March 2nd, 2011

Do as I say, not as I do

It occurs to me that the way I live my life is not the best example to set for a growing kid. It doesn't matter a whole lot now, but as I think about the various non-standard ways I do things, I can see that "leading by example" is probably not going to be my strong point.

Take for example the way I work on big projects (creating tests, writing large-ish programs, grading large assignments, ...) I've evolved this strategy of spending a lot of time doing what outwardly looks like goofing off- surfing the web, playing mindless flash games, taking long car rides, watching TV (actually not so much of the TV- that actually requires too much concentration. Having some sports on in the background helps though).

Anyway, the point is that to all external appearances it looks like I'm not doing anything, and then as the deadline gets close, I kick it into gear and whip something out in a couple of hours. What's happening underneath, though, is something pretty different. I think the reason I can do the work "so fast" when I sit down to actually do it is that all of my goofing-off time is being spent organizing my thoughts and my ideas and my approach to the problem. Partially consciously, but a lot unconsciously too. So, when I'm done goofing off and ready to go, my work is already close to finished, because it's mostly formed in my head already.

It sounds a little self-serving ("No, really, I'm not playing stupid games. I'm working!"), and I'm not sure people really believe me when I explain it to them, but decades(!) of history has borne this out by now. I was famous in college for whipping out a term paper in an hour and a half and getting an A on it. People were jealous I could work "so fast" when they had to spend days on the same paper. The difference was that I already knew what I was writing when I sat down, while they spent hours in front of the computer agonizing over their introductory paragraph.
In grad school, I got into mild amounts of trouble for playing Othello and doing other things so much during "official work hours" (I think the problem there though wasn't that I was spending less time working than other people- it was that I spent more time looking like I wasn't working than other people), but I thought up the idea for my thesis while watching the college basketball tournament one year.

Now that I have my own office at work, and my own area at home, worrying about what other people think isn't as big a deal. Though I'm not entirely convinced my wife believes me yet, and I can't imagine what kind of example I'm setting for our child. Because really, the way I do things isn't what you should do. It's just what has ended up working for me (mostly) because my brain is wired so weird. One of the big lessons of High School is how to develop good study habits for yourself so that when you get to college (and are on your own) you have a skill set to fall back on. I can't imagine I'd be a credible source of enforcing the Right Way To Do Things.

Me: Joe, if you have a project due next week, you need to start today or it won't get done?
Joe: Why? You don't start anything early!
Me: I start working on things early, it just doesn't look like it.
Joe: Well, then that's what I'm doing too. Now let me go back to texting my friends while I'm "working".

Luckily, my wife is much more organized than I am, and should be a better role model. But I wonder how many other things I have that are like this and will mess him up as he gets older..