Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The art of the Personal Statement

This has been a rough semester. At the moment, my oldest is three and a half years old, the younger is almost 16 months. They're in school three days a week, I take care of them on the other two. I have a new job, working as an independent agent for AFLAC. I'm taking Anatomy and Physiology. And on top of that, I'm trying to hammer out an essay for my grad school applications. (I think I need to take GREs, too, but one thing at a time...)


Tonight I've been trying to hammer out a concise personal statement on what I want to do, and how I think a masters' degree in O/P (Orthotics and Prosthetics) will help me do that. And it's had my head spinning.

There's a lot of really cool stuff going on with Lower extremity prosthetics and bionics right now. It's exciting, and I want to know more, but it's really more a point of curiosity than anything else.

I really want to work with upper extremity stuff. I've been working with my hands for 24 years. I spent ten years working with my hands at a remarkably high level, at North Bennet Street School, and afterwards. And I spent a lot of time, reading about woodworking, and about Sloyd training, which was a major influence on what is still taught at North Bennet today.

The heart of Sloyd was found in working with one's hands. The basic idea was that one could teach children not just to be good workers, but to be good and upright citizens, through craftsmanship. Aesthetics were taught as an offshoot, because the aim was not just to produce, but to produce something useful, and beautiful. Through determination and effort, children could be taught to appreciate the value of one person's work. And, to appreciate their own abilities.

Woodworking was introduced at MIT around the same time, because the president of MIT thought it was important for engineering students to work in a three dimensional medium, to learn how to think in three dimensions, and not just on paper. (I can't come up with a citation on this, need to dig through my notes.)

And behind all of that, is a point that I make to various people, that doing things by hand will engage your brain in a much different way than doing things in theory, or on paper: Any child who has ever pulled a nail with a hammer will develop a much more intuitive understanding or leverage than a kid who reads about leverage in a book. I think that some of that has to do with the anatomy of the brain, and how it processes motor/ proprioceptive stuff in the cerebellum, and integrates it all with the logical thinking that goes on in the cerebrum. But my knowledge of all of that it still tenuous at best, so I'll leave that point as it is.

But children these days (from what I understand) are issued cheaper, simpler prosthetics, with the understanding that they're going to grow like weeds, and a fancy appliance would be outgrown quickly. As a result, at a time when children are absorbing everything they can, and their brains are growing and adapting, their ability to physically interact with the world is being hindered by crappy prosthetics.

There's a concept of human development called a critical period: It's a period of time during which certain processes and understandings grow and are shaped by interaction with the world, and after that critical period, development, if it's even possible, is stunted. So one of the things I worry about is that these children are missing out on critical cognitive development because their physiology is  insulated from so much of what they might be able to experience. On some level, I get that a missing hand is a missing hand. It's a tragic thing, and at some level, it can't be helped. But at the same time, I can't help but wonder if they are missing out on the opportunity to learn to do things skillfully with a prosthetic, simply because the equipment provided doesn't allow for the development of that skill set: A skill set that would make that more advanced prosthetic more functionally useful when they get older.


So, you might think from this that what I really should do is go back to school and become an engineer. On the one hand, that might be interesting. But from talking to friends who are engineers by training and trade, I've been told otherwise:

"If you want to do the cool stuff, you need a masters degree." (I have a BA in English. I'd be starting from scratch, again, some more. I'll be turning 43 in May. I only have so many fresh starts left.)

"We don't actually get to build things. We mostly do it in CAD, and then send it out, so we're not really involved in the process of making whatever it is. Testing the final product isn't typically done by us, and we don't have a good handle on the manufacturing process, so sometimes the process of getting from concept to execution is... messy, and imperfect." (I spent 7 years building custom pieces, one at a time, from concept to execution, and learning to refine both design and build the process, by hand.)

Long-term, I want very much to design new arms for children that will grow with them. I think it would be great to work with engineers, but at this stage, I'd want to do it in a team setting that allowed for a full-spectrum process (concept to execution) in house, and in a setting that worked directly with the kids who are using the damn things. I know a lot about developing skill, and helping other people to do the same. I'm also very good at designing things in a way that both informs how they'll be made, and is informed by the manufacturing process. I'll leave the CAD/ CAM and engineering work to an engineer. That's what teams are good for. (Committees are where good design goes to die... but it takes a team to move the ball down the field.)


