wine through the eyes of a historian, as you learn about the “old” and “new” worlds of wine, including how its taste and quality has changed over time.

https://www.edx.org/course/the-world-history-of-modern-wine

I read a book earlier this year about world history through 6 drinks: wine, coffee, tea, spirits, beer, and cola. This seems like kind of the same thing, but specifically using wine.


World of Wine: From Grape to Glass

University of adelaide – adelaidex

Learn about the principles and practices of how grapes are grown and wine is made. Whether you’re a wine novice or a seasoned oenophile, you’ll learn to confidently describe wine appearance, aroma, flavour and taste.

https://www.edx.org/course/world-of-wine-from-grape-to-glass

A few years ago, I started learning more about wine. I thought this might be a great course to learn more.


Science of Beer

Wageningen University and Research – WageningenX

Are you interested in more than just the taste of beer? Discover what’s in your beer, how it’s made and marketed and the effect it has on your body and health.

https://www.edx.org/course/the-science-of-beer

Beer is so common, yet hardly discussed seriously. This course seemed like a good opportunity for that.

Unlocking Your Employability: An Edx Course from the University of Queensland

I was having a conversation the other day about job hunting strategies. I mentioned how I’d recently taken a new online course and had learned some new and unique approaches to share my past experiences with employers. I’d also learned that there are certain qualities all employers look for, though not every employer priorities these qualities equally.

The course, Unlocking Your Employability, is available from EdX and taught by two career coaches from the University of Queensland in Australia. The course frequently uses interviews from students, graduates, and employers to help explain many of the concepts. There’s also a mock interview.

In all honesty, the course is geared towards college students and recent graduates but I think the lessons could be helpful for experienced people as well. I’ve been working for more years than the intended audience, but I still learned quite a bit.

Overwhelmingly, the course focuses on teaching students how to reflect on past experiences, and to use that reflection during job hunting to demonstrate how the individuality of each job seeker is valuable to employers.

So here are some concepts I learned. This is will be a reference for me, too.


What is Employability

The first part of the course is focused on introducing and defining the term “employability”. I have to admit that I had not heard this word before and it took me a while before I really understood the concept.

Sharing Skills vs Employability

In my experience, when it comes to job hunting, much of what I’ve come across on job hunting strategies focuses on sharing skills and describing “what you did” on a project. One of the employers in the course distinguishes between employability vs employment outcomes, which is a closer concept to what I’ve come across. Employment outcomes is focused on just getting hired, not maintaining a job or emphasizing employee effectiveness.

Employability is about: finding a job, maintaining work, and being effective in the workplace. The course follows the path of reflecting on experiences to convey employability, and using those experiences to be an effective employee.

As the course is focused on employability, there’s more emphasis on the longer term goal of maintaining employment. The course does not emphasize skills growth. The course assumes the student, or job seeker, already has the skills. Instead the focus is on reflecting on your own individual responses in relation to your work and life experiences, and connecting them back to work.

The course focuses on identifying defining moments which can be used to build an employability narrative, which is conveyed to employers using the SEAL method, as discussed next.


STAR vs SEAL, and Behavioral Interviews

One strategy I’ve come across numerous times focuses on use of the STAR method when it comes to sharing your employment experiences. I typically see this advice given to help job seekers prepare to answer behavioral interview questions or even how to describe a project in their portfolio. If you haven’t come across this before, STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action, Result. The idea is that when an interviewer asks a behavioral question, the interviewee gives an answer in the STAR format.

The trouble I’ve had with this advice is that there’s never any instruction provided on how to translate a past experiences into the STAR format, in a way that’s actually meaningful to me. Or an employer. It’s always seemed that it’s just focused on telling the story of what happened, not providing an answer that’s meaningful to employers.

SEAL is the reflective method taught in the course. SEAL stands for Situation, Effect, Action, Learning. SEAL focuses on helping job seekers take a past experience, from work or life, and reflect on it in a way that can be used to convey employability to employers.


Prep for STAR-based behavioral interviews using the SEAL method

The best way to prepare for behavioral interviews is to prep ahead of time using SEAL. The course identified four questions employers are likely to ask in behavioral interviews:

  • Tell about overcoming a challenge
  • Dealing with conflict in a team
  • Managing competing priorities
  • Showing initiative

The idea is to think of specific situations that can be used to provide SEAL-based responses to the above questions. Once you’ve got those responses, it’s much less of a challenge to convert those responses into a STAR format. I’ve already started to use the SEAL method to shift my explanations of past projects towards a more reflective approach.

