Public Square Magazine recently put up a piece I wrote on Josef Pieper’s “Leisure: The Basis of Culture” and his concept of leisure/worship as contrasted with laziness/idleness/acedia. I’m quite proud of it; give it a read!
There may or may not be stupid questions, but there are definitely stupid requests. I have a concept of a “request batting average,” computed as [number of approvals] divided by [number of requests]. You can tell a lot about the quality of an engineer asking for money, or a Christian saying his prayers, by looking at the relevant batting average.
Opportunities to spend money constantly confront a refinery engineer. This valve doesn’t shut very tightly; we could get a new one. We could repair this heat exchanger less frequently if we bought one made of stainless steel. This sixty-year-old pump is not designed to modern standards, and its mean-time-between-repairs suffers for it. That pipe could use a paint job. Maybe we should tear down that pressure vessel that has been sitting there unused for longer than I’ve been alive. This refinery would be easier to manage if we just built a new one made entirely from indestructible nickel-moly-chrome alloys right beside it, and then abandoned the old one. All of these ideas have some degree of aesthetic appeal, would be desirable if free, and would in some sense result in a “better” refinery.
But the plant manager cannot possibly fund every pleasant engineering idea. He operates with a basically fixed budget, so ideas compete for funds. And even if there is slack in the budget, the plant manager also wants the refinery to achieve its broader purposes, notably making net cash so the company can pay the dividend to its owners, the Benevolent Ladies’ Association Retirement Fund (BLARF, for short) and other stockholders.
An engineer could just say “Well, I will just throw out as many nice ideas as I can, and management can pick which ones they want!” Then management has to wade through a flood of half-baked proposals, most of which are not aligned with their priorities. The pattern will quickly become clear, as will a corresponding pattern where the engineer’s requests meet with skepticism. His batting average will be low. And since only 20% of his past ideas got funded, his future ideas are assumed to have only a 20% chance of meriting funding.
Alternately, the engineer can triage ideas himself. He must develop a sense of what management is likely to approve and critically evaluate, in light of this, whether a given idea is worth developing further. Each idea he chooses to develop should become completed staff work, a fully developed concept and justification such that predictable questions are answered and difficulties resolved before presentation to management. This engineer will have a high batting average, and managers will quickly recognize that when he asks for money, they are usually going to say yes.
Now, an engineer should be willing to pursue non-obvious ideas, rather than just parroting management. Sometimes it takes significant development to see whether an idea is good, and it’s often worth doing the work even when you know there’s a 75% chance that you yourself will later kill the idea. And it would be a mistake to target a 100% batting average; it’s hard to be perfectly calibrated on what management will want, and management does want to see options and make choices. But an 80% batting average may be achievable and desirable—so if you have twenty ideas and you expect management can only fund four, give them the top five. Maybe your #5 idea is better than you think, and you’re missing key information that disqualifies your #3. (And in any case, managers need to say “no” occasionally just so everyone can feel like they are doing their jobs, themselves included.)
A good engineer will focus efforts and requests on things management is likely to be interested in. You want this kind of engineer working for you. You want to promote this kind of engineer to management, given that they are demonstrating an ability to do management prioritization and drive towards the organization’s goals.
There are parallels between well-done funding requests and effective prayer. So think about a prayer batting average, [number of approvals] over [number of requests].
You could pray and ask for any number of things. Please bless me with perpetual health and beauty. Please bless me to know if a parenting idea I’ve been thinking through is on the right track. Please bless this double-chocolate brownie to “strengthen and nourish my body,” by some miraculous violation of all known nutritional science. Please guide me with thy Spirit in a situation I’m about to face. Please give me specific needed blessings me as I work to fulfill this worthy goal. Please bless that I can get lots of Lego for Christmas, and also win the lottery. Please bless me with spiritual strength to “submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon [me], even as a child doth submit to his father” (Mosiah 3:19).
God isn’t constrained by a budget; His interest in the pensioners of BLARF goes beyond the fiduciary. But He is still constrained – constrained by His goals. He does not wish to eliminate free will, remove all of life’s challenges, or produce spectacular miracles on demand. He’s been pretty clear about this, too.
Thus I don’t think God is particularly impressed by desire-vomit prayers. You can look in the mirror and pretty well intuit that perpetual beauty is not a part of God’s plan for you (except for you, wife). If lottery wealth was actually going to be good for you in the eternal long run, you’d think God would have created the world to have more of it. And so forth ad nauseam. Asking for this sort of thing results in a low prayer batting average. It could result in frustration with prayer.
The scriptures gently point us away from simply throwing out low-quality requests. Thus in Doctrine and Covenants 9:7-8 the Lord said “Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right…”
Spiritually mature prayers will involve well-considered requests, and the supplicant should have a reasonable expectation that the request will be granted. Getting to know the approver and his plans, and triaging requests accordingly, is a worthwhile effort. Nephi (the son of Helaman) was outstanding at this, to the point that Christ said to him “I will make thee mighty in word and in deed, in faith and in works; yea, even that all things shall be done unto thee according to thy word, for thou shalt not ask that which is contrary to my will” (Helaman 10:5). This is like blank-check spending authority—I approve everything you ask for anyways, so you can just go ahead.
Similarly, he told the Twelve that “whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13). Speaking to a general audience, Christ made a slightly different promise: “And whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, which is right, believing that ye shall receive, behold it shall be given unto you” (3 Nephi 18:20). So we need to make sure we are asking for that “which is right,” and for things that we believe we “shall receive.”
Like in the engineering case, it is sometimes hard to know beforehand exactly which requests will align with the approver’s goals, so we shouldn’t be excessively cautious about bringing up ideas. God wants to know what we are going through, prayer should have a conversational element, and we should not be too fearful – as Paul teaches “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). And we have Christ’s example of praying “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matthew 26:39). This shows both a willingness to be open with God and make a request that may not be approved, and a recognition and acceptance that it likely will not be.
We can and should let our prayers benefit from experience, make sure we are thinking them through, and target a relatively high batting average.
Don’t ask for stupid stuff!
Good engineering students often do a poor job of managing their career opportunities. I want to help.
I’ve participated in career fairs and job interviews various times on each side of the table, hiring and searching. I have been in the room making decisions on who to interview. I’ve been in the room making decisions on who to hire. I’ve offered people internships. I’ve managed interns, and recommended them (or not) as permanent hires. So I have some understanding of how all of this works, and a whole series of stock rants about it.
