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Teaching My Daughter About YouTube

In today’s hectic world, it is important to distinguish between distractions that are incidental and unintended and those which are designed to be distractions and are intentional.

Execupundit.com: Distractions

Our daughter’s elementary school assigned Chromebooks to all their students for use while classes are virtual. Because the school acts as the laptop’s administrator, and because YouTube clips are often part of her assignments, we’re not able to add on as many filters or blockers as my wife and I would like.

YouTube is designed to be an infinite rabbit hole that keeps you watching the next videos it serves you. For a six-year-old with developing impulse control, giving her access to that site is like setting her in a room full of cookie jars.

And anyone whose response is, “Make sure to be with her and monitor what she does every time she needs to use the computer,” needs to remember that:

  • We’re in a global pandemic where parents are also working from home.
  • If you have more than one child, you’re already in a daily whack-a-mole style freefall.
  • It’s neither possible nor helpful to their developing independence to always be hovering over your child’s shoulder.

So I’ve started doing what I do: Trying to teach her about how sites like YouTube work.

I explain to her that while her teachers and her parents want to make sure that she can see things that are helpful to her, the people who built YouTube aren’t thinking about her as the person they want to help.

They want her to watch as many videos as they can. They want her to spend as much time on YouTube as they can. Because that’s how they can show her ads, and showing her ads is how they make money.

It can get a little abstract at that point for a six-year-old, but that’s why I try to stress the difference between her teachers and the site itself. Her teachers want to help her be able to do other things. YouTube wants her to sit and watch more YouTube.

It’s not the kind of message that clicks the first time, or the third time, but we’re consistent. We remind her. And little by little, she’s paying attention to the idea. She’s asking if she can watch YouTube less. While she’s on break, she’s finding other ways to occupy her time.

Maybe it connected with her sense of how to be kind. Her teachers and parents want to help her through the resources and content we share with her, but YouTube isn’t doing what they do out of kindness.

Or maybe our cord-cutting has helped her develop a distaste for ads. When we were stuck watching the ad-supported Disney Now app to keep up with new episodes of The Owl House, we saw the same ads over and over (and over and over and over). It irritated her more than it did the adults in the room.

Whatever the thing is that’s clicking with her, it’s a good time for the adults in her life to take stock of the same things.

Apps and websites are tools designed for a purpose.

Some of these tools are designed to help the end user solve a problem or perform a task that’s important to them. And some tools are designed as a snare for attention; providing a solution to a problem that didn’t exist, or they address a problem in a way that only feels like a solution.

An illusion of a solution only perpetuates the problem, like a person stranded on the ocean desperately gulping down salt water.

We need to regularly ask ourselves the question: Is this designed to help me, or to feel like it’s helping me?

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Even the best batting averages are pretty low

In the 2019 Major League season, the best batting average belonged to Tim Anderson, who had a .335 average. This means that he would get a hit roughly one out of every three times he would come up to the plate.

Hugh Duffy, the diminutive Hall of Fame player, holds the record for the best single season batting average of all time. In 1894, he had a .4397 average, which means he got a hit from less than half of his at bats.

#BostonStrong

These aren’t just people doing the job professionally. These are players who are the elite of the elite. And they still struck out more than they got on base.

Because even when you’re among the best at something, you’re not infallible.

So if you hold yourself to impossible standards, or feel a deep frustration with how many times your best efforts wind up with little to show for them, there’s no time like now to stop.

I’ve had students telling me that they don’t understand why they can’t push themselves to do work up to the quality they held themselves to back in February.

I’ve seen it in myself, wondering why it is that even when I can clear some time off, my focus isn’t as strong as it could have been a few weeks ago.

Any number of people I’ve spoken with have talked about the sense that there may be something wrong with them since they’re not one of the people who have taken to this quarantime with aplomb.

Those people showcasing their bread, crafts, writing, music, community organizing, or hilarious videos? That’s not everyone. Not by a long shot.

There’s the line of thought that we should just snap back to normal after adjusting our lives to staying at home, staying safe, and confronting the realities of a pandemic. But we can also see this as an opportunity to reflect, and re-evaluate the things we’ve taken for granted before we were forced to choose what’s essential and what commands our attention.

And one of those things I’ve been revisiting is the idea that one bad day doesn’t need to mean all that much in the grand scheme of things.

Which is what brings me back to batting averages.