The key to choosing a situation to use in SEAL is to focus on an experience where you learned something. I really liked this approach because it means I’m able to take a situation and turn it into a learning experience that shows off some of my personal capabilities. The SEAL method can transform even a negative experience into something positive.


Identifying Defining Moments to Build an Employability Narrative

An employability narrative is the sum of each person’s individual experiences. It’s not just recapping a story of a series of experiences. When you’re hired by an employer, they’re getting the sum of your experiences not just your skills.

The experiences can come from anywhere, not just jobs. These can include:

  • Defining moments (that maybe had a big impact on your job outlook)
  • Key development opportunities (such as a volunteer or teaching experience)
  • Capabilities and strengths
  • Passions, values, beliefs

I think it really helps to spend time reflecting on this in order to build the narrative ahead of time. This part has been harder than I expected; it can be difficult to view yourself objectively.


Employer Expectations and Professionalism

Employer Expectations (aka Core Competencies)

Early in the course, the instructors provide a list of 10 expectations employers have for graduates (or employees). As they described, the list doesn’t change much.

This list probably looks pretty familiar. It’s in nearly every job ad, in one form or another. NACE calls these career competencies, if that helps to clarify. The list of employer expectations can be used by job seekers, using the SEAL method to share examples, and to convey capabilities and strengths.

Professionalism

These core competencies are not the same as professionalism, which focuses on workplace behaviors. The 4 aspects of professionalism identified by the course include:

  • Punctuality; Arrive on time
  • Dress appropriately
  • Work well with others; Team work
  • Communication; speaking appropriately

In addition, one of the employers (a nurse) interviewed in this section identified or explained a few other traits, which still fall under the above categories: positive attitude, introducing yourself, not arguing; think of how you address people. These fit under communication and team work. Obviously, some of these will be more important for some jobs vs others.

When I thought about this list, I have to admit that these are not what I would have identified as professionalism. Probably because I assumed professionalism was mostly focused on technical skills. And the course asked students to reflect on unprofessional behaviors we’ve witnessed as well as our own behaviors that we’d now classify as unprofessional.


Career Transitions and Wrap-Up

The last sections of the course focused on putting it all together, even including a mock interview. That was interesting because we were asked if we’d hire the interviewee and then discuss why or why not on the course forum.

There was also a section on discussing opportunities for continuing education. I guess this post is pretty biased towards the sections I found most interesting. Clearly I don’t have a problem with continuing education.


Reflections

The end of the course includes a course evaluation. Some of my thoughts about the course:

I learned more about the qualities that make someone employable, not just professionally but also personally. I also learned about qualities that define professionalism, which no one has ever explained to me before.

I’ve always considered myself to be professional, but I’ve developed a bad habit of being late to many different types of appointments. Most articles about lateness talk about the idea that being late as a sign of disrespect. But if you’re late to everything, including events that have no one there but yourself, that doesn’t make sense.

However, putting it into context that being late is an unprofessional behavior, well that’s not something I’d heard before. I’m sure that this habit has hurt me educationally as well as professionally. Now that I know, I will work harder at not being late because I don’t want people to think of me as unprofessional.


Initially, I did not appreciate the course that much, probably due to not understanding employability. But by the end, I enjoyed it so much that I decided to purchase a verified certificate of completions. It wasn’t too expensive ($59) and I don’t want to lose access to the course materials.


Bonus!

The section on professionalism reminds me of this 1950s video I saw on YouTube called ‘Office Etiquette’. The video is about a young woman who starts a new job after taking some type of typing training course. She spends the rest of the video reflecting on the lessons the typing instructor shared. Many of the lessons focused on employability, competency, and professionalism, though that’s not what they were called.

The instructor gives a little speech that her students seem to remember by heart: First of all know your work. Enjoy it, but also the people you’re working with. Be considerate of them and be considerate of your employer.

I guess this kind of speech meant a lot in the 1950s. To me it sounds a bit vague and kind of corny. I prefer the much longer and clearer lessons of the Edx course. But the overall points about professionalism and core competencies are still the same, even if the communication isn’t so clear.