Often, I interview awesome people who probably have very high potential, but have not optimally developed that potential, or haven’t done what is necessary to communicate their potential clearly. I want engineers to do better—especially BYU engineers. Thus I share my compiled rant/wisdom, such as it is.
(This should go without saying, but this is on my personal site, and it reflects my personal opinions—I do not speak for my employer, Valero.)
Goal: a traditional engineering job
There are various career paths open to an engineer. In this post I’m assuming your goal is to get a traditional engineering job after graduating with a bachelor’s degree. I have an oil & gas perspective, but the principles seem to be similar for engineering jobs in aerospace, automotive, etc. Some engineers instead want to do consulting, patent law, academic research, etc., in which case some principles from this post may apply, but you also ought to find more specialized advice.
If you want a job after graduation, you need to try to get an internship before graduation—ideally several internships, one every summer for the length of your degree. The best way to get an internship is to have had a previous internship. So the perennial question is: how can I get my first real engineering internship? In this post I lay out advice for getting there. Then for future internships and jobs, the same general principles apply.
Focus on developing your resume
You need an attractive resume to get a good engineering job. There are many components to having an attractive resume; it’s nice if you can hit “all of the above” and be a trilingual champion athlete with a stratospheric GPA, a demonstrated commitment to community service, and prior internships in your field. Employers will talk about valuing various thing, and they even do. And you should not base your whole life on employers’ opinions.
But cut through all of that, and you really, really need to keep adequate focus on two key things:
- Maintain a good GPA
- Get engineering work experience
It is going to be awfully tough to get a desirable internship if you don’t bring a good GPA and some kind of engineering experience to the table. So prioritize these things over other work!
Engineering students are typically hard workers, and often have non-engineering employable skills. In the short run, they can often make more in other opportunities (random hourly jobs, skilled trade work, running a small business, pest control, whatever) than they can doing anything engineering-related. Engineering homework has a wage of zero. Doing engineering in a club has a wage of zero. Starting out in an engineering research lab often has a wage of zero.
Nonetheless, you may well be better off in the long run doing engineering work for free and focusing on holding/raising your GPA (and taking on student debt as needed), instead of working even a $25+/hr non-engineering job. The difference between getting a top engineering job opportunity and an average opportunity is potentially tens of thousands of dollars a year for your entire career, so play the long game. If you are smart enough to hack it as an engineer, you’re probably better off the sooner you commit.
(Aside: I never actually found out the hourly rate for my first engineering job. Dr. Thomas Knotts, who is great, hired me saying something like “I will pay you whatever the department standard rate is” and I said “ok” and got to work, in the full knowledge that the real pay was the knowledge I was gaining and the experience on my resume. And without telling my whole life story, skills and stories from that job directly helped me get all my other jobs I’ve had since.)
Maintain a strong GPA
As far as GPA is concerned, students often ask “what is a good GPA?” Depends on the company and the individual recruiter. I am familiar with at least two companies that have flirted with a 3.5 cutoff. In my mind, anything in the 3.8-3.9 range is great, and anything above 3.5 is good. Holding a near-perfect GPA can smack of perfectionism, and may not be optimal vs. slacking off a bit more in school and reallocating your efforts to something else (like gaining non-classroom experience). The 3.2 to 3.5 range is OK; it’s not setting you apart from the crowd, but great experience and other factors may be able to counterbalance that. Anything under 3.0 is getting into resume-killer territory. Normally sophomore-level engineers have higher GPAs than junior-level engineers; a 3.8 is a lot less impressive when few of the constituent grades came from hard engineering classes.
It is good to take hard classes early, so that you can take some easy classes later too. Do enough practice problems, spend time on the homework, etc. Avoid overextending yourself.
So enough about academics. Let’s talk about the other pillar of your resume: getting some experience.
Get a real engineering job
It can be challenging to get your foot in the door with engineering experiences, and as mentioned, it can feel like you need to have experience to get experience. My standard advice is to make a list of all the professors in your department, in order of how interesting their research is (use Google, department website, etc.). Take the professor whose research you like the best, read the last couple of academic papers he has published (Google again), and then go talk to him. “Professor X, I am [name]. Here’s my resume. I’ve read your last couple of papers on [whatever] and I think you are doing the coolest research in the department because [flattering comments]. I’m looking to get some engineering work experience. Is there any possibility of getting a research job working for you? I’d be willing to work for free for a while to prove that I can make a real contribution.” If he doesn’t have anything for you, go down the list. This was more or less my process for getting my first MechE job. I can all but guarantee that someone will hire you.
If no one in the department responds to this, then do the same thing with engineering extracurricular activities (Mars Rover, super-mileage car, whatever)—work down the list until you find somewhere you can get some experience solving engineering problems.
These experiences are not a substitute for getting an internship (don’t just do research and assume that is as good as an internship—it is not) but they can help you get your first one. In terms of resume value, paid engineering internship > paid engineering work on-campus > unpaid engineering work > paid non-engineering work, so act accordingly. Also note that teaching assistant jobs are not really engineering work; I don’t think I have ever heard a good engineering problem-solving interview story from a teaching assistant job.
Work hard at writing your resume, and get help
So now you’ve got a good GPA and some engineering work experience, and you need to communicate that to the world using your resume.
I’m going to gloss over this quickly, because resume principles are simple. Emphasize your achievements (I made the company $100K by going above and beyond!), not your responsibilities (responsible for pushing papers around!). Use action verbs. Quantify things. Maximize space spent on your unique achievements, particularly on-the-job achievements. Minimize space spent on the obvious—yes, every student thinks they can use Excel, engineers take engineering classes, etc. Put your GPA and your intended graduation date front and center; the recruiter is looking for this info and will just be annoyed if it’s not prominent, even if it isn’t great. Use standard resume formatting. Stick to one page; engineering students with multiple publications, multiple internships, and multiple scholarships can fit it all on one page, and you can too. Read the top Google results for something like “engineering resume advice” and consider their advice. When you have done all of this, get a few knowledgeable people to mark up your draft. Student organizations sometimes do workshops for this sort of thing, your department may be able to help, parents or family friends may have good input, etc.
