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Cal Newport’s “Deep Work” and grant writing

Jake recently gave me Cal Newport’s book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.* Newport describes “deep work” as:

The ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task . . . And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep-spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there’s a better way.

While I’ve not yet finished the book, I’m not sure Newport’s thesis is all that applicable or practical in today’s connected work places. Still, as a grant writer, the concept resonates with me. As I’ve written above before, grant writing is mostly a solitary activity—one RFP, one writer, one iMac, one project concept, and, eventually, a finished proposal. I’ve known this since dinosaurs walked the earth and I wrote my first grant proposal on a cave wall (not quite—a legal pad**—but it was so long ago that it might’ve been a cave wall). The challenge of any writer is to stay focused, which phone calls, texts, emails, random Internet browsing, Facebook (or in my case, LinkedIn) all conspire to dissipate, more or less meeting the general definition of entropy: “a trend to disorder.”***

In the nascent days of Seliger + Associates, I was much better at staying focused while writing. That was due in part to my relative youth, terror at the prospect of missing a deadline (since I had no backup), and no Internet, email or texts—just plain old phone calls, the occasional fax, and howls from Jake and his siblings when they got home from school. As the decades have unfolded, it’s become harder and harder for me to remain in a state of deep work for more than hour or two, compared to as long as ten hours in the good old days (to be fair, they weren’t actually all that good—just different).

I have strategies for deep work—especially when we face intense deadlines. These include listening to music while I write (I’ve never been distracted by music, unlike most writers), starting to write as early as 6 AM when I’m fresh, setting goals for the day’s output, taking walks every couple of hours (my dog insists on this anyway), a 20 minute nap at midday, a very comfortable Herman Miller Embody desk chair, and so on. Jake hews to Newport’s recommendations more faithfully than me by using a program called Freedom to suspend Internet access for designated periods of time, turning off the ringers on his cell and office phones, and turning off his email client.

I can’t turn off phone ringers or my email client during the work week, as I always have to be alert for incoming emails and calls from current and prospective clients. I probably wouldn’t anyway, because I’ve just have lost some of my ability to stay on point, perhaps due to age or the amazing allure of Internet access to all manner of distraction. Like many people, I don’t want to disconnect distraction.

Deep Work is worth reading, not only for grant writers, but anyone involved in knowledge work. Interestingly, Jake’s younger sister, who is a manager with a tech company, saw the book when she came over one day and told me she’d already read it and found it useful. I’m not sure how tech workers can concentrate in the open offices of most tech work spaces. I can’t even write in a coffee shop, let alone in a 5,000-square foot open office space with dozens of coders and other workers within earshot and vision.

Interestingly, I was talking about Deep Work and the solitary aspect of grant writing with a friend who’s been a successful TV writer/producer for years. She said that TV writers typically work in groups in “writer rooms,” without any real ability to focus. I’m not sure how this gets done, but this seems to be the practice. I know that, even if I could write dialogue, which I can’t, I could never do so in a group setting, headphones or not.

* This is unusual, as Jake typically gives me a WW II book for birthdays, father’s day, etc., which we collectively refer to as “Hitler Books.” It’s always surprising that, 70 years on, someone finds an unrevealed aspect of WW II to write about.

** About 35 years ago, I had to finish a proposal while on a ski trip to Mammoth in the Sierras. Since there were about eight of us in a condo, and everyone else was drunk and disorderly, I actually wrote the draft longhand on a legal pad in the bathtub well past midnight! As the Beatles wrote in Norwegian Wood “and crawled off to sleep in the bath.”

*** Or “kipple”, as Phillip K. Dick refers to the entropy of stuff in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, the inspiration for one of my fave science fiction movies, Blade Runner. And yes, I think Decker was a replicant, despite the implications of the sequel coming out soon.

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Links: Free speech, affordable housing, more on 50 Shades, drugs as medicine, college sex, Congress, and more!

* “Free speech, but not for all?” A very bad academic trend.

