On being ... tainted

By Ingrid Sapona

A friend of mine’s daughter is working on her Master’s degree -- actually, her second Master’s. Last week she was home on a mid-semester break and she spent much of it working. Before she came home my friend mentioned that his daughter had been quite stressed-out by school and he hoped she’d be able to relax and de-stress a bit that week. That didn’t happen. Instead, he reported that her anxiety increased as she worked at home.

Though mindful the details were none of my business, I asked if he knew what was causing the anxiety, as I was hoping there might be some words of comfort I could offer him -- perhaps some story from my own academic trials and tribulations that might convince him that things will turn out alright. My friend said he thought it related to comments from one professor on one required course. I asked about the nature of the comments, but he didn’t know and was afraid to ask. I urged him to find out whether it might be a personality clash rather than something academic, as my friend seemed to assume it was.

Now, a bit of back-story: my friend’s daughter had some learning problems in school. I don’t know the nature of the problems (I didn’t know him back then), but I know the family did all they could to help with tutors, etc. Without belittling whatever academic hurdles she faced, clearly his daughter has done really well, having so far earned a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree.

In one of our first conversations about this a few weeks ago, my friend repeated concerns he mentioned at about this time last year when his daughter was stressed about a statistics course, which she ended up doing well in. In particular, he worried she might be setting herself up for a tremendous disappointment if she doesn’t do well. A normal loving parent’s reaction, it’s true, but I knew there was more to it than that. Sure enough, he then mentioned “the conditional acceptance thing”, as he refers to it.

A bit more back-story: a couple years ago, as she was finishing her Master’s degree, to my friend’s surprise, his daughter decided she wanted to go after a PhD -- likely in pursuit of a career in academics. She applied and was rejected from a couple PhD programs, including from the university she’s attending now. Though they wouldn’t admit her into to their PhD program, they told her she could enroll in their Master’s program and, if she’s successful, they’d let her continue on for a PhD. Though it was an acceptance, the way it was handled left her feeling somewhat rejected. Nonetheless, she enrolled.

My friend said he thinks the conditional acceptance adds to his daughter’s stress because she worries that any sign of struggle proves they were right not to welcome her into the PhD program and, worse still, could be the basis on which they might deny her entry into it when she completes this Master’s. If she’s thinking those thoughts, she’s struggling with something much harder to deal with than a difficult course: she’s struggling with working under a taint. I’ve been in similar situations -- where the taint of what someone’s said has undermined my self-confidence and made me feel that a cloud is hanging over everything I do, preventing the sun from letting me shine.

During the week she was home, I know one of the discussions they had was whether she should quite the program – something she raised, not him. As you can imagine, when this came up, my friend trod very carefully, not wanting to encourage or discourage whatever choice she made, as she would have to be the one to live with it. She ended up returning to school and, personally, I was really glad because if she had quit, I think she might have been misreading a tainted situation with one where the proverbial well was poisoned.

There’s no doubt a tainted situation can be harmful, but it’s not the same as a poisoned well situation where the best thing to do is cut your losses and move on. Living under a taint is not healthy, but it’s not fatal. The danger inherent in a tainted situation comes from a loss of objectivity. What do I mean? Well, in this case, for example, my friend’s ability to objectively assess whether his daughter will succeed in her academic aspirations is tainted by his recollection of her struggling with learning problems in her youth. As well, his daughter’s ability to objectively assess her chances of the university denying her the chance to move on to the PhD program seems impaired, causing her to undervalue the fact she’s done well so far in the program, both academically and as a teaching assistant.

Though my friend hasn’t asked for my advice, he knows I’ve been thinking about the situation and when I asked, he said I could write about it. So, here’s my two cents on it: when you’re in a situation that has somehow become tainted, you have to step back and see it for what it is and then you have to be vigorous in demanding objectivity from all -- including yourself. Once objectivity is restored, the taint will tarnish, the playing field will level, and you can go on about the business of doing and being your best.