Now, with your resume in hand and great engineering stories to tell, you’re ready for the career fair?
NO! There is much more work to do before the career fair!
Do sophisticated research on companies of interest
There is a stupid idea out there in the world that “the career fair exists so that students can learn about companies.” But if you want a job, the career fair is not a place to learn—it is a place to perform. So you need to prepare.
Prepare for the career fair like it will determine the course of your entire career, which is very possible. Read the list of employers, so that you know in advance who is hiring. Pick your target companies. If employers are taking 4 resumes per interview, and doing 4 interviews per hiring slot, you’d better be having quality discussions with at least 16 target employers to get your 1 job. (Or better yet, more, because 1 expected-value-probability job is not the same as 1 actual signed job offer.) Research each target company.
(Please, please, never, ever utter the career fair suicide-phrase “so what does your company do?”)
Base-level research consists of Googling the company, finding out what industry they are in, and scanning through some of their stock HR-speak about “exciting opportunities to develop yourself, while working with a team of the best and greatest people, in the context of the best and greatest HR organization.” This is good. If you have not done this, you will likely disqualify yourself from getting an interview. But every other credible candidate has already done at least this level of research.
If that’s basic research, what does sophisticated research look like? For any public company, you should look at the company’s annual report and investor slides. Let me repeat, look at the company’s annual report and investor slides. Every publicly traded company will produce an annual report and investor slides that contain information like:
- What is this company’s leadership most proud of? If you think it’s cool, tell the recruiters! They probably agree, and will be flattered.
- What are the company’s main strategic projects and priorities? More flattery-fodder! Also, these supply ready-made questions for the recruiters. “Has your department had any involvement with [strategic project]?” can start an interesting conversation.
- How does this company view its relationships with competitors? Is it trying to be a technology leader? A low-cost producer? The biggest? The best in a narrow niche? This can help you talk intelligently about the company itself, rather than just the company’s industry.
- What parts of the company are the most profitable? How do the parts of the company relate to each other? Having a concept of this can help you understand how your recruiters fit into the business, and what you might do if hired, again contributing to intelligent conversations.
To really take it up a notch, could also read the most recent quarterly earnings press release, or even listen to their earnings call (or better yet, read a transcript), where company high-ups reviewed the quarterly results with the investment community.
You can also learn about the company by talking to employees. Prepare for this appropriately, by reading all of the above stuff. Then ask recruiters, alumni from your school, friends of friends, etc. who work for the company if you can quiz them about it for twenty minutes sometime. Many people are pretty open to chatting about their jobs, even with random strangers. This can be a more frank and lower-stakes discussion than the moment when a recruiter says “any questions for us?” (That actually means “prove to me that you are actually interested in my company by asking me insightful, well-researched questions” and is not the best time to ask any question that could imply less than starry-eyed enthusiasm about the company.) One caveat: recruiters are busy during career fair week, and you should already be interacting with them at the career fair and info session. So plan ahead and do networking calls early, or find people other than recruiters to talk to.
Even for your 16th-favorite company, you should still spend a half hour looking at their investor slides. You need them to feel like you are seriously interested, and you will be if you have no other job opportunities! Doing half an hour of research on 16 companies is only one day worth of work. Not that hard.
Do sophisticated research!
Make the most of career fair week
So now you’ve got your resume tuned up and printed, you’ve done your research, and it’s time for career fair week.
The career fair is almost 100% about getting an interview. Hiring decisions are made based on interview performance, and interview decisions are based largely on resume and career fair performance.
Make sure you attend the info sessions for your target companies, which are often before the career fair! Participate during the info session. Stay after the info session, introduce yourself personally to the recruiter, give them a resume, and ask them one or two intelligent questions. Listen to their answers to other students’ questions.
At the career fair, work down your previously selected list of target companies. I’ve only been involved in one virtual career fair (which didn’t seem to be very effective), and I’m hopeful that we will have in-person career fairs within a year or two. So I’ll give advice on for in-person events, although similar principles apply to virtual career fairs too.
Walk up to the recruiter with a smile on your face and a resume in your hand. Introduce yourself and hand them your resume before they ask (they are expecting it—no need to even say “here is my resume”). Express interest in their company for a specific reason, ideally “I am interested in your company because of [unique capabilities and positioning within industry]” rather than “I like [industry, including you and all of your competitors].” Show you have done your homework and actually care. Draw their attention to a few key points of your resume—maybe give a twenty-second summary of your best work experience. Answer any questions they have; some recruiters treat the career fair like a mini-interview, and/or will want more detail on certain experiences on your resume. Ask one or two intelligent questions about the company. Express your desire to have an interview. Say thank you for their time. Don’t rush, but do avoid monopolizing the recruiter’s time if there’s a line to talk to them; a two or three minute conversation is often about right. Do talk to other recruiters from the same company.
Consider practicing your personal introduction with your roommate or the mirror or whoever until you can do it smoothly. If ye are prepared, ye shall not fear. Watch other students, and imitate the better ones. Ideally you should attend the career fair as a freshman, when stakes are low, just to see how these interactions go.
Hopefully all of this effort impresses recruiters and gets you some interviews.
Study for interviews like they are tests
A job interview is like a final exam on your professional life up to that point. Study for it like an exam! (Maybe more than for an exam…I know how some students approach exams.) Practice for it!
Most engineering employers will use behavioral interviews. The theory of a behavior interview is that past performance is a good predictor of future performance, so if you tell an employer how you have acted in the past, they can predict how you will act in the future. Or if you have never acted in the past, they will wonder if you will ever act in the future—this is why you need relevant job experience, as discussed above.
There are only so many ways to ask someone “were you a good engineer at the last place you did engineering,” so most behavioral interviews end up being pretty similar. To prepare, Google “behavioral interview” questions/techniques/etc. and read the top 5 or 10 articles to get a sense of what the questions are likely to be, and the standard advice for giving a clear answer (e.g. STAR, talk about Situation, Task, your Action, and the Result). Make a list of common questions from those articles, write out your answers to them, and literally practice telling your story/answer out loud until you can do it smoothly. Seriously, practice!
Since many of the questions are variations on themes, if you have a dozen really good behavioral interview answers, chances are at least one of them will fit almost any question. Your answers should probably be 3-5 minutes long, with a focus on concrete details (no hypotheticals) and things you personally did (no “we”). Some interviewees fell the need to tell me what they learned from an experience; I would generally prefer more detail about what they did.