Under the best of conditions, with a singular goal and a life built around pursuing it, professional baseball players still regularly strike out more than they get on base.

So no matter what goal you’re pursuing, one bad day doesn’t hurt your average all that much. It doesn’t deserve your anger. It doesn’t deserve all that much of your focus.

You need to work for the average. Play the full season.

From that view, even a string of bad days isn’t that disruptive.

So if you feel like you’re in a slump, or that things aren’t moving as quickly as you’d like, or that today is just another example of why “I cannot do The Thing That Matters To Me,” stop.

Breathe.

Remember what game you’re playing.

And remember that even Hugh “Nobody Has Had A Better Single Season Batting Average Than Me In Over 100 Years” Duffy wound up back on the bench more times than he got on base.

Get back up. Tap the dirt from your cleats. Keep swinging.

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It’s not my favorite

My students ask for my opinion on things, especially when I’m covering film and television in class.

Sometimes it’s a litmus test to get to know me. Sometimes they want to hear if I’ve got an opinion so they feel free to share theirs. And sometimes it’s just pre-class chatting about whatever’s trending.

There was a time when I was in their shoes, where I would have lots of insufferably demanding opinions about the things I watched. Since then, I’ve become a little more generous.

Mostly because I just don’t feel like spending energy on being negative.

It’s easier to point to reasons why something works well than to explain exactly what’s wrong with it

You can feel fairly confident in pointing out something that’s working in a narrative and why it works. But if there’s something in a film or show that you bump on; that doesn’t work for you, it’s not always easy to tell what caused that disconnect.

For one thing, pointing out what doesn’t work involves making suggestions for what could have worked better. You can offer opinions, but that’s a conversation about some imagined version that isn’t constrained by whatever realities of production shaped the actual finished product.

Without being there in the midst of the process of making a thing, it’s easy to cast blame, but hard to be correct in your accusations.

It doesn’t do my students, or me, any favors to offer half-assed opinions on what went wrong with something.

One thing I’ve gotten more confident with as I’ve gotten older (and as I’ve gotten more experience with teaching) is not having an opinion on everything.

My daughter has the right idea

It was a vocal quirk that she developed early on, but she’s stuck with it as she’s gotten older. When Sprout didn’t like something, she was likely to say:

“It’s not my favorite.”

What better way to put it when something doesn’t bowl you over? When you can see the flaws, but don’t feel a need to engage in a lengthy post-mortem examination. You can just move on.

Because I’d rather talk about exciting things I think we should aspire to instead of wasting time in discussions that say more about the people in the conversation than the thing they’re supposedly talking about.

What good does it do for me to add my voice to a chorus excoriating something for failing to satisfy its audience?

If I’m going to ask students to write with respect and empathy, then I should extend that same kindness to people who made a good faith effort to make something.

There’s no required response to artistic entertainment.

I’m not required to like it. I can’t be forced to list my disagreements with it. And I shouldn’t point fingers without accurate knowledge of the inner workings of the project.

If given the choice between trying to feel smugly superior to others who have taken on a difficult task, or to admire the work of giants, I know where I stand. I’d rather live in the shadow of the greats, aspiring toward something higher, than spending my time pretending I can trample others under my own feet.

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You’d listen to yourself if you were somebody else

Early on in the semester for my Introductory writing class, I like to bring in motivational and inspirational quotes from other disciplines. I’m looking for examples of strong writing that also offer an opportunity to segue into discussing the work of writing.

For example, when I talk about the process of revision with students, I bring in Max Weber:

“Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective. Certainly all historical experience confirms the truth—that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible.”

Writing can feel that slow. It’s hard, focused work, and I tell my students that they need to respect the process and prepare themselves for the slowness of it.

But it’s not always easy to take your own advice

I recently chucked out about 40 pages of a script draft. I was treating a character as a throwaway gag, but I realized there was more dramatic and comedic value in bringing them into the story properly.

Normally it feels a little easier to toss pages aside after an exciting discovery like that. If I kept going without making the changes, I’d only wind up doubling back and starting over again as soon as I typed FADE OUT.

So why not save myself some effort and get going with that new version now?

But I’ve recently started a new semester of teaching. I have a new baby in the house. I have a child starting kindergarten. I’m starting to give some of my bandwidth to the promotional side of the writing project I worked on for the past year. I’m learning to re-wire my brain so I spend less time fighting against it. And so on.