On top of all of that, there's a trend I've been reading about that bothers me. At one end of the spectrum, there's a lot of really, really cool stuff being developed that has the potential to help a lot of people. On the other end of the spectrum, politics around health care in this country is such that people in some states can lose an arm on the job, and all they get is a lump sum of about $45,000. (and that's before lawyer's fees, etc)  So these folks won't necessarily be seeing as much in the way of high tech solutions. (Or, if they do see them, their situation is such that this would actually be more helpful.) And so that's another area where I want to see how I can influence things. I spent so many years building jigs and fixtures for various tasks in the shop, I really want to see if there's a way I can work collaboratively with those in need to develop prosthetic jigs and fixtures for earning a living, that will fall within the limits of what they can afford, or get reimbursed for.


The only question that remains, is how to fit the above into 4500 characters, or less.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Meandering through

I'm still trying to find a thread for this blog. I'm not big on random confessional... That's better fodder for drinking stories anyway. At some point this will morph into a blog about my adventures as an aspiring prosthetist, but the biggest adventures right now involve taking pre-requisites, using exercise to stay awake while I do homework at night, and forgetting my book in class. Not exactly a thrilling read. I have two more prerequisite classes, and applications for school are due in December.

The best advice I was given on blog or article writing was to offer a solution to a problem, regardless of whether it's a physical quandary, or a philosophical hiccup. Learning about a particular solution, or just a general approach, is a better use of anyone's time than reading more garbage about heedless dithering or Internet Outrage. 

To date, the biggest problems I've been working through are just about survival. Stay at home dad for one, and then two kids, plus no job, plus homework, and trying to find a star to steer by... It's a desert out there. As of this week, it's been two years of it. Exercise has been helpful, if for no other reason than that it's one area in my life where I can set concrete goals, and measure progress. So, for the sake of the blog, I don't mind talking some about my process there. (The problems I'm attacking here are starting over, and maintaining sanity during the process.) Finding a focus other than daily panic is a good solution to the problems inherent in un-mooring, or being cut loose.


This week, I solved the job issue, too... For the moment. This week, I've become an independent agent for Aflac. The last thing I ever thought I'd find myself doing is selling insurance. But Aflac's been very good to me and mine for a few years now: We're policy holders, and Aflac helped a lot when each of the boys arrived. And I know or knew too many woodworkers who went by the wayside, in part because they weren't covered. One guy messed up his knee during an install, and figured it would be easier to live with the annoyance of a bum knee, than to get it looked at properly. Eight years later, the knee developed gangrene, and they had to take the leg off . All because he couldn't afford to get it taken care of properly. So it's a job that gives me the opportunity to help people, which is important to me.

For myself, I got into self-employment because I loved woodworking, not because I wanted to learn about navigating insurance issues. Viewed through that lens, I'm hoping I can save other business owners from some benefits-related headaches, and help make their lives easier, so they can focus on what they really want to do... And what brings in the money.

Another thing on my mind, to be candid, is that I avoided learning about real prospecting and learning to properly close a deal, the entire time I was in business. I just buried my nose in the woodwork end of what I was doing. Ultimately, that was a contributing factor to many of my difficulties in business. So, I'm also seeing this as a mentored, paid opportunity to learn something that will be useful if I decide to put my shingle up again. (I still see furniture building as a really cool potential part-time, and ultimately, retirement gig.)

So... this is more of an update on current events for me. The process is slowly grinding forward, with a pretty big goal (Applications) on the horizon. And, a promising new job in the meantime.

New Beginnings

About two years ago my career fell apart. After 10 years of hard work, it was time to start over.

The inventory at the time was pretty straightforward, once I got clear of what had come before. I had me, my wife, (who, thankfully, was working) and my (then) 1 year old. The rest was up in the air. We couldn't afford care for the munchkin, so I became the stay at home parent. But honestly, as much as it was my job to take care of the little guy, it was also my job to take care of me. I hadn't been doing a great job of that in recent years, and so the down time, much as it felt like being adrift, was welcome.

The first thing I that needed attention was the general state of my physical fitness. For years I'd been spending all of my time working, and not much time working out. That had changed some in the months leading up to the shop closing, and I decided to make nap time into workout time. 

Every time I set out to work on a big goal, or a big change, working out has always been the thing that helped me move forward. And looking back, I think it's because it helps reinforce my sense of self-efficacy. A little work in the gym, or a little bit of time spent on diet, provides feedback. Being able to get results for my effort in a quantifiable way always helps to remind me that yes, I'm able to accomplish things when I try. And this time around, learning more about getting in shape was the thing that helped the habit stick.