Also think about whether the company in question has any specific values or needs that might come up in questions other than those on the standard list, and what stories you might tell related to those. For example, safety is very important to Valero (this is obvious from our website, info session, etc.), and thus our engineering job interviews pretty much always include a question about safety. Wouldn’t be a bad idea to ask older students what kinds of interview questions they have received…the types of questions you get will probably be similar, and even the exact wording of a given company’s questions might go unchanged for years.
Classwork-related answers can be OK, but are often weak. I think one day, more than half of the people I interviewed used the same group project as one of their stories; hard to stand out from the field with class-related stories when everyone else has taken the same classes. This is a huge part of why you should put so much effort into gaining engineering work experience: so you can have good, unique interview stories about actual engineering work. When looking for a job, you should ask: “is this a job where I will be able to get good engineering interview stories?” (Or will I basically be doing rote tasks?) And on the job, remember that being an outstanding employee will often result in a good story, and similarly, thinking “what would I want to tell an interviewer that I did” can help you act like a great employee. So get and use non-classroom engineering stories.
Anticipate a question about your geographic preferences. Remember that companies do not have a lot of flexibility; they are usually trying to fill specific positions in specific locations, not create a job just for you. Consider the long run; employers may be looking to get interns who they can then hire long-term in the same location, so going somewhere you hate “just for an internship” may be silly for both you and the employer. At the same time, you can and should be open-minded. Good job experience in a dubious location beats homeless unemployment in your first-choice location. Be and act as geographically flexible as you honestly can be. Less is more: “I am very flexible” is music to a recruiter’s ears, and whatever you say is probably going to be condensed into a yes/no or single sentence summary anyway, so don’t load them up with a lot of ambiguous information. “I am very flexible, and I’d be especially enthusiastic about [location] because I have [family/connection/interest/etc] there” could also be appropriate, or “I am very open to all of your locations except California.”
An interview will generally end with a chance for you to ask the recruiter questions. Prepare two or three smart questions in advance, based on your sophisticated research (see above). Do yourself a favor and do not ask “what are you looking for in an intern?” One of the number one qualities most employers want in an intern is literally the ability to understand requirements without having them explicitly stated in great detail.
Do ask the recruiters for their contact information. Send them a short email thank you note, ideally within a few hours of your interview. They may be making hiring decisions before they leave campus, so to the extent you want to impress them, a paper thank you note will likely be too late.
I got an internship—now what?
Purchase and read the book “The Unwritten Laws of Engineering.” You maybe also be able to find some or all of the content online. I was given a copy as an intern, I’ve since have read it multiple times, and I made it standard-issue for my new engineering hires. I do not expect to write a blog post on how to be a successful engineer, because this book, published in 1944, is still the authoritative word on the subject; the principles are timeless.
Wow, this is great advice, thank you!
You’re welcome! Feel free to share this post; some of this is zero-sum (if everyone formats their resume better…) but a lot of it is not. If every engineer ends up better-prepared, notably by seeking engineering experience early, that should actually improve the world’s standard of living. If engineers did better research into companies, they could end up better-matched with their employers, again resulting in welfare gains.
Congrats on making it to the end. Rant over.
Public Square Magazine just put up a piece I wrote, on Israel (the religious concept, not just the country) as an institution.
This is what I came up with as I took President Russell M. Nelson’s challenge to study what the Lord has promised Israel, in light of my prior reading and interest in how civilizations and institutions develop over the centuries.
The editors were great to work with.
One of my 2018 New Year’s Resolutions was to teach Dan to read that year. He was due to turn 3 in April, knew a bunch of letters, and seemed to have a fair amount of verbal intelligence. It worked. By that Christmas he could read Dr. Seuss. Then we worked him up through a variety of chapter books and got him reading increasingly independently. This year, he got a Kindle (e-reader, not tablet) for his 5th birthday, and its stats show he’s been reading 30-50 hours/month, on top of everything he reads on paper. He enjoys reading books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory under his own power. How did this happen? Phonics, folks. And specifically, Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons, the one phonics book to rule them all.
(This is a book that is near and dear to my heart, hence I’ve distilled my stock rant about it into this post.)
Dan came to reading with some advantages; his mom has read to him regularly since birth, he sees his parents reading all the time, our house contains something like forty linear feet of books working their osmotic magic, I’d like to think his genetics are favorable, etc. But starting him very early, on this specific phonics program, has been a huge component of his success.
The book takes a pretty regimented, common-sense approach to reading instruction. It assumes the child starts knowing nothing but how to talk, not even the alphabet. It assumes the parent knows how to read, how to make their child sit down and pay attention, and not much else.
With those prerequisites fulfilled, it provides completely scripted phonics lessons. The parents’ lines are in red. Stage directions and the desired learner responses are in black. Material the child will read or interact with is in a larger font.
Did I mention it is completely scripted? The book starts by directing the parent to read the child a paragraph-long prepared speech that starts with “I’m going to teach you how to read.” Then Lesson 1 starts off:
And so on. Thus it requires essentially no lesson planning – it’s worth looking over the lesson in advance, especially for the first few, but no originality or creativity is required.
The book relies on building up skills in little chunks, in the Isaiah-approved “precept upon precept, line upon line” manner, with a great deal of review. First the child learns a few individual sounds. Separately, they learn to repeat words slowly, and how to speed up words after saying or hearing them slowly, e.g. “mmmooommm” vs. “mom.” They separately learn how to string sounds together, e.g. “mmmooommm” not “mmm [pause] ooo [pause] mmm.” They separately learn how to move their finger under letters and say the sounds the letters make as they do. Then all these skills are combined to let them sound out simple words.
The sequencing of concepts has obviously received a lot of thought. There are no capital letters until near the end of the book—after all, this sentence contains only one capital letter. Early in the book, all of the letters are continuant sounds (mmm, sss, rrr, etc.), where the child can hold the sound indefinitely while they think about the next letter. Stop sounds (p, t, k, etc.) are harder to sound out without pausing or introducing extra vowels, so they show up later. The names of the letters are taught as an afterthought, well after the sounds, since the child doesn’t really need to know letter names. You can easily read well without ever knowing the name of the letter “h.”
