Two Books That Kept Me Going When I Wasn’t Feeling 100% in Grad School

Sometimes, ok, most of the time, life as a grad student can be overwhelming. So, you need friends who insist you need to get some fresh air or stretch and you need books to remind you that pretty much everyone else is going through something similar and you are not alone. Two books filled that need and I found myself returning to them periodically throughout the semester.

Am I Overthinking This?

This book by Michelle Rial is one of my new all-time favorites. It makes me smile and oftentimes think, “So true” or “Yep, been there”. Her book helped provide some levity when I felt like I was in the middle of analysis paralysis.

Take this chart for example. I don’t drink soda but the number of coffee cups that I collected around me while jumping from one project to the next was downright hilarious. What I would add to this would be the number of snack wrappers. I would not have survived without KIND bars.

From, Am I Overthinking This? by Martha Rial.

In my case, it would be the stove. Even the hot stove indicator light didn’t help (don’t get me started on the design of stovetops) because the LED would be on to communicate, “Hey, this is still hot” (even when off) and “Hey, this is on”. So just by looking I couldn’t tell.

The number of times I glanced at the stove trying to figure out if it was on or off as I walked out the door with my bike is countless. Or, the number of times I would feel a slight panic thinking I left it on when I had already reached campus.

It gets worse when you are sleep deprived and your cognitive abilities start to seriously decline. I put eggs in the cupboard, my hot coffee in the fridge, my cell phone in the freezer and would flat-out forget what I was going to do next.

From, Am I Overthinking This? by Martha Rial.

This last one I’ll share is one I have near my computer. Now, I know this chart just from life experience but when you are learning new things every single day and completely out of your comfort zone every single day, it is easy to forget you’ve already failed numerous times and are still successful.

The academic measures (grades) somehow also manage to cloud the main reasons why you are in school or in my case, back to school. In my lucid, non-stressed state, I know I’m not back in school for grades. But when a professor tells you, “You know, your grade will be affected by this”, it’s hard not to care; to feel like you decreased your chances for success.

From, Am I Overthinking This? by Martha Rial.

Info We Trust

I didn’t read this book from the beginning to the end. What I love about this book is that I could skip around and still am. I don’t know why but I tend to open books from the back (no idea how I picked up this quirk). For Info We Trust, by RJ Andrews, I landed in Chapter 19, “Creative Routines”. How apropos!

Here are a few highlights:

Creatives have routines

Creatives, according to RJ, did not have a similar pattern of activity but what they shared was a routine. That surprised me because I tend to think of creatives as well…creative. In my mind that is a bit of chaos and work when the mood strikes. My thinking does not come from research but most likely TV or movies. I’m happy to learn I’ve been misinformed.

Magical aha! moments are lovely when they arrive. But real creative production is about steady discipline, not waiting around for inspiration. You must create the time and space for work to happen.

RJ Andrews, Info We Trust, p. 198

Two professors, Dr. Barbara Millet and Alberto Cairo would often share how important it is to establish a routine. It also wasn’t enough to establish one but to also focus on one thing for a specific timeframe. For example: If you are going to read journal articles, you might want to set aside Fridays to read and write in the mornings from 5 am to 7 am. Multitasking, after all, is horrible for your brain.

At first, I thought I couldn’t possibly change how I work. Also, within the first semester, I learned that everyone else’s schedule can put a wrench in your best plans for a routine. Teamwork and graduate studies don’t equal routines, especially when you are the sole morning person and the rest of your team prefers to work between 7 p.m. and whatever time it takes into the wee hours of the morning. Rough. So, focus on what you can control and when.

Experimentation, Learning, Exploration — Play, is Critical

Allow your curiosity to get the upper hand

RJ Andrews, Info We Trust, p. 198

This may sound crazy coming from me but coding has become a great place to play for me. A little music and something to learn, I find I can get in a zone where I’m willing to try as much as I need to figure out a bug. Granted, I’m not coding for the critical deployment of software. Released from that pressure, coding is becoming a great source of play. I’m learning and when something works, the emotion is off the charts. Look what I made!

Compare yourself—Try Not

One consequence of [learning from many different kinds of experts] is unfairly comparing yourself to specialists. That can lead to feeling like an imposter. Do not be too hard on yourself.

