Field Note No. 3: Embracing an Ethos of Sharing

Activity for 1/9/2019

Today was the day that I really had hoped and needed to get things done! I was able to get E. (the baby) off to daycare without a hitch, dropped A. (the husband) off at work–since we are a single car household–and got home with protein-fueled coffee in hand and a desire to check off as many items as possible from the to-do list. At first, it looked like that was a goal that I could achieve.

In general, I try to make sure that the first thing I tackle on my to-do list is related to writing given that the words flow a bit more quickly in the morning. Over the next few weeks the Social Energy Atlas will be welcoming new team members and collaborators into its ranks, so I finally sat down at my computer around 8:45 am and was getting that documentation generated. Because I know me, and I’m aware of my propensity to get sucked into the e-mail abyss quickly, I typically try not to open my email until at least 9:30am.

In the past, I've been pretty bad about getting so consumed with email that I have lost HOURS of productivity by checking it every few minutes and letting my computer ping me EVERY time I get a message. After reading a couple of amazing blog posts by brilliant folks regarding optimizing your productivity, I started adopting the approach of having scheduled email time--the same way I will schedule a meeting: for example, my email times are in 30 minute increments (a lot like my writing/coding sprints)and are spaced in set intervals at 9:00am, 11:30am, 2:00pm, and 4:30pm. Most of the time, I don't even use the whole 30 minutes, which is wonderful, and it gives me a chance to then appropriate the remainder for *strategic* social media activities, professional development and learning (e.g. reading, Coursera modules, Lynda.com videos), or research for a new idea. While I'm not as consistent with it as I should be, I have found that on the days when I do follow this practice that 
I am able to get significantly more accomplished. Just food for thought....maybe I should write a field not about this. 😊

Today, I was a bad planner and didn’t follow my schedule (but in a good way). I didn’t open my email client until 10:30 am!!!

Now I don’t know about the rest of you, but I just knew that when I opened my inbox I was going to find a huge mess: and boy, was I not disappointed! Okay, so maybe I’m being just a little bit hyperbolic. It wasn’t really that bad. Yes, there were the typical updates on the Social Energy Atlas project and questions that needed to be answered to help support the amazing interview partners we have in the UGA Extension, there was an invoice from Routledge that needed to get to my Business Office Manager to make a chapter of the new book Open Access, and the regular litany of digests from social media and the many listservs I subscribe to in order to stay updated regarding everything going on in the worlds I care about. However, there was also something else lying in wait tucked into those messages: an email from an acquaintance asking for my “advice.”

The request I received today was from a professional connection outside of the university who is of political importance in my world (he is both a public official in the energy sector and on my project’s Board of Advisors). He had asked me to “take a look at his new podcast episode and tell [him] what [I] think.” Yes, I’m a communications expert, so the scope of his request was valid. Moreover, his podcast is on a subject that I research and work regularly. At this point, I had a decision to make: say “yes” to his request, giving him a full analysis of his episode from my personal and professional perspectives, or say “no” because I don’t have the bandwidth (which was actually true, given the publishing expectations of my project and the ever-present need to get data analyzed and ready for use by our project stakeholders).

Because of who I am and what I believe (more on that in the Analysis section), I was ecstatic to help out my friend. His podcast, focused on energy and sustainability issues, was 45 minutes long–was a really fun listen–and took me about two hours total to get through. You might be thinking to yourself, “Jacque, it was a 45-minute podcast. Why did it take two hours of your time? You’re not getting paid for it, so just give him the bare minimum.” Right now, I’ll answer the logistical elements of that question and leave the philosophical portions for a few minutes from now.


Activity Breakdown

11:05 to 11:50

First, I listened to the full episode as a regular member of the audience: making notes on things I found personally interesting, action-items for things to look up, and documenting my emotions at different moments like I would for any radio program or podcast I listen to as a part of my normal entertainment preferences.

11:50-noon

I made sure I documented my thoughts from that point of view completely and then changed over to my “critical science communication self.”

noon-12:05 — Run downstairs to grab a protein shake and apple for lunch.

12:05-13:05

I spent the next hour listening and documenting specific moments that were resounding successes or opportunities for improvement.

13:05-13:20

I reviewe my thoughts, strategizing which ones were the most useful for him–after all, he is not an academic–and then crafting my response to him.


By this point in my day, it was after 1:00 pm. After sending a response email to my colleague, I finally dove into some data analysis work. Around 2:00 pm (per my schedule), I went back to check my email. Little did I expect that the individual who asked me to review his podcast had already read my suggestions and sent a reply in return. He shared his appreciation for my feedback and a request from both him and his co-host that I join their show as a guest two weeks from now. You have to admit, that’s a decent result from my time investment–the opportunity to do public media engagement is of significant value in my line of work. I quickly responded, accepted the invitation, and went on with my daily routine.

