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Misunderstanding metaphors

I’ve been thinking a lot about my workload recently. This essay is likely to be the first in a new series of essays about my workload. In it, I reflect back on ways I thought about metaphors about workload early in my career.

When I was a young faculty member, I attended a workshop designed for young CS faculty at various kinds of institutions. I think I may have been the only one there who was from a liberal arts college, but it’s been long enough that I’m not sure.

Anyway, early in the workshop, they decided to give us a demonstration. The took a big glass tank and filled it with rocks. Then they asked us, Is it full? And most of us said Yes. So then they grabbed a bucket of pebbles, dumped them in, and shook it so they settled. Once again, they asked us Is it full? Fewer of us said Yes, but some still did. What next? They grabbed a bucket of sand, poured it in, and shook it so everything fit.

Guess what happened next?

Yes, that’s right, they asked us the same question. I’m pretty sure that most of us now said No, because they’d been training us. And we were correct. They grabbed a bucket of water and filled the remaining space in the tank with water.

They didn’t ask us if it was full. It was pretty clear that we were supposed to think that the tank was now full.

But they did ask us the lesson.

What did I think the lesson was? It seemed obvious to me: No matter how much work you have, you can always find a way to add some more [1]. However, it appears that’s not what we were supposed to take from the exercise. Instead, we were supposed to understand that if we didn’t put the big rocks in first, they would never fit. And the moral is supposed to be If you don’t schedule the big tasks first, you’ll never accomplish them. Unfortunately, the first moral seems to have stuck with me more than the second one. The small tasks come so frequently [2] that I feel like I’ll fall unreasonably behind if I don’t try to keep up with them. And then I suddenly find that I’ve spent hours on small tasks, and don’t have time for the bigger ones.

Committing to too much stuff has clearly been a theme in my career. I recall my first review letter, which said (approximately) The Personnel Committee thinks that you are taking on too many tasks, but I think you’re doing just the right amount [3].

And, some time around then, I developed my own variant of a famous aphorism. You probably know the saying If you try to juggle too many eggs, you’ll drop some. I extended that to If you juggle too many eggs, you’ll drop some, but others will miraculously turn into soufflés! [4] And that’s sometimes true. I find that when I’m doing lots of things, some of them really do build off each other and lead me to what might be more success than if I was doing less. On the other hand, I’ve also found that I get frustrated by almost every egg I drop, so to speak.

So, now that I’m twenty years into my career at Grinnell, what have I learned? I’ve learned that I commit to too much and need to find a better balance. I’ve tried to learn that it’s okay to drop a few eggs [5]. What else? I’ve learned that I don’t do well with metaphors about work.

Finally, I’ve also learned that sometimes it’s necessary to choose a short essay topic that’s comparatively easy to write about.

[1] These days, I think of it as No matter how much work you have, an administrator will always find a way to add more.

[2] See the forthcoming essay entitled Nibbled to death by ducks.

[3] Thanks Jim.

[4] Not only did I add the part about soufflés, I also dropped the try to. The assumption appears to be that you’ll always end up juggling too many eggs.

[5] Given that I came up with the damn variant aphorism, you’d think that I’d find it okay to screw up some things. But I stress a lot when I don’t accomplish all that I’m supposed to, and that probably affects my ability to accomplish other things.

Version 1.0 of 2016-09-26.