The video is 13:15.

Old Time TV: Do’s and don’ts film portraying ways in which office etiquette contributes to success in office relationships. Follows a young woman who is seeking her first secretarial job and shows examples of good (and hilariously bad) on-the-job behavior. (13:15)

Resources:

Unlocking Your Employability: https://www.edx.org/course/unlocking-your-employability

The Wikipedia definition of employability is available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Employability

Career Competencies on NACE (National Association for Colleges and Employers): https://www.naceweb.org/career-readiness/competencies/career-readiness-defined/

The University of Queensland, Australia: https://www.uq.edu.au/

Month Notes, May-July 2020

Just a mini list of all the stuff I’ve been consuming/doing. Portfolio updates, books, and courses.

Portfolio Updates

I’ve made several adjustments to my portfolio. I’ve already started another post detailing the changes, so I won’t go into much detail now. But one change was to update the website index page. Instead of the yellow and dark gray, with Courier font, I updated the page to stick with all Inter font and emphasized the portfolio link. I may change it again, but I prefer the gradient gray over the yellow.


Courses and Educational Film

The Dynamics of Desegregation

Over the past few months, I’ve been watching The Dynamics of Desegregation which is available via my local PBS station. This series originally aired in 1962 and 1963 as a 15-part “intensive study of race relations in the United States.” It is hosted by Thomas F. Pettigrew, PhD, who was then Harvard psychology professor. He is now at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

3 MOOCS

In the past few years, most of the online courses I’ve completed have been about tech, business, or design. While I find these courses valuable for work, I do sometimes wonder what I’m not learning. Serendipitously, due to the lockdowns, ClassCentral sent an email about courses and I decided to try some new topics. Here are three courses I’ve completed, or almost finished:

1. ChinaX: Creating Modern China on EdX

I’ve always been interested in Chinese history, but this is truly one of the most interesting courses I’ve even taken, anywhere. The 5-parts are:

I suppose I selected this course on modern China because I have been hearing about the country so much in the news media and from government officials, who I assume are biased. I wanted to form my own opinions about the country. I also took it because I know the history of modern China had a communist period. Supposedly the country is still communist, but given the people I’ve met, the stories I’ve heard about the growing wealth in China, and how aggressive China is towards developing technology, I wasn’t so sure.

Anyway, it’s a fascinating course. I highly recommend it. This series is Part 2. Part 1 is about pre-history of China and the earlier dynasties.

2. Design: Creation of Artifacts in Society on Coursera

This course is from the University of Pennsylvania. It’s focused on the design of physical artifacts. I really enjoyed the breakdown of solving design problems by breaking them down into separate issues and using charts to deciding which prototype to progress into the next stage. It’s much more professionally focused than the others.

Given the circumstances, where I’m not really going out and not able to talk with friends, I did not attempt to create an artifact. But I did appreciate the lectures and hopefully I can come back to this in the future.

3. Sheep in the Land of Fire and Ice on EdX

“This short course discusses the sustainability of sheep grazing in Iceland and explores how history, socioeconomic factors and environmental conditions have shaped the management of grazing resources.”

I tell anyone who will listen about my dreams of farming sheep and/or goats. When I saw this short course from the University of Iceland, on a topic related to sheep, I figured I  should try it.

What I learned is that because Iceland’s soil is volcanic, it is prone to erosion when the native plants that keep the soil together are destroyed by overgrazing or by too many sheep that simply crush the plants. There was more information about the history of Iceland, sheep farming, and geography. Needless to say, I will never be a sheep farmer on Iceland.

You can also learn more at sheepfireice.org.


Personal

Last time I did a post like this, I mentioned finishing “Flights”, by Olga Tokarczuk. Since then, I’ve finished:

Food-wise, it’s now summer which means I don’t use the oven much. Due to the lockdowns, I also haven’t been buying fresh milk too much. I’ve switched to non-fat dry milk and almond milk because they are more shelf stable, reducing my trips to the grocery. It turns out I really enjoy almond milk in my iced coffee.


Image credit: Hand schrijvend met een kroontjespen, by Isaac Weissenbruch, 1836 – 1912, paper, h 72mm × w 113mm — View original at Rijksmuseum.nl 

(I believe the title is translated as ‘Hand writing with a dip pen’.)