The book goes to great lengths to avoid generating confusion from special cases. Initially, each vowel has a single pronunciation; an “a” is always soft, as in “apple.” The hard “a” as in “able” is introduced later, initially with a line above it so that it’s clearly distinguished. The early examples avoid words with silent letters. Then silent letters appear, but in miniature to make clear they are silent. Then by the end of the book, the silent letters get bigger and the diacritical marks disappear.
The book says it’s for “bright three-and-a-half-year-olds, average four-and-five-year-olds.” Based on my experience, that is about right. I figured Dan is every bit of “bright,” and I was happy to challenge him, so I periodically tried going through some lessons him, starting perhaps a little before his third birthday. The first two or three times, we could get through six or ten days of lessons, but his attention span was a major challenge, and he struggled with certain concepts, notably stringing together sounds and rhyming. In August, when he was about 3 years and 4 months old, we made another attempt, and that time we ran through the program to completion. Elissa and I each did some of the lessons.
The hardest thing about the “learn to read” program was keeping Dan on task. (Somehow we ended up referring to both the process and book as “learn to read,” as in “I don’t want to do learn to read!”) He’s a pretty active, energetic kid. Sometimes I literally had to hold him down, to keep him from running off or squirming into a position where he couldn’t read. There was a lot of “Sit! Point! Read!” – and this is actually an effective pedagogical technique, relying on short reminders and directions rather than lecturing on misbehavior in a way that distracts from the lesson. When that failed, there was a fair amount of “learn to read” becoming “learn to time out.” We’d normally do a lesson right when I came home from work, and sometimes the nominally 20-minute-long lessons stretched to more like an hour.
But it was clear that Dan could do it, and that he’d be happy once he could, so I was willing to fight the battle of wills and make it happen. After all, a parent ought to be able to outlast a three-year-old. We finished up in early December, and he could read Dr. Seuss with Grandma that Christmas. And he was proud that, as a good reader, he would not end up “living in a box under a bridge in Beaumont,” one regularly reiterated purpose of the whole endeavor.
Our one modification of the program was that we ignored all the writing practice; we didn’t think Dan’s fine motor skills or attention span were going to make that a success. Elissa has since taught him to write.
Obviously finishing the “100 Easy Lessons” wasn’t the end of the effort; we continued to practice reading with him—notably by having him help read scripture stories every night—and encouraged him to read on his own. By sometime around four and a half, he was regularly reading for fun under his own power. Now, I just have to get him new books periodically.
One key technique for maintaining this is starving him of electronic entertainment—he gets to watch some movies and TV, but he absolutely does not get to play games on phones or tablets, ever. If he’s bored, he is pretty much boxed into reading or playing creatively with toys. Or whining, but you can only get sent to time out so many times before that loses its luster for a given afternoon.
The other keys are that he has quiet time in the afternoon, and a firm bedtime at night. For quiet time, which normally runs for a couple hours, he has the option to nap, play quietly (and alone) with non-electronic toys, or read. Whatever adults are home are unavailable to him except in emergencies, often themselves reading or writing. He often chooses to read. If you can hear him laughing maniacally, he’s probably reading “Calvin and Hobbes,” which we’ve had to remind him is humor, not a source of role models. Then at night, we have held his nominal bedtime at 7:00 since he was weaned. He’s old enough that he doesn’t truly need that much sleep, but we let him read his Kindle in bed, and he enjoys it. So the post-bedtime period provides another hour or so of time where he doesn’t have to read, but normally does.
But it all started with Teach Your Child to Read, which I thought was extraordinarily well-done. (I promise, they are not paying me to write this review; it’s just that good.) Unlike many professional teachers, I have no desire to be unique or be creative or encourage creativity or have fun while teaching my kid to read. I want efficiency. Teaching a child to read is fundamentally a rote task, and I just want to get it done! And the child also just wants to get it done! I don’t want to develop my own lessons or find some niche method to use; I want to deliver lessons that have been painstakingly optimized for efficiency, by professionals, across years of testing. As legendary refinery operations manager Kelly McKeehan says, “all we like is finishing!” The book is 100% aligned with this. Indeed, that’s why it’s Direct Instruction—a pedagogical philosophy sympathetic to the idea that the best way to teach students is to directly tell them things!
This has some common-sense appeal. Beyond that, Project Follow Through, one of the largest educational studies ever performed, found that Direct Instruction beats a variety of alternatives—it even helps kids’ self-esteem more than self-esteem-centric methods do. Of course, it has been pretty obvious since at least the fifties that phonics-based methods are optimal, as this book (written 1983) notes in the preface, but here we are. The Amazon reviews are also pretty compelling—as of this writing, 4.5 stars on over 8,000 reviews—and I think that’s actually how I found the book initially.
So go forth and wreak phonics on your unsuspecting three-year-olds! They will thank you in a year or two, and also as grown adults when they don’t have to live in a box under a bridge in Beaumont.
Will is coming up on three-and-a-half, so his turn starts next week.
Hello world, this is Tom. Normally Elissa does our Christmas letter, but I’ve hijacked it this year.
Executive summary: we’ve actually had a pretty good 2020, pandemic notwithstanding.
Marie was born on April 18, with a thick head of black hair. She is now babbling and crawling around like crazy. She brings out the best in her brothers and is a joy to have around. The sleep deprivation phase was rough, but at this point our sleep training methods have succeeded. She really loves gnawing on pizza. She’s definitely the highlight of the year.
In other news, we moved to San Antonio in August, as I accepted a new assignment within Valero. We’re pretty well settled in at this point, and we love the new house and area. Relative catastrophe insurance rates confirm that this is, in at least one regard, a better place to live. We’ve also enjoyed all the nice hiking nearby.
With the pandemic, we enjoyed having church at home for a good stretch of the year, although we’re back in person now. The kids make spiritual life interesting; it probably says a lot about our family that we have literally had Dan and Will practice coming in and sitting down for our nightly family scripture study. (“Ok, good, now go pretend to play until I call you in again…now let’s practice: come in for scriptures!”) They enjoyed the practice. Dan and Will also love our “family home evening” devotionals, particularly when we do this one activity where we ask them gospel questions, with chocolate chips for good answers. We’ve had to explain that we can’t just play that game every week, because sometimes, we need to teach them the answers.