RJ Andrews, Info We Trust, p. 199

That last sentence… I struggle with that one—a lot. You too, right?

All I have to say about that right now is this: It’s a humbling experience going back to school full-time in your forties. I know a lot and all of a sudden I feel like I know nothing. Starting over is tough, rough and takes a lot of persistence. It requires remembering this is for the long game. As a former colleague reminded me, “It’s a marathon; not a sprint”.

Consume as many data stories as possible

In order to be a better data journalist or data visualization designer, look at and study more charts and data stories. Review what has been done in the past as it can influence what you do in the future.

Deconstruct past work to reveal your own unique blend of technical and temporal biases.

RJ Andrews, Info We Trust, p. 202

Alberto Cairo recommended this in his introductory class. He strongly recommended that we subscribe to The New York Times or any print edition of a major newspaper so that we can discover maps, charts, diagrams and data stories. The experience of print is different from browsing online.

I did just that and while there are some days where the paper piles up like when I was a subscriber to The New Yorker, I would spend a half-hour either when I got home from a full day of classes or in the mornings with my coffee flipping through the paper.

The pile of newspapers I’ve clipped and saved is embarrassing but I discovered a lot of stories that could become data-driven stories. I’m hoping to make them personal projects so I can keep practicing what I’ve learned.


I wrote briefly about networks before at the end of this post and RJ has to say this about connections:

Creativity is all about making new mappings between previously unconnected things.

RJ Andrews, Info We Trust, p. 200

This. This place of “mental fireworks” is what makes going back to school worth the sometimes unbearable feelings of frustration and insecurity. I felt these fireworks twice this semester and I cannot describe how magical it truly feels.

For me, the addition of an Artificial Intelligence class brought many concepts and ideas together from the current and previous semesters plus the research I had been reading and writing about as a GA in the UX Lab. My neurons were firing at a rapid place and the buzz was noted.

Be Active and Get Sleep

So this made me laugh out loud. Being active I could do because I rode my bike nearly every day to campus. The rides to and from campus reminded me of the beauty of mornings and a way to decompress after hours of classes and work. Sleep on the other hand…

Sleep is essential for health, but it also a productive creative tool. Taking a nap or sleeping on it overnight creates a natural space for the brain to ingest new information.

RJ Andrews, Info We Trust, p. 201

RJ has some great quotes in this section and I completely agree with this idea of “loading data overnight” but as a student sleep becomes a rare and cherished state.

Still, I did choose sleep a few times (even just 3-4 hours) over pushing through the night without when I could so that I could let what either felt like a big hurdle or a complex interaction marinate a bit. It definitely worked. With fresh eyes, I was more productive and more often than not found a solution.

Learning Takes Time and Sometimes Making Tough Choices

I had to make what still feels like major sacrifices this semester. This fact was hard to reconcile in my mind. Either I spend the time to write a blog post about a book I read or I read the peer-reviewed papers in order to write a very important literature review for a job for which I am getting paid (UX Lab). Either I spend the time learning how to code to complete my project or I spend the time creating a visual style guide and running all of my colors through WebAim for documentation.

All were important. How do you choose? I chose to be a responsible employee so that my boss and her professional endeavors and schedule aren’t compromised. I chose to code over visual styles because it is a skill I have not mastered. Those decisions may not have been right but those were the choices I made and I have no regrets. I learned plenty of skills and I learned and continue to learn a great deal about myself. Most of all, I’m proud of the work I created.

These two books helped me get some perspective and keep my sanity. I’m certain I’ll refer back to them many more times in the near future. Thank you RJ Andrews and Michelle Rial.



This is the beginning of many hopes and goals as I begin another shift in my life.

A wee bit of background: I’m in my mid-forties. Right now I make a living as a creative partner for photographers designing websites, books, and marketing pieces mainly. I’m an educator, a speaker, and I’m also writing a book. The working title: Web Design Principles for Photographers.

So, Why The Lovely Ferns?

The Lovely Ferns is a chance to write about my personal health journey and my experiences as I begin classes this Fall at the Maryland University for Integrative Health. In two years I hope to graduate with an M.S. in Nutrition & Integrative Health, qualify for the CNS exam and then work with people in a wellness practice, wellness spa or perhaps at a company or organizations who value a holistic and integrative approach.

