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.

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