© 2011 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... an evangelist

By Ingrid Sapona

For years, when describing, or introducing, my friend Sandy to others, I’ve simply referred to her as a computer consultant. While I’ve always realized the description didn’t do justice to her skills, expertise, and talents, it’s only the past couple years that I’ve really started to “get” what she does (and why she’s so highly regarded by many in her field). Officially, she’s a systems design engineer and she specializes in business process management.

About 10 years ago (before she started her own consulting business) Sandy had a position at a software company in California. Her title was eBusiness Evangelist. That title was just gaining popularity (at least in high tech circles) back then. I remember asking her what it meant -- exactly -- and she said something about spreading the word about technology. I also remember thinking the title was a bit much -- a bit too out there for me.

Needless to say, Sandy’s always had her hand on the pulse of technology. So much so, frankly, that for years I shied away from discussing anything technology-related with her because I just wasn’t into it the way she is. That said, I’ve always appreciated her expertise and considered her a trusted advisor. So, for example, when I was thinking about banking on-line, I sought her opinion about how secure it was.

A couple years ago I was complaining to her about the fact that I’m terrible at remembering all the different passwords and user names I have for different things. She agreed, but said she found a few free programs she liked that would keep track of all that kind of information. She went on to explain how she uses it and, intrigued, that evening I tried one she mentioned (KeePass). Well, it’s terrific. I honestly don’t know what I’d do without it now.

Another time she mentioned a new program (Dropbox) she was finding quite useful. Though I didn’t follow all she was saying, I got the gist. As I understood it, using this software meant I’d no longer have to worry about either taking my laptop with me or downloading files onto a jump drive if I want to work from someplace other than my home office (for example, from my mother’s house). Well, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, I tried Dropbox and I LOVE it.

When I bought a new computer last November, Sandy came over to help me set it up. When she found out what e-mail program I was using, she mentioned she really likes Google Mail and said I might want to look into it. Naturally, I asked her why she suggested I use it, and naturally I only understood part of her rationale. I made a mental note of her suggestion, but I didn’t relish the idea of setting it up, or of learning a new program. So, I had her install the updated version of the e-mail program I had been using.

Three days before Christmas my new computer crashed and I ended up having to return it. Thankfully my old computer was still functioning, so I managed to carry on. I decided to put off buying a replacement until I was back from vacation in late January.

Over the holidays I was reflecting on my computer woes and I realized that Dropbox had saved my hide because all my work files were there and I could continue working, essentially uninterrupted. Then I thought about how effortless it is to keep track of passwords thanks to KeePass, another Sandy recommendation. Once I realized that the technology Sandy’s recommended over the years has made a huge difference in the way I carry on business -- in other words, that her expertise has revolutionized my own business processes -- the idea of switching to Google Mail was a no brainer.

When Sandy came over last week to set up my new computer, we talked about the fact I had switch to Google Mail. I admitted that part of the reason I took the plunge was because she had mentioned it, and she’s never led me astray. I also confessed that, once I realized how much technology has changed the way I do business over the past few years, I made embracing technology, rather than fear it or simply grudgingly accept it, one of my New Year’s resolutions for 2011.

She smiled and said she was glad to hear it, adding, “You see, you’re becoming an evangelist!” As soon as she said it, I remembered her previous job title and I suspect she remembered trying to explain it to me back then. (I also wondered whether, once upon a time, I might have made a snide comment to her about that title. I hope not, but I fear I might have.) Anyway, I explained to her that my resolution isn’t so much about spreading the word to others as it is about getting over myself -- and my trepidation.

Since that conversation I’ve thought about what it means to be an evangelist and I have to say, I think I have the makings of one -- at least when it comes to the technology Sandy’s turned me on to. After all, I recognize the difference it’s made in my life, I can see how others could benefit by it, and I feel compelled to share the story of my conversion.

So come on folks, gather around – let me tell you about some stuff that can change your life…

Post Script: Just as I was revelling in the concrete ways technology has changed my life in just the past two years, people in Tunisia and Egypt were discovering for themselves -- and demonstrating to the rest of the world -- the life-changing power of technology that goes by the name of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Pretty amazing, don’t you think?

© 2011 Ingrid Sapona