There’s momentum for my writing, but less of it. I have less energy, and I need to spend time learning new ways to adapt.

Take the new baby (Button). Before, I started pushing myself to get up earlier to try and carve out an hour to an hour and a half of solitude for coffee and work before the rest of the house would wake up. Now, Button usually starts stirring mid-way through that time.

At that point, I bring him downstairs so Dena can get some more sleep. Sometimes Button will fall back asleep quickly, but sometimes he just wants to wiggle. Other times he demands to be held.

Austin Kleon offers artists with newborns the advice to “find a one-armed miniature version of what you do.” Not everything I have to do is easily accomplished (or workable) while holding a baby, but most of the time I can shift gears. Re-prioritize, or break something into smaller tasks.

Totally sensible, but my brain says “Nope.”

I fight, resisting the need to change. I deny that I should lower my expectations for myself. I tell myself I need to hustle harder, sleep less, and juggle faster.

In an episode of Jocelyn K. Glei’s Hurry Slowly podcast, she talks about the very kind of impulse I’m fighting against and gives it a name:

When you commit to a schedule or a workload that you intuitively know at the outset is unrealistic and is destined to result in overwhelm. And then later on, you beat yourself up when you are unable to meet that schedule. That’s productivity shame.

When you set an incredibly challenging goal for yourself without creating any structure for emotional support or accountability, and then you blame your failure to meet those goals on a lack of personal willpower. That’s productivity shame.

I’ve been trying to introduce some other ideas into my head to populate my brain with counter-arguments against that inner Productivity Monster.

Image of Sam the Eagle with the caption 'The Productivity Monster is a lot less intimidating if you imagine them as a Muppet.'

For example, I read Atomic Habits by James Clear, where he uses a great example to demonstrate the idea that small changes and tiny, consistent actions can still lead to big results:

The impact created by a change in your habits is similar to the effect of shifting the route of an airplane by just a few degrees. Imagine you are flying from Los Angeles to New York City. If a pilot leaving from LAX adjusts the heading just 3.5 degrees south, you will land in Washington, D.C., instead of New York. Such a small change is barely noticeable at takeoff—the nose of the airplane moves just a few feet—but when magnified across the entire United States, you end up hundreds of miles apart.

Small actions can lead to big results if you add enough of them up. It sounds logical enough. So lately, my Write Sprints have gotten shorter, but they’re more consistent than they have been in a while. I’m not having any days where I can knock out 5+ pages, but I’m having more days where I wind up with 1 or 2 new pages of material.

Close up, that effort doesn’t feel like much motion at all. And it can be frustrating to feel like those little drips of writing aren’t connecting into a larger, coherent whole.

But there’s no point in measuring just one day

You can’t write a screenplay or a book in a single day. Anything you can completely finish in a single hour (or less) probably won’t be the thing you hold up as an example of what you’re capable of.

Reading and listening to the work of others reminds me of the idea that you need to take the long view with finishing a larger project or building up a habit.

There’s one quote about writing (and geology) gets used in the second day of the semester. It’s one I like to refer back to throughout the semester as a thematic pedal point for the class:

“When the climbers in 1953 planted their flags on the highest mountain, they set them in snow over the skeletons of creatures that had lived in the warm clear ocean that India, moving north, blanked out. Possibly as much as twenty thousand feet below the seafloor, the skeletal remains had turned into rock. This one fact is a treatise in itself on the movements of the surface of the earth. If by some fiat I had to restrict all this writing to one sentence, this is the one I would choose: The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone.”

-John McPhee (from Annals of the Former World)

It’s a reminder to students that great things can come from humble beginnings: That which was once deep in the lowest part of the surface world, through time, pressure, and imperceptible movement, rose high above all else.

That the only constant on this planet is the act of change, and that how any situation looks at the moment is only temporary.

It’s something I use to remind them that no matter where they come from, or how they feel about their ability as a writer, given time and effort, they too can rise up.

Right now, it feels like it would benefit me to look at my work and my efforts as if I were one of my own students.

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When the best words aren’t the right words

Dena and I have been having a lot of conversations with our daughter about Thankfulness because of the napkins on our kitchen table.

Every napkin has a discussion prompt for people at the table, and this one is Sprout’s favorite:

IMG_0268
It’s her favorite because of the cat, not because of the question.