What Will I Write About?

OK, so I don’t have this all figured out but one of my dear friends, Leslie, keeps saying, “Just start!”. So on my list so far: personal experiences, recipes, fitness, school and perhaps some travel or techie content. Really, I just want to write and share things that help with feeling healthy in mind, body and spirit. I want to share what feels like a mash-up of my current professional life and what is coming down the pike.


One of my primary goals is to connect with other holistic health practitioners, coaches, and well anyone committed and passionate about helping people heal. Through the years I’ve learned that relationships are key. Connection is important especially now that I’m making what feels like a huge transition. I’m starting over. And, I’m in need of geeking out with others who share my love of food and helping others feel empowered as they journey toward health. Plus, I want to learn from people who are more experienced than I and I want to hear about different ways to approach healing and overall wellness.

So … there it is; my first step!


4 a.m.

4 a.m. has become my secret space in time.

Note: I originally wrote this for my short-lived blog, Miles of Blue. January 10, 2015.

4 a.m. has become my secret space in time.

Our cat Blu sounds the alarm with his cries to make sure I’m not late.

I don’t particularly love being awakened by kitty but I’ve come to enjoy these wee hours of the day.

snowy early morning

Everything is so still. It’s beautiful and haunting all at once.

And other than the furnace cranking to its limits because it’s so cold outside, it is delightfully quiet.

I’ve trained myself to not open email or start working. I’ve discovered there are no expectations, no responsibilities. I have permission to read, write and let my mind wander.

There are no “shoulds”.

So even though I crave a full eight glorious hours of uninterrupted sleep — heaven — I’m thinking 4 a.m. is pretty sweet.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

I can hardly believe it. It’s 2015.

I’ve given all that’s happened in 2014 a lot of thought and it’s just now that I feel like I can breathe. It felt like a really rough year but as the new year approached, it felt so good to think about and plan for the new things I want to accomplish and everything I want to keep doing in 2015. My list ended up being a bunch of single words that keep cropping up this year and here they are:

Note: I originally wrote this for my short-lived blog, Miles of Blue, January 3. 2015. Looking back, this is probably when I intuitively knew it was time to make a drastic change but I was not ready.

I can hardly believe it. It’s 2015.

I’ve given all that’s happened in 2014 a lot of thought and it’s just now that I feel like I can breathe. It felt like a really rough year but as the new year approached, it felt so good to think about and plan for the new things I want to accomplish and everything I want to keep doing in 2015. My list ended up being a bunch of single words that kept cropping up this year:


Life, it really is short. I don’t know how else to say it. We’ve lost friends and family this year and I cannot tell you how important it feels to me to just. do. it. For 2015, I’m making a commitment to do rather than just think, think, think. I’ve learned that making a list of concrete actions can help to reach the next step and the next step and the next step. When the task seems insurmountable or the goal so far away, it is so easy to get overwhelmed and feel paralyzed. So here’s to specific actions that take us one step closer to “that thing” you want to do.

And on that note, Miles of Blue is one of my “dos”. I’ve been talking about it and thinking about; stuck with ideas about how there will be the perfect time to [fill-in-the-blank].

I still don’t know exactly what or how it’ll shape up but *I’m just doing it*. And that brings me to …


Phew, this word can paralyze the best of us. It’s tough to overcome and in the last few years I feel like I’ve been making huge efforts to overcome many. Standing in front of 40 students and speaking to so many more professionals about marketing and branding scared me to death. I mean, I hardly could eat! But it feels so natural now (Ok, may not in front of hundreds) so I know I can overcome fears and not allow them to stop me from doing something new.

But, over the last several months I’ve been struggling with the fear of change and the unknown. Last spring, I made the difficult decision to step down as Assistant Professor at Newhouse which also led to pulling myself out of consideration for a full-time job at a magazine. There was too much going on. Real or imagined, could I handle the change again? I felt I had to do something and to push away opportunities and move off a track that pulled us out of Oregon? It was crazy scary.

Since then I’ve been floating about and so this year, I hope to find clarity.


