What do you think you are doing?


What do you think you are doing?

I think it’s worth asking that several times a day. This post isn’t a treatise about zen mindfulness, although that’s a good thing too… It’s more about understanding the motivations of other people, especially those well intentioned folk who get right up your nose.

I think we’ve all worked with people who just don’t seem to “get it”, when “it” is that thing that we are passionate about. This is a frequent complaint I’ve heard from other librarians and educators who are passionate about new technology and its transformative powers –

“those people back at my workplace, they just don’t get it”.

He doubted her seriousness Uploaded to Flickr on January 20, 2008by ben pollard

Friend of mine, here in the heart of Fremantle hippyland, did a “discover yourself” kind of course at our local Adult Education house. The exercise involved pairing up and one person asking the other “Who are you?” for 10 minutes. As soon as the enquirer had an answer, she asked it again, and again and again. By the time my friend had reached the three minute mark, she’d exhausted all the obvious answers and was beginning to surprise herself with what she was saying – it was all true stuff about who she was, but not always obvious – even to herself.

I’m not advocating chanting “who are you?” at your co-workers over and over … but it might be a useful exercise to take some time out to ask “what does this person think she is doing?”.

Let’s take a couple of examples.

When you are answering a student question on the reference desk, what are you doing? If you believe you are there giving the student the information that she needs, you will give a very different answer to a co-worker who believes she is there educating the student how to find information for herself.

If you think that you come to work to catalogue books, you are going to do things very differently to your colleague who believes she is there to provide access to information. If you think you come to work so that you can fund your real passion -restoring old lawnmowers – you are going to behave very differently to someone who comes to work because they would go around the bend looking after their small children all day. That’s different to someone who comes to work because she believes what she is doing changes lives in a good way, or that doing a good day’s work is reward in itself.

And then, how about adding in who your co-workers think they are serving? What if you are in a public library and think you are there to serve people who cannot otherwise buy books or navigate information, when your boss thinks you are there to serve the councillors on local government who fund your library?  How about in an academic library? What if you think you are serving the students and need to be up to date with the technology they are using in their everyday lives, whereas your colleague believes she is serving the academics and needs to support the traditional teaching methods used by these people?

I guess that it’s useful to throw “charitable reading” into the mix of questions. Looking at what other people are doing and where you have no information to the contrary, interpreting it in the best intentioned way on their part.

I think it’s easy, when you see someone who is not jumping on your bandwagon , to think it is because they are uncaring, or wrong, or not passionately engaged in their work. It’s probably worth taking time out to ask a few questions:

1.Why am I doing this job?

2. Who do I think I am serving?

3. What do I think I am doing?

4.Why is she doing this job?

5. Who does she think she is serving?

6. What does she think she is doing?

7. How could I read what she is doing in the most charitable possible way?

Maybe, just maybe, it would be a useful exercise to actually write down 10 different answers to these questions, and see whether the obvious drops away and something a little closer to the truth emerges.

Then, how about going back and answering this question:

8. How would she answer the questions above?

When those questions are done with, you will probably be better equipped to answer  the important question:

9. Where does the bridge need to be built and what’s the best way to do it ?

5 thoughts on “What do you think you are doing?

  1. Another question to ask yourself several times a day…

    Is this what I should be doing RIGHT NOW?

    In other words, is what I am doing now the best use of my time. Sometimes you should be doing something very professional–such as planning a new service, but sometimes telling a customer where the restrooms are is the best use of your time–at that particular instant.

    Asking yourself this several times a day will help you keep on track and minimize the time wasted by getting distracted with minutiae or interesting-but-not-important tasks.

  2. Yesterday I watched the presentation Michael Wesch did at the Library of Congress (via http://weblogg-ed.com/2008/michael-weschs-presentation-to-library-of-congress/)

    Your example of asking ‘who are you’ again and again, reminded me of the points Michael makes about how vlogging on YouTube, by removing context from your remarks (i.e. you are talking to noone directly, but anyone may listen at any time in the future), makes you much more reflective (it’s around 21 mins into the talk)

    So possibly one suggestion to get reflection on these issues is to vlog about them (and encourage others to do so as well)

  3. Judith – oh yes. Very good question. Leads into the effectiveness vs efficiency question – how do I know what I am doing is effective as well as efficient ?….

    …. I suspect that sooner or later I’ll be making another post about how it’s often not just a matter of “agreeing to differ” about what you are meant to be doing, but sometimes one person is right. Just need to clarify my thoughts on this….and about what you can use to guide yourself in that “is this what I should be doing *right now* question.

    Owen – I watched the Wesch video a couple of weeks ago and vlogging and talking into a webcam is high on my mind, as I’ve put myself down to do a session about it at the unconf in a couple of weeks. I wonder if somehow the act of practising staring into a webcam and just talking brought the “who are you” exercise to mind…I am certainly finding the act of vlogging is making me very self conscious of how I am presenting myself and the assumptions I am making about what I am doing at any one time….hmmmm…

  4. hi there Kathryn, thanks heaps for the very insightful and relevant post. I have been proposing an internal blog for our recently amalgamated libraries and have met with a fair amount of disinterest from some of the powers that be. These questions have allowed me to sit back and reflect on the who/what/why’s involved in the situation, and remembering to take into account other points of view. Thanks for your encouraging remarks

What do you think? Let us know.