* “Japan shows the way to affordable mega cities.” Again, affordable housing is the issue that touches almost every other issue.

* “Labor Shortage Squeezes Builders: Why are property prices rising so quickly? Here’s one reason.” Pity we didn’t post this in time for YouthBuild season!

* “2017 Could Prove to Be a Turning Point for Plug-In Hybrids;” plug-in hybrids are an easy bridge between gas- and electric-powered cars.

* A surprisingly good comment about marriage, life, connection, and other topics.

* “In defense of philistinism: Don’t feel guilty if you’d rather read a Fifty Shades of Grey sequel than Proust.” Yeah.

* “Colleges Think Women Having Sex Is Dangerous. Laura Kipnis Says They’re Wrong.”

* “Elon Musk’s Boring Company Begins First Tunnel.” I predict it gets bogged down in NIMBYism and “Just say no” California politics but hope that it doesn’t. Also this Boring Company is not boring, so to speak.

* “Old Containers Find Out-of-the-Box Second Lives: Architects, designers and builders are discovering that shipping containers, the workhorses of freight transportation, aren’t just for hauling cargo.” If you’re working on affordable housing, you ought to be thinking about this.

* “We need ecstasy and cocaine in place of Prozac and Xanax.” Note that this comes from a mainstream popular science magazine, not from some random corner of the Internet. Still, while the ideas are interesting, you should not yet push these kinds of ideas in your proposals!

* “Mercedes-Benz Energy pairs with solar company to sell batteries, rooftop panels.” Good news for competition with Tesla.

* An electric bike is not cheating: How it could replace cars for millions of people.

* “Is Preventive Care Worth the Cost? Evidence from Mandatory Checkups in Japan.” Short answer seems to be “no.”

* “Stunning drops in solar and wind costs turn global power market upside down.”

* “Books are superior to TV” (better than the usual but you already probably know as much if you’re reading this).

* “eClinicalWorks to pay $155 million to settle suit alleging it faked meaningful use certification.” News for FQHCs.

* “L.A.’s crisis: High rents, low pay, homelessness rising and $2,000 doesn’t buy much.” Many of our clients are in the greater L.A. area. Adjusted for the cost of living, California has the highest poverty rate in the country. Zoning turns out to be one of the great scourges of our time.

* “Automakers Race to Get Ahead of Silicon Valley on Car-Sharing.”

* “Get Congress Back to Legislating, Not Just Budgeting: Yuval Levin, an expert on the budget process, explains how a congressional power grab in the ’70s led to paralysis today.” Again, not the sexiest or most fun piece, but it is essential for understanding what’s amiss in government today.

* “The Old Are Eating the Young.” And the young don’t realize it and/or aren’t voting appropriately to it.

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Rare good political news: Boosting apprenticeships

Trump Orders U.S. Regulatory Review to Boost Apprentice Programs” is not a good headline, but the article is worth reading because apprenticeships are important, underrated, and should be more prominent and prevalent. We’ve written about the desirability of apprenticeships before, in posts like “The Department of Labor’s ‘American Apprenticeship Initiative’ (AAI) Shows Some Forward Thinking by the Feds.” Moving towards an apprenticeship-based model is also a bipartisan good idea that should get both left and right excited, because the existing policy and institutional infrastructure doesn’t work very well and has led to students and former students holding more than $1 trillion in debt that can’t be discharged through bankruptcy.

Right now, most federal education policy is oriented towards getting everyone into a four-year college or university and graduating with a four-year degree—but, as the cost of college rises faster than other sector of the economy, it’s not clear that college is always such a good idea. In addition, the value of a degree varies widely by major. Just “going to college” is often not enough. The number of people who have expensive college degrees yet find themselves in jobs not requiring them also appears to be rising; I went to an expensive liberal arts school in the northeast, and one of my roommates from college is working as a bartender. I don’t want to disparage bartenders, having availed myself of their services many times, but four years and five figures—if not more—in costs is a terrible misallocation of resources.

