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Living With a Non-Linear Mind, Part 2; Empowered by Structure

At school, I wasn’t a great student. I wasn’t a bad student either, but filling in worksheets or doing math problems to demonstrate my ability to get the right answer was not at all motivating for me. I didn’t even care very much about my marks. We had a grammar fill-in-the-blank booklet to fill out in grade 10, and I treated it like ‘MadLibs’ – rather than filling in the right answers (which I knew), I wrote in words that amused me. There was a point when I tried to get kicked out of the library for a different reason every day (not vandalism or anything like that – just creative activities that no one else would have thought of, which would nonetheless be equal parts irritating and amusing so that the librarian would ask me to leave).

But I did enjoy being at school, most of the time. I liked school so much that, after high school was over, I went and did another 3 degrees worth of school, one of my degrees having a double major. It wasn’t even about getting a degree most of the time – I just took courses at college and university that I enjoyed.

What I didn’t realize until recently, was that part of what made school such a comfortable place for me was the structure. Classes began and ended at particular times, and I didn’t have to think about where I was going next. Meanwhile, my mind could roam, picking up information that was interesting and fun to work with and ignoring the stuff that didn’t matter to me. It was, really, a pretty self-centered way to go about life.

So that worked for me for a long time. During College and University I worked at summer camps a lot (a place with a lot of scheduled routine). After University, I had a number of driving jobs (schedules pre-made, routes) and other jobs that were either relatively simple or relatively structured, or both. Again, I often relied on external structures or cues for direction.

When I was working at becoming a teacher, things got more complex. Now, I wasn’t just relying on an external structure in order to have a basic direction myself, but I was trying to provide direction in a meaningful way to other people.

I did really well at the written work and research that were part of my studies as a teacher. However, when it came to lesson planning, I failed. In fact, it was only with the Dean’s permission that I was allowed to continue my studies in Education, and with the proviso that I audit a Graduate level course in Instructional Design (a part of the Bachelor of Education program that had been dropped, mostly due to budgetary constraints). That Instructional Design course made a big difference – but the reason it made a big positive difference for me was that the course allowed me to figure out what sort of Instructional Design would work best for me. Essentially, what I was forced to do was to create a process for myself to follow, which would then allow me to create processes and structures that would work for my students. This process had constant self-reflection and assessment built in, so that I could keep working on making it better.

It was only after I’d had to work hard at developing structure for my own thinking that I was able to really experience success in more complex work environments, and to contribute in a significant way to other people’s lives at a level more in line with my potential.

So my conclusion, out of my experience, is that non-linear thinkers need structure in their lives so that they have the sense of security and comfort necessary to do their most significant thinking, rather than just wander around feeling lost most of the time.

As a teacher, I tried to help my students by providing external cues, like written and electronic visual reminders of due dates, checklists and schedules for what needed to happen in their projects, personal reminders and cues to help them get going on their work, group work with specific roles so that students would cue each other, and of course choices (whenever possible) so that they could work on a kind of project or related area that was most interesting to them. Also, I tried to help them develop their own mental structures or processes, so that they would be able to think through doing particular intellectual tasks in a way that worked for each of them. This is not the same as imposing an ‘essay outline’ – something that never worked for me, since I could not say what I was going to write ahead of time – that only emerged after I had done some research and taken some notes.

Of course, my success in doing this for and with my students was mixed, and changed as my level of experience increased. But, ultimately, I had a nearly decade-long teaching career, and I did serve as a co-learning leader for a year of that time.

Now, as a stay-at-home dad, I work at providing a nurturing and catalytic environment for my own children, and that too is a complex vocation. But my children are a lot like me in some ways, and it’s fun to be part of their lives, to see what they are coming up with, and to be part of the empowering structure that allows them the security and freedom to thrive.

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Living With A Non-Linear Mind, Part 1; The Agony and the Ecstasy

I am what you might call a ‘non-linear thinker’, or, if there is a linear to non-linear thinking continuum, I would be relatively far onto the non-linear side. That means that I tend not to think ‘in a straight line’, and have difficulty with processes that are step-by-step sequential in nature. Although this is seen as a creative advantage, in a certain amount of my life experience it has been something of a handicap.

The difficulty I have is that I find it very challenging to think about one thing at a time, or to organize my thoughts in a particular sequential way. When I was a student and teachers would ask me to create an outline for an essay, I felt completely lost. I had no idea how I would organize what I was going to say before I was actually saying it.

Instead, it seems that all sorts of thoughts about many different subjects all rattle around inside my head at the same time. What ends up happening in the meantime is that the important tasks that I need to focus on, and important steps that I have to take, often get forgotten.

It’s not a conscious thing for me. I’m not trying to think about everything at the same time, it just happens. And it’s not even something I can articulate while it is happening. I go through periods of time when I feel kind of lost. If I have something in my hand, I might keep carrying it around wherever I am going while I’m thinking about something else. Or, alternatively, I may put it down wherever I see a space in that moment. For example, I once put the sugar bowl ‘away’ in the microwave. Fortunately nobody turned on the microwave without looking inside.

But this has been a fact of life for me for so long, that I have learned to problem-solve rather quickly at times. When I have forgotten something, or when I forgot to do my homework when I was younger, I have at times been able to find novel solutions to the problem that I inadvertently created. And, sometimes, I find connections between various disparate ideas and events which I likely would not have made if I had gone out deliberately looking for them.

Sometimes all those notions that have been jumbling about in my head like laundry in a washer come together and crystallize into something new and innovative, all at once. When that happens, it’s kind of a buzz- which makes me want for it to happen more, to expect it. And that expectation leads for me to a real sense of dissatisfaction and frustration when I just get back to the lost and confused feeling that I have at other times.

It’s not that the connections I find are necessarily manufactured or contrived (and I do try to check and test them). It is just that life is actually an interconnected whole – not a set of compartmentalized experiences, but an integrated experience which is often perceived as sectioned or disconnected.

Meanwhile, though, it is necessary for me to function. People count on me, as they do on each other, to be reasonably predictable, to show up to events at times when I have made a commitment to be there, and to play my role when I am included in a group plan.

Although I have at times failed to meet my commitments, or even to remember them, for the most part I have learned little ‘life-hacks’ to help me function reasonably well within the context of my family, community, and society. Over the next few weeks, I want to take the opportunity through this blog to tell about how I have learned to deal with my personal weaknesses and build on my strengths. There are other people in the world who experience similar struggles to my own, and my hope is that in my blog over the next few Fridays I can prove to be of assistance in helping them push past their obstacles as well.

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