We enjoyed some family outdoor adventures this year despite the pandemic – we managed to get to the Destin, Florida area as a family in July, and spent some time in Oklahoma with my parents in November, in addition to some good day hikes around San Antonio. Dan and Will are both pretty good hikers; Will is good for about 2 miles without too much trouble, and Dan can do twice that. Elissa and I also left the kids for a quick trip to Las Vegas and Death Valley in January, which was a blast.
Dan (5) was due to start Kindergarten this Fall, but with all the uncertainty around public schools this year, Elissa decided to just do home school. She’s been following a Charlotte Mason curriculum (Charlotte Mason being a Victorian-era British super-nanny, who made men from boys using Plutarch and the Bible), supplemented with a math curriculum, and Dan is thriving as a scholar. He can now recite Psalm 23 and a couple of poems. He continues to read up a storm; Beverly Cleary is a favorite author lately. He also enjoys drawing and writing; ask him about his book “Invisible Dan.”
Will (3) is fun to have around. He loves building with Duplo, especially robots and homes for his Duplo animals. Favorite authors include Dr. Seuss and Chris Van Dusen. He prays for his grandma’s health every night (she is fighting cancer), often to the exclusion of everything else (we’re working on it).
Elissa has been a rockstar parent, managing a newborn and two energetic sons, through a move, in the middle of a pandemic, while beginning to homeschool. Hurricane Laura actually hit near Groves on the week we had planned to move, so Elissa and the kids just evacuated to San Antonio and never came back. Dan, Will, and Marie all just want to be around her all of the time. She was making sourdough before it was cool, but has kept it up lately, and generally puts outstanding food on the table.
Elissa has also been making progress as a writer; she made it to the LTUE writing conference in February, has participated in a couple of writing groups, and is almost done a second draft of her YA fantasy ghost story novel “Nightwalker.” She will self-deprecate all day long, but I’ve read it and I liked it a lot. She has a plan to make revisions next year and release it next September. She’s also working on another novel.
I (Tom) am on my third Valero assignment for the year, all within our planning and economics function. I started the year managing the Port Arthur Refinery’s distillate production, then switched to running the Port Arthur linear program refinery optimization model. Then I accepted the San Antonio job, where I’m optimizing our Meraux refinery’s crude supply and the Gulf Coast system’s intermediates strategy. I’m having a lot of fun – I work with a lot of really sharp and really nice people, and it’s been satisfying to find some ways to improve the operation.
Outside of work, I’ve been reading a lot. One of my New Year’s Resolutions for 2020 was to finish a Harvard Classics volume after every few other books I read, and I’ve held to that, so I’m improving myself by deepening my familiarity with the great books of the Western canon (or at least I’m looking ever more pretentious on Goodreads). Top books include fantasy doorstop “Rhythm of War” by Brandon Sanderson; Christian philosophy in “The Girard Reader” by Rene Girard and “Leisure: The Basis of Culture” by Josef Pieper; and part of the Maxwell Institute “brief theological introduction” series on the Book of Mormon. I’m also doing some scripture-related memorization using Anki, a spaced repetition flashcard app. I’m calling the Mormon Texts Project basically done, and I’ve put up occasional posts on this blog.
We carried on Nysetvold family tradition by making chocolates over Thanksgiving, and we’re excited to see both sides of our family over Christmas. As we celebrate the birth of the Savior, we’re grateful for each other, our families, and His love.
Brennen Ricks, a guy from my ward, had the interesting idea of putting together a ~20K word cut of the Book of Mormon. I usually prefer to read complete works, and particularly with the Book of Mormon I wish other people would too. But at the same time I recognize there are readers who don’t share my preference, and this type of cut can have value. Here’s my review of the result, as posted on Amazon with the headline “Good stuff, if not 100% representative of the Book of Mormon as a whole:”
This is a pretty well-done attempt at selecting a short set of Book of Mormon readings. There’s a bit of intro and context for each of the selections, but it mostly lets the text speak for itself. It consists primarily of complete verses, generally in less-than-chapter-length sequences, often with digressing or amplifying verses removed. Verse numbers are provided, so it is clear when this has occurred, and it’s generally done in a way that keeps the reading experience relatively smooth. The result is a reasonable introduction to the Book of Mormon. I would love for thousands of people to read it.
However, there are a lot of possible cuts of the Book of Mormon where the above statements are true. So what type of cut is this?
The Book of Mormon contains some accessible material that would strengthen whatever faith contemporary readers already have, and also contains material that would challenge many contemporary readers’ assumptions. This set of selections consists primarily of what I’d consider to be accessible material. This cut also focuses primarily on doctrine, much of it the relatively straightforward doctrine of Christ. It isn’t a random sample or a fully representative sample.
This is both good and bad.
A casual reader with vaguely Protestant beliefs might get the incorrect impression that there isn’t much to distinguish the Book of Mormon from what they already know. Specifically, the Book of Mormon identifies some contemporary sins and false doctrines that many new readers of the book are likely to share in, despite their avowed Christianity, but those passages were not selected for this book (e.g. 2 Nephi 25-30 discussion of apostasy).
The cut also preserves little plot material (as distinct from doctrinal material) or dialogue. Few of the significant miracles make it. None of the anti-Christ figures (Sherem, Nehor, Korihor) or related doctrinal discussion make it in. Nothing of military or political interest makes it: no Captain Moroni, no Anti-Nephi-Lehi pacifism, no rejection of monarchy by King Mosiah, etc. Nephi’s experiences are trimmed; for example, Laban and the related moral dilemma do not appear. Chastisement and calls to repentance are possibly under-represented relative to the Book of Mormon as a whole.
So it’s sort of like a cut of the Gospels that gets part of the sermon on the mount, excerpts from John’s account of the last supper and intercessory prayer, and trimmed-down nativity and crucifixion stories. That would not be an unreasonable approach to take, and it would be an extremely valuable thing for people to read. But no one ought to read it and feel they truly got the full experience of reading the work of scripture.
So by all means, read this for a sampling of Book of Mormon doctrine; there is great stuff here. And then go read the full book, which is available for free in a variety of formats (audiobook, ebook, hard copy, etc.). “The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text” is a great reading edition (and a beautifully bound hardcover), or the standard issue version is heavily footnoted for study.
Disclosure – I received a $5 Amazon gift card from the author, to buy myself a copy with.