For The Story’s Story, I wrote about Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton’s book Paying for the Party, and, while the book is too complex and interesting to summarize briefly, it describes how colleges have evolved party tracks that require little studying—but undergrads with successful outcomes on that track tend to be wealthy and socially connected. Many undergrads wander onto that party track without their peers’ financial and social resources, only to fail to graduate, or to graduate with weak degrees that don’t produce much income. I don’t have an immediate citation for this claim, but many researchers have found high percentages of college graduates occupying jobs that don’t require college degrees.

Given this situation, policy change is warranted. If college was once a panacea, growing college costs have eliminated that situation. Shifting towards apprenticeships is one way to shift in a smarter direction. Right now, the Department of Labor and some states have “Registered Apprenticeships” programs of various kinds, but most of those are in the construction trades. We’d be better served to broaden that base.

The original article cited above also points out that Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta appears to be behind the shift. He appears to be of higher competence than many current executive branch political appointees, which is good. As a side note, in contemporary politics, there tends to be a drive to oppose anything at all proposed by the “other” party. This tendency is bad. We should work as hard as we can to judge any policy or person on its (or their) merits. Don’t oppose or favor a particular policy merely because your “team” opposes or favors it.

Over time we may also see the definition of “apprenticeship” and “school” change. For example, many coding bootcamps aren’t traditional schools and aren’t exactly apprenticeships either. A couple friends have done the Flatiron School in New York City. Lambda School is a new, promising effort. Pretty much everyone knows that high-paying, in-demand fields include programming and almost all levels of healthcare, while there isn’t a huge amount of demand for generic grads in most non-technical four-year college programs and for people who don’t have many skills. Things like coding boot camps may fill the gap between school and work for some people, while traditional trades seem to be robust, as those of us who have had to pay a plumber or roofer knows.

Apprenticeships are also an obviously good idea from the perspective of academia; anyone who teaches college students at schools below the most elite level knows that a large number of students really shouldn’t be in college. This was most obvious to me at the University of Arizona, but it happens across the academic landscape. Many of us in the basement of the Ivory Tower are attuned to the many students who don’t like school, drop out of it, but still have to pay a lot for it via student loans that can’t be discharged in bankruptcy. I’ve been teaching undergrads for ten years, and it’s clear that many undergrads don’t know why they’re in college, don’t care about school, and are floundering in an academic milieu; they don’t like abstract symbol manipulation, sitting still for long periods of time, or reading.

Many college students go because their high school teachers and parents tell them to, yet many dropout after taking on student loans, or they graduate with weak degrees, little learning, and few connections. See, for example, “Exclusive Test Data: Many Colleges Fail to Improve Critical-Thinking Skills.” In modern colleges, there is a lot of “They pretend to learn and we pretend to teach.” Professors are mostly rewarded for research and grad students are socialized to ignore teaching in favor of research. To be sure, some professors do focus on teaching, and community colleges in particular are teaching-oriented—yet the overall culture is clear, and many of the least-prepared, most-marginal students pay the price. Professors have often realized that there is little incentive to grade honestly and lots of incentive to not rock the boat, pass students along if at all possible, and collect those (meager) paychecks.

To professors, the unreadiness of many students is so vast that it’s hard to motivate them or pull them into the academic or intellectual culture. Many students flail in large classes and ultimately dropout. Again, this isn’t universal, but it is common and, again, obvious to anyone who’s spent time at the front of a college classroom.

The “college for everyone” meme is likely played out. Be ready for the apprenticeship shift and a wave of federal and state RFPs for innovative apprenticeship programs.

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Favorite odd-but-mandatory proposal forms: LA Slavery and New York Northern Ireland edition

Experienced grant writers know that all proposal instructions must be followed as precisely as possible (though they can also be contradictory—a problem we discovered in a recent Department of Education RFP). Perhaps because of that principle, funders (or their political masters) also get the chance to include absurd or bizarre forms with RFPs. Some of our favorites include ones from City of Los Angeles Departments, since the City requires that firms it contracts with, including nonprofits, certify that the organization wasn’t been involved in slavery. For those of you keeping track at home, slavery ended in the United States in 1865 and Seliger + Associates was founded in 1993.