The other night, we wanted to know what she would say, but she stonewalled us when asked to answer the question about what she was thankful for that day.

Part of it was just being an overtired kiddo having a late dinner. Part of it was probably the fact that she’s facing all the sea changes that come with a new baby brother, starting kindergarten, and missing her friends from day care. But there’s also the part of it where she just didn’t seem to understand the question.

So we worked to define thankfulness for her, and how it wasn’t just about saying thank you when somebody gives you something. You aren’t only thankful for presents, or for somebody bringing you the ranch dressing when you want some for your broccoli. It’s about appreciating what other people do for you that they choose to do for you. It’s about appreciating what makes you feel fortunate.

It wasn’t clicking. She got frustrated with us. We set the topic aside and gave her an opportunity to think about the question some more until dinner the next night.

And that night I asked something different: “What are your three big thank yous for today?”

I took a phrase she was already familiar with, I narrowed it down to a set number of things, and kept the question short without a lot of additional explanation to process.

It took her all of 30 seconds, and she felt good about her answers.

Yes, it’s more precise to ask her what she’s thankful for. But for our intended audience, there was this extra layer of unpacking the words themselves that kept her from joining the conversation.

When I was younger, I always associated having a larger vocabulary or being able to deploy more complicated words and ideas as a sign of intellect. I blame all the Frasier I watched.

It’s one thing to be precise, and always use exactly the word you want. It’s another thing entirely to be clear, and try to always use the words that will be understood.

Using words you think your audience will readily understand isn’t inherently condescending. It’s a way of talking to people that shows you’re listening to them.

You show that you pay attention, and your attention is a sign of respect.

It’s also about identifying what your purpose is. If we wanted this to be a lesson in the definition of thankfulness, we may or may not have succeeded. But our goal was to encourage our daughter to express gratitude. That purpose was more important than precision.


I do an exercise with students where we talk about the way Mister Rogers wrote his tv show. In an interview with two of the writers, they discuss a variation on the process that’s a joke that tells the truth:

Fred Rogers was always laser-focused on making sure each word was appropriate to his audience.

He spoke to children on their own terms because he knew that the audience was what mattered. He wasn’t concerned with only appearing kind on camera, or looking like he had all the answers, because he left ego out of the equation.

His focus on his audience, in listening to how they interpreted the world (and their concerns about it) was practicing kindness.

Because speaking to others or writing for others can, and should, involve thinking about how you can treat your audience with kindness.


When I was interviewing for my current teaching job, they asked me to give a sample lecture to a media criticism class on any topic I saw fit.

I went with applying the Buddhist concept of Right Speech to how we evaluate media.

To summarize the concepts, Right Speech is about making sure that our communication with other people is coherent, wholesome, wise, and skillful. There are four principles that help judge if speech clears this bar.

Do we avoid lies or deceptions?

Do we avoid divisive statements?

Do we avoid abusive statements?

Do we avoid idle chatter?

Avoiding lies and deceptions is not just about speaking the truth in any given moment, but reliably acting as a truthful voice.

Avoiding divisive statements is about abstaining from slander, and trying to use speech to bring people together instead of isolating them.

Avoiding abusive statements is about showing compassion and respect for the audience, and using language that they will appreciate and take to heart.

Avoiding idle chatter isn’t just about speaking with purpose, but framing your speech so that you address topics at the proper time with words intended to remain valuable beyond that moment.

As an individual, these goals can act as a good baseline for being seen as a respectful, and respectable, person.

When thinking as a writer or person who communicates through different media platforms, it can act as a good metric for if what you’re sharing with the world feels more like useful signal or distracting noise.

If you sit down to write for others, only focused on what they will think of you, you’ll never be happy with the result. If your only metrics for success are Likes, page views, or how much you got paid for your work, you’ll wind up in an endless loop where the next project will always have to seem bigger and better.

If you’re only writing with the hope that you’ll be recognized as a great writer, no praise will ever feel like enough.

There’s satisfaction to be found in the attempt to make today’s work an act of kindness. To make today’s words something that your audience will find useful whether they encounter it now or ten years from now.

There’s satisfaction to be found this way even if your audience is ten people instead of 10,000.

And there’s satisfaction to be found in seeing how much gratitude you can express for the opportunity to help others. To speak to them directly, honestly, and thoughtfully.