Genealogy is cool, and it’s good for your soul to spend some time thinking about your ancestors. For this and other good theological reasons, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints asks members to work on their own family history, particularly on FamilySearch.org. People often seem to either take this incredibly seriously, or do none of it whatsoever, which is a shame. We need more mediocre genealogists!
In the last few years, I’ve developed some very mediocre family history methods, which I now share. (If you’re already a good genealogist, it might be best if you just stop reading here.)
My main, almost exclusive activity is to log in to FamilySearch.org and use the “Record Hints” function. My family tree, like those of many Church members, is already pretty well populated thanks to work by others in my family. I can trace my genealogy back to England, Scotland, Wales, Sweden, Norway, France, Italy, pilgrims, pioneers, and Pocahontas (really). Going back further there are various royal lines. Hugh Capet, King of the Franks, is my great^33 grandfather, if I just counted correctly, not to mention my link to King Merfyn “the Oppressor” of Gywnned, in Wales. Then at least one of the royal lines bleeds back into fabrication that then lashes back into Biblical genealogy all the way to Adam. I can’t readily find that one right now.
I’m just saying…there’s a lot there.
However, many of the individuals are not well cited/linked to their substantiating records. “Record Hints” will point this out, often uncovering records that can be linked to an individual but are not currently cited on that individual’s page. There seems to be a pretty decent search algorithm underlying this function.
These records then often have some extra information—a previously unknown child, parent, child’s spouse, child’s family, etc. Or they will be partially attached to a duplicate person or family, which can then be merged. And as long as you’re attaching new records to the person and getting a basic sense for them, you can click “possible duplicates” and merge any that do not have distinguishing information.
This is made easier by my policy of trying not to over-think things. Two family search entities with the same name, who lack any other distinguishing information or differentiating records, are presumptively the same person. People with the same name, birth date, and birth place are presumptively the same. I try to avoid generating new confusion, but if it’s really unclear from the records what is going on, I am ok with the idea of leaving some pre-existing confusion or inconsistency behind and moving on to the next issue. More records and more time will eventually be available to resolve such things. At least in my tree, there is enough scope for resolving obvious issues (duplication, lacking record links) that I haven’t needed to get bogged down in subtleties.
This is like a computer science breadth-first search—rather than diving to the bottom of each rabbit hole in series, I’m first going to survey the whole breadth of the pasture. I think the number of direct ancestors currently identified in my tree almost certainly exceeds 2^10 (=1024), and adding their identifiable descendants (other than my direct ancestors), aunts, etc. for a couple generations off the main line increases that by perhaps two orders of magnitude. So the most basic level of effort—fix obvious duplicates, attach obvious record citations—has given me plenty of work for the last year or three, with no end in sight. As new records keep getting indexed, the work expands.
The final ingredient in my program of family history mediocrity is to spend a limited amount of time on it, not very often. I have an evergreen Google Task to “Poke at family search at least once on even months – every month until temple reopens.” The technical term “poke” means to open the website, open up the record hints function, and try to do something with at least one or two of the hints. Often I’ll get into it, and spend an hour or two at it, but sometimes it’s pretty quick.
So I do a deliberately mediocre job of applying the easiest family history tool, for a limited amount of time, not that frequently – once a month (or pre-pandemic, every other month). And it makes me happy! It’s interesting and fun, and I do think it’s good for my soul. Burnout has not been an issue; smolder is the name of the game. If I get to where I have more free time or a spiritual need to do more, I’ve got a good base habit to build upon. In the meantime, while I have young children and so forth, I feel like I’m making a good faith effort to comply with the exhortation to do some genealogy.
I recommend these practices if you don’t have something better. You, too, can rise up and become a family history mediocrity!
In this Thankgsiving week, I’m taking some time to reflect on the things I’m grateful for.
I am grateful for my family. My wife Elissa is awesome. She is smart, beautiful, creative, funny, makes amazing food, and writes great stories. She is also an incredible mother for our kids, nurturing them along, teaching them, and challenging them to be better.
I’m also grateful for my kids. Dan, Will, and Marie are pretty much exactly what I hoped for in kids. They’re adorable and precocious, they love us and each other, and they are making steady progress towards becoming civilized members of society.
I’m grateful for my parents and siblings (both sets!) and for my extended family: my grandparents, aunts, uncles, my 32 first cousins, and so on.
I’m grateful for the gospel. I’m thankful that Christ lived and died for me, and that thanks to him I can repent and receive the gift of eternal life. I’m grateful to have an understanding of God’s plan for me, and to know that I can be with my family forever by adhering to it. I’m thankful for the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and other revelation that teaches me of Christ. I’m thankful for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which has made a fundamental difference in my life, and its President, Russel M. Nelson, who inspired this post with his recent message on gratitude.
On the meta-level, I’m grateful for an understanding of gratitude. The hedonic treadmill is real: the default human reaction to any good thing includes gaining, almost instantly, a corresponding sense of entitlement. (I have a 5 year old – I am not just guessing here.) Happiness has a lot to do with the difference between reality and expectations. Most people are more interested in changing their stubborn reality than changing their stubborn expectations, but expectations are fundamentally internal, under the individual’s control, and reality is not. The direct appeal to “fix your attitude, stupid” is what makes Stoic philosophy great, but is hard to mentally adopt or sustain. “Be grateful” is easier on the ears and mind, provides a positive program, and gets you to a similar place.
I’m grateful for my job. Valero is an amazing company to work for. All of my supervisors have been good, and my assignments have mattered to the company and the world at large. It feels good to personally shave a femto-penny off global diesel prices, or otherwise help people get the fuels they need. The company has taken care of us financially, supplied my family with excellent medical care, supported me in getting an MBA, and helped me out after Hurricane Harvey. Through it all, the company has made it possible for me to have reasonable overall work-life balance.
I’m grateful to live in the United States. It’s not a perfect country, but there’s nowhere I’d rather belong. I can live my religion. I am largely free to live my life. The taxes are bearable, administered in a reasonably even-handed way, and not completely wasted. The National and State Park system has a lot to recommend it. NASA does some cool stuff. Operation Warp Speed is a good thing. Constitutional checks and balances have warded off disaster pretty effectively so far, and will likely continue to do so. I’m grateful for those who have sacrificed to establish and defend the country.