Today was I working on behalf of a New York client and ran into the “Empire State After-School Program,” which is a fairly standard after school program not so different from the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program or many other, similar programs. But this one is issued by the state of New York, and, amid the pile of pretty typical required documents (like “Non-Collusive Bidding Certification Required by Section 139d of the State Finance Law (OCFS-2634)”) was one that caught my attention: “MacBride Fair Employment Principles in Northern Ireland (OCFS-2633).”

Northern Ireland?

I was curious enough to follow the link to the form and found that grantees for this program apparently must certify as to whether it has ever conducted business in Northern Ireland. If it has, these instructions apply, and the applicant:

Shall take lawful steps in good faith to conduct any business operations that it has in Northern Ireland in accordance with the MacBride Fair Employment Principles relating to non-discrimination in employment and freedom of workplace opportunity regarding such operations in Northern Ireland, and shall permit independent monitoring of its compliance with such principles.

I don’t know what discriminatory practices might be common in Northern Ireland. Nor do I know why New York State in particular is concerned with this tiny corner of the world. Out of curiosity, I checked the CIA World Factbook, and it says that Ireland’s entire population is a smidgen under five million, or about 60% the size of New York City’s alone.

Somewhere back there in the haze of New York political history must be some Irish-related controversy that lives on, to this day, in the form of a form that random nonprofits providing after-school services must include or risk being rejected as technically incorrect. Keep in mind that in the good old days of 1931, the Empire State Building was built in one year and 45 days. I’m pretty sure the developer did not have to fill out a Slavery or Northern Ireland form, which likely speedup up the process. Sometimes I see the more absurd aspects of grant writing and think about cost disease and how computers have paradoxically made grant writing worse.

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Maybe reading is harder than I thought: On “The Comprehensive Family Planning and Reproductive Health Program”

We very occasionally pay attention to bidders conferences; usually, however, we usually avoid them for the reasons last discussed in “My first bidders conference, or, how I learned what I already knew.” Despite knowing that bidders conferences are mostly a waste of time, we’re sufficiently masochistic careful enough that we’ll occasionally look into one anyway.

New York State’s “Comprehensive Family Planning and Reproductive Health Program” bidders conference was a special example of silly because it literally consisted of the presenter reading from slides that regurgitated the RFP. As the “conference” went on, it became steadily more apparent that the conference would literally only consist of . . . repeating what’s in the RFP. This is as informative as it sounds.

After 20 minutes of listening to the presenter read, I gave up. I can read it myself. Still, as I shook my head at the seemingly pointless waste of time, my mind drifted back to some of my experiences teaching college students, and I have to wonder if the presenter read the RFP as a defensive strategy against inane questions that could easily be answered by the RFP. Something similar happens to me in class at times.

One recent example comes to mind. I had a student who seemed not to like to read much (note: this is a problem in English classes), and one day I handed out an essay assignment sheet with specific instructions on it. I told students to read it and let me know if they had questions. This student raised her hand and I had a conversation that went like this:

Student: “Can you just go over it in general?”
Me: “What’s confusing?”
Student: “I mean, can you just say in general what the assignment is about?”
Me: “That’s what the assignment sheet is for.”
Student: “I don’t understand. Can you go over it?”
Me: “What part confuses you?”
Student: “The entire thing.”
Me: “Which sentence is confusing to you?”
Student: “Can you just go over it in general?”

This was not a surrealist play and by the end of the exchange—I did not reproduce the whole exchange—I was somewhat confused, so I began reading each individual sentence and then checking in with the student. This was somewhat embarrassing for everyone in the class but I didn’t really know what else to do.

When I got to the end of the assignment sheet, the student agreed that it was in fact clear. I know enough about teaching not to ask the obvious question—”What was all this about?”—and yet I’ve had enough of those experiences to identify, just a little, with the people running the world’s boringest* bidders conferences.

* Not an actual word, but I think it fits here.