Later this evening, however, I received another message: this time from my colleague’s co-host. In my feedback from this morning, I had suggested that maybe they consider adding to their show’s structure a micro-segment where one of the more complex ideas they are talking about (perhaps a particular technology or piece of legislation) is explained in an easy-to-understand way for their audience. I’m a science communications researcher interested in the way everyday people understand energy and make decisions about it. So naturally, I will always make suggestions like that one. Little did I expect that the two of them would like to discuss me (me?) collaborating with them on producing that portion of their show and helping them keep their audience engaged. This type of opportunity, regardless of how it comes into being, is a MAJOR win in my world. The night has ended on a positive note all because I was willing to give.

Reflections

The day I had today is pretty typical for most academics, but it is especially familiar for those of us not in tenure-track roles in the university. In particular, grant-funded, non-tenure track researchers–basically, think of us as internal contractors who don’t get paid by university dollars, but through whatever grants or contracts they are able to secure–are put into a difficult situation whenever we get asked for advice or help by friends, colleagues, acquaintances, or whomever. If a request doesn’t directly relate to the projects currently paying us, we’re really being asked to do free work. Whether these requests are generated from inside or outside the university, it can get complicated given social expectations, interpersonal dynamics, politics, and basic emotions. Any of us (both inside or outside of the university) who possess skills that are desired and needed these situations basically have to make decisions that could result in negative implications for our personal or professional lives in the event we reply “yes, I’ll do it,” or, “no, I can’t.” When we do say “yes,” in these situations, we have done so out of true generosity–because even sweat equity (or the notion of doing preliminary or free work in the hopes of eventually seeing a return on our investment) is a gift in these situations with no formal, contractual obligation for anything in return.

For some people, demonstrating a similar philosophy might be difficult to embrace, counterintuitive to how they view the world, or be in direct odds with their values. At the end of the day, people are only accountable to themselves and their own. For me, I was reminded today of how powerful an ethos of sharing philosophy can be when practiced consistently. Giving two hours of my time today resulted in one concrete opportunity that has the potential to help me achieve my goals, one potential opportunity, and helped to transform a professional connection into a colleague and collaborator. Moreover, I just got a call from the West Coast regarding a new consulting opportunity as a result of a previous “sweat equity” project I did three years ago.

Emerging Insights

For those of us asking friends, families, or even complete strangers to share their expertise or skills with us in a non-payment scenario, it can be scary for the person being asked the favor. Especially as an academic researcher, and in particular as a grant-funded and non-tenure track one, the underlying situation of an expert request can be fraught with implications, regardless of the response, and deserves serious consideration. Some typical fears in this situation are that…

  1. You are putting yourself, and your ideas, out into a situation that may be unfamiliar.
  2. The person making the request of you could run off with your ideas.
  3. You are possibly being used as free labor in a situation where otherwise you would normally have the opportunity to get paid or advance your career.

All of this is mitigated if you can embrace an ethos of sharing. For those of you who aren’t familiar with what ethos is, it is a concept from rhetoric (and specifically, Aristotle) that embodies the notion that one of the three best ways of forming an argument–or communicating an idea–is by appealing to your audience and the world around you through demonstrating credibility and authority. Thus, an ethos of sharing is demonstrating your credibility and authority by sharing with others.

Before you get too upset, no, I am not suggesting some eutopian world where everyone works for free in some commune-style existance. What I am suggesting, however, is that in particular those of us who work in public sectors (like the University) have an opportunity to demonstrate our credibility and importance by sharing our ideas with one another and with those around us. I would like to think that this concept is one of the underlying reasons why academics are encouraged, if not required, to publish their research and ideas with the rest of the world in order to gain tenure.

More importantly than fulfilling professional goals and responsibilities in exchange for job security, in my opinion, is the power of cultivating and demonstrating an ethos of sharing. It has been my experience in the past, and specifically today, that if you open yourself up to others and share your talents with them that you are inviting limitless possibilities into your life. Some people might call this karma or paying it forward, but I just like to think of it as doing the right thing. For many of us, such philosophies are natural because they resonate with our personal values and “why” we operate the way we do.

Life is crazy in these ways and completely unpredictable. For most of us, the main thing we want is to live a happy and comfortable life, and the easiest way to achieve that reality is by being useful to others. Being useful means that we have gainful employment, have established families and networks where we have food and shelter, and all of the other characteristics needed for a functioning society. But if you are willing to open yourself up to sharing your talents with others, then you open yourself up to receiving amazing opportunities that will create value in your life in different ways in this effort to demonstrate your usefulness.

No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.

Mark Twain


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