I read this book a couple of months ago and read an interesting take on work and in life; that it isn’t about being the best but about making a commitment to getter better everyday. Progress each day, each week over the course of say a year, is the goal.

Doing good work is important to me. I love to learn and through practice I hope to improve on my design skills, my writing skills and really being a better person which I think helps with all the other stuff! It makes sense, doesn’t it? By making a commitment to improve, we make a commitment to do good work(s).


I’m getting better at shutting down my computer and shutting off my smartphone. Thankfully, I don’t feel the need to answer every text or email or phone call right away. (Did you know that even the thought of email stresses people out? Another reason snail mail needs to stay!) I personally don’t have the expectation that anyone I send an email to needs to reply toute suite either.

Unplug equals time to read, take a walk, see, listen and feel. Turning off the screen means I have time to quiet my mind to give random ideas and thoughts the space to enter and mingle.

Quiet seems so precious these days …


My parents talked a lot about money and I think it gave us a healthy relationship with money. I remember several times being utterly grateful I knew about investments and heck, how to balance a checkbook!

But, I’m also a bit of a shopper. I admit it. I like beautiful, high-quality things.

I’ve become a better saver but I need to do better. So, my vow is to think for a week or more before I buy anything or sign up for yet one more service or get all spontaneous and buy tickets for a tour around Europe. Because I have a long-term dream and that requires putting off immediate gratification to realize it. Every time I think I need to spend money, I have to “Oregon”.

It’s time to play catch up and try what one friend who shared her admiration for a couple who “lived well below their means” and were able to retire early and travel the world. Hello!


I enjoy my family and I feel so lucky that we like spending time together but I wish we could gather more often. Someday it would be nice to just walk or drive to my brother’s house and share a meal or watch a movie.

And, as I get older and with each passing of a loved one, seeing and being with family means the world to me. We lost our great uncle (we called him grandfather) this fall and I felt so much sadness because he took on the role of being our grandfather when tragedy struck my father’s home. It was comforting knowing that I had someone to call “grandpa”.

When a friend shared that when her mom passed away a few years ago, she said goodbye with no regrets and therefore no feelings of guilt I felt her peace. She made the time to visit with her a lot for everyday moments. Yes, the every day is more meaningful and I’ve taken her story to heart.


Relationships are gold in my mind and 2014 felt like I had found a lot of great support from this incredible woman and this fantastic group of designers. I mentioned before that I’ve been floating about and my closest friends, family and without question, my husband have helped carry me through some rough patches and major decisions this year.

Many of my friends live far away so 2014 was a great year for making local friends and getting to know them better (thank you, HarrietJoanna, and Jennifer). Every time we share more and get that much closer. Respect, trust … “being real” … Finding your people is greater than gold.

I hope this year, those friendships will grow even deeper roots.


I’ve read here and there that gratitude is the key to happiness. It makes sense. When you are grateful you recognize the good in life. It helps lessen the ick of the hardships and challenges one has faced or may continue to face.

I’ve found this to be generally true; that if I stop, slow down and take a moment to reflect on the wonderful people in my life and the experiences I’ve had, my outlook changes for the better.

But it dawned on me recently that this feeling of thanks tends to come after something has happened. You know, after someone gives you something or you survived a scary moment or during the holidays when you look back at all the events — good and bad — in your life.

What if it was daily practice? What if I followed what Leo Babuta suggests and “… [start] a habit of gratitude“?  What if it were a mindset?

This year is the year to practice gratitude every day.


Back in June, I started to take my health more seriously. That’s when I discovered Paleo and bodyweight lifting because I was determined to rid myself of body image issues just like this person. (It’s not easy).

To get started, I first went through Whole30 and discovered a whole new world of cooking — dairy free, grain free and as little sugar as possible. I’m not quite sure it is working at times but I think it also takes some patience. (I’m working on the definition of working 😉

But what I am most proud of? I can do 30 damn pushups in a set! I could barely do 10 in late May. And, in a few weeks, I’ll take up yoga classes — s t r e t c h !

So, to be able to move and do is a gift I’ve taken for granted. Being a woman in my forties, I’m much more conscious about what is happening with my mind, body and spirit. Taking care of myself is, as Kathleen Shannon has stated, a “non-negotiable”. Without good health, it’ll be way more challenging to practice all the above.