The Blog

I learned a lot in college. Mostly during the summers! That’s when I did my internships.

I worked construction the summer between my sophomore and junior year, and I wasn’t prepared for how difficult it was. I’ll never forget returning to my motel room after my first twelve-hour day shoveling concrete. I cried, wondering how I’d survive even another day of it -- let alone the month or more my supervisor had warned me about. I couldn’t help but also wonder how career construction workers kept their spirits up.

Gradually I learned some of them love the work. They love being outside, and they enjoy seeing what they accomplished that day -- a spiffed-up stretch of highway, or a new roof on an office building.

They work hard, they have fun, and they savor the little pleasures. Like me! A random, clueless, engineer-in-training who’d joined them for a few months so they could teach me a thing or two.

I was nothing if not the entertainment.

More on that tomorrow.

I don’t remember much of what I learned in engineering school.

Darrell is quick to correct me. “You remembered nothing,” he says. Every day, it seems, brings more proof of that.
He’s wrong, though. It was in college I learned a disciplined approach to solving problems: “What are you given? What do you need to find? What’s the solution?”

I applied it successfully enough to snare a 3.0 GPA when I graduated (which, in deference to Darrell, was a miracle) -- and to this day when I feel stumped, it helps me get my bearings.

We’ve been examining the three prongs of this approach -- given, find, solution -- and I’ll wrap up the series with an observation on the final prong: “What’s the solution?”

No matter what assignment I was trying to finish and no matter what exam I was preparing for, the answer to “What’s the solution?” was always: “Get help.”

My boyfriend at the time spent what felt like endless hours helping me understand basic engineering principles.

My other pals spent seemingly endless laughter and coffee-fueled sessions helping me through the latest homework assignment. One of them, who was almost as lost as I was in most of our classes, started doing homework for one of them while I tackled the homework for another. Then we’d swap, crossing our fingers we understood the material enough to explain it to each other.

Occasionally I found myself in a professor’s office, more for mercy than for help. My soils professor, who gifted me with a C on the final -- to lessen the odds he’d see me again the following semester, I was sure -- once asked, “Why are you here?”

That’s a good question for all of life: “Why am I here?”

I was in engineering school -- though I didn’t know it then -- to develop grit. But I also learned to ask for help. I hate doing that. If Darrell had to describe me in one sentence it would be, “She hates asking for help.”

Getting better at asking hasn’t lessened my aversion to it.

With all the sweethearts in my orbit I wonder, “Why?”

It’s a question -- and inevitably, a post -- for another day.

My engineering professors in college insisted we write three things down as we solved problems: “What are you given? What do you need to find? What’s the solution?”

Something important happens when you write something down. It becomes clear.

What do you need to find?

If you can’t spell it out, what do you suppose the odds are you’ll find it?

Correct! Zip.

The longer I live, though, the more I appreciate the distinction between finding something and discovering it. You find your keys. You find an apartment. But a calling? Career coach Barbara Sher says that isn’t something you find. You discover it.


By noticing when you’re so absorbed in your work twenty minutes have gone by -- but they feel like two, at the most. By having someone tell you “great job” on something that matters -- and basking in that feeling for weeks. By realizing you went to sleep dreaming about your work -- dreaming, not having nightmares -- and sprung out of bed the next morning because you got to do more of it.

There’s your calling!

What are you given?
July 22, 2014

My engineering professors in college drilled it into us. Approach problems systematically: “What are you given? What do you need to find? What’s the solution?”

Let’s think about that first one. What are you given?

How many times do we fight what we’re given? An aversion to certain kinds of people. A partnership with someone who’s contributing only problems at the moment. Fewer hours in a day than we have work to fill them, but by golly if they aren’t the same twenty-four hours everyone else has.

What if we wrote those facts down? You know, made a list of them -- almost like they were ingredients in a recipe -- and told ourselves, “This is what you have to work with. Go!”

We might find ourselves in a more productive frame of mind, that’s what. If you spend your limited energy fighting what is, you’ll have less of it to change what you can.

The Serenity Prayer comes to mind, doesn’t it?

That’s one aptly-named set of wishes, I think.

The blogger Penelope Trunk says she was doing all the right things in her twenties, but didn’t have the confidence to realize it.

Was I?

Cheryl Strayed’s Wild -- which I’m enjoying again in advance of the movie later this year -- makes me think, “Maybe.” Maybe getting a degree in civil engineering was my eleven-hundred mile hike through the wilderness. I chose a path that was difficult and I didn’t quit just because it was difficult.

Life is difficult. College, as it turns out, did prepare me for that so-called real world. My engineering classes gave me a systematic way to approach problems: “What are you given? What do you need to find? What’s the solution?”

Some thoughts on each, the rest of this week.

I’m trying to get in the habit of pausing at least a second or two before I speak. I’m looking for more opportunities not to say anything at all. And in the process I’m paying more attention to that little voice inside my head -- the one that never seems to let up about all the ways I come up short.

I’m more likely to challenge that voice now.

There’s a pile of papers, for example, I haven’t dealt with for weeks. For weeks I’ve been asking myself what the problem is. Why can’t I get caught up on paperwork?

Because we’re spending hours a day with Katie, that’s why. The work -- the busywork, that is -- will keep. The summer’s whooshing by, and now I think of unfinished paperwork as just more evidence I’m doing the right thing. I’m paying attention to our little sweetheart -- right here, right now.

I have a habit of apologizing for things that (1) aren’t my fault, and (2) aren’t anyone’s fault.

Katie was determined to help me break that habit this summer, and we came up with a plan. I’d give her a dollar for every gratuitous apology.

It’s been more than two weeks, and I haven’t had to pay her yet.

Which is stunning, really. I’m as prone to preemptive apologies, I’m sorry to say (oops!), as I am to going after my nails while I’m waiting for a page to load.

Not anymore!

Katie and I agreed, going into this experiment, that to break the habit I’d have to pause a second or two before saying anything at all.

We looked at each other.

That’s a dandy practice, we agreed, to cultivate instead. Not only that, but there’s been an unexpected bonus -- and I’ll tell you about it tomorrow.

When a friend took a tour of our house during the worst of the renovation, she was struck by how pristine it was. There wasn’t so much as a toothbrush out of place.

I don’t know about you, but I find it difficult to concentrate when there are dirty dishes in the sink -- or in our case, the bathtub -- or piles of laundry to fold and put away. My surroundings are as important to me as enough sleep and good food and plenty of exercise.

It reminds me of a baby T-shirt I gave a sister after her latest was born, with “it ain’t gonna change itself” emblazoned on the front. The dishes won’t wash themselves, the laundry isn’t going to fold itself, and since I’ll have to attend to those sometime why have the drag on my spirit by putting them off?

Do it now, and you’re done with it -- for now. Put it off until later and it’ll dog you until then -- wrapping whatever you do in the meantime in a vague, uneasy feeling.

My surroundings are as important to me as enough sleep and good food and plenty of exercise.