I’m grateful for instant gratification consumer products. It is super easy and cheap to get useful stuff! I’m not trying to go all “Black Friday” and completely suffuse Thanksgiving week with the crass contemplation of material stuff. But at the same time, the availability of high-quality and inexpensive food, clothing, household goods, tools, books, transportation, etc. etc. is a Good Thing. Capitalism is satisfying all of my needs, and most of my wants.
I’m grateful for books. There are an incredible number of great books out there to read, and most of them are cheap or free! For a small percentage of my income I can read pretty much everything I want to. I am also grateful for Project Gutenberg and the volunteers of the Mormon Texts Project for making a ton of great books free. I’m grateful for technology that makes that (and this post, and even a few other things) possible.
I’m grateful for nature. There are sure a lot of great places to walk, hike, camp, swim, and so on. The variety of terrain, landforms, rocks, plants, and animals in the world is amazing. It’s amazing how much we know about all of it, and how much we can do with it (supercomputers made of sand!). Mountains are amazing. The stars are amazing.
And I’m thankful for you, internet person. Thanks for reading. Happy Thanksgiving!
I was asked to speak in church today on Elder Scott D. Whiting’s recent conference talk, “Becoming Like Him,” for about 5 or 6 minutes. I delivered the talk in my congregation, the Sonoma Ranch Ward (meets here at noon) more or less as written below.
Good Afternoon! I’m Tom Nysetvold, and I just moved to the area for a new Valero assignment around September 1, with my wife Elissa and our kids. They are Dan, who’s 5; Will, who’s 3; and Marie, who just passed the 6 month mark. We like reading, writing, hiking, and making food. Will likes Dr. Seuss, Dan likes reading Roald Dahl, and Elissa and I are both big fans of Tolkien and Brandon Sanderson. I only have about 5 minutes, so that’s enough about us.
I was asked to speak today about Elder Scott D. Whiting’s October 2020 talk “Becoming Like Him,” which I’ll occasionally paraphrase. Elder Whiting references 3 Nephi 27:27, where Christ asked the people “What manner of men ought ye to be?” and answered “Verily I say unto you, even as I am.” We are commanded to become like Christ. Elder Whiting likened this to climbing Mount Fuji, a challenge that has to be approached one step at a time.
There’s a quote from President Oaks on this idea of becoming, which I like a lot. He said:
“…the Final Judgment is not just an evaluation of a sum total of good and evil acts—what we have done. It is an acknowledgment of the final effect of our acts and thoughts—what we have become. It is not enough for anyone just to go through the motions. The commandments, ordinances, and covenants of the gospel are not a list of deposits required to be made in some heavenly account. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a plan that shows us how to become what our Heavenly Father desires us to become.” [Oaks, “The Challenge to Become,” October 2010]
The core recommendation of Elder Whiting’s talk on “becoming” is to pick a specific attribute of Christ to work on. I think a vague commitment to “be Christ-like” can end up reducing to “be nice” or “be a decent person.” It’s can be a kind of squishy concept. It’s the grown-up version of telling a toddler to “be good.” There are lots of ways to “be good.” There’s only one way to “obediently and quietly stay in your room after bedtime.” The specificity has value.
A narrower commitment to develop a specific Christ-like attribute, with harder lines around it, can help us precisely because it is narrower and better-defined. The attribute can remind us that the bar is high and firm. In a footnote, Elder Whiting shares an observation from minister Charles Sheldon:
If our definition of being a Christian is simply to enjoy the privileges of worship, be generous at no expense to ourselves, have a good, easy time surrounded by pleasant friends and by comfortable things, live respectably and at the same time avoid the world’s great stress of sin and trouble because it is too much pain to bear it—if this is our definition of Christianity, surely we are a long way from following [in] the steps of Him who trod the way with groans and tears and sobs of anguish for a lost humanity; who sweat, as it were, great drops of blood, who cried out on the upreared cross, ‘My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?
So to truly follow the challenging path marked out by Christ, we need to do more than be decent – we need to become like him, in a specific attribute-by-attribute way. Elder Whiting explains the value of choosing one specific attribute to focus on:
“By focusing deeply on one needed attribute, as you progress in obtaining that attribute, other attributes begin to accrue to you. Can someone who is focusing deeply on charity not increase in love and humility? Can someone who is focusing on obedience not gain greater diligence and hope? Your significant efforts to gain one attribute become the tide that raises all boats in the harbor.”
Introspection and discussion with family or close friends can help determine an attribute to focus on. Elder Whiting also says “it is vital that we also ask our loving Heavenly Father what we are in need of and where we should focus our efforts. He has a perfect view of us and will lovingly show us our weakness. Perhaps you will learn that you need greater patience, humility, charity, love, hope, diligence, or obedience, to name a few.”
This makes sense to me – I’ve chosen an attribute to work on myself, and I think the specificity will help me. I invite you to do the same.
As we focus on a specific attribute, we will be able to see examples of it in others and in the scriptures. It can provide a lens to view the world, sharpening our vision.
We really can make progress. Elder Whiting references the scripture mastery classic, Ether 12:27:
And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.
As always, we need not run faster than we have strength, but we must be diligent. Elder Whiting warns us that:
The commandment to be like Him is not intended to make you feel guilty, unworthy, or unloved. Our entire mortal experience is about progression, trying, failing, and succeeding. As much as my wife and I may have wished that we could close our eyes and magically transport ourselves to the summit, that is not what life is about.
You are good enough, you are loved, but that does not mean that you are yet complete. There is work to be done in this life and the next. Only with His divine help can we all progress toward becoming like Him.
I know that focusing on a specific attribute can help us learn of Christ and become more like him. I know that as we strive to become like Christ, we can know that we’re heading in the right direction, and we can feel the peace he has promised to his disciples. I know the Book of Mormon is the word of God and that President Nelson is God’s prophet today, and that they will help us as we work to gain Christ’s attributes. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.
I thought this went all right. Five or six minutes is a shorter window than I’m historically used to, with the service shortened for the pandemic, but I think I did a reasonable job of explaining something that is both true and important. Hard to gauge crowd reaction when everyone is wearing a mask, but if anyone keeled over dead from boredom, they did it discreetly. The “talk on a talk” prompt is always a bit constraining–this is not my most original writing–but in this case I really did like the source talk, and I thought the key recommendation to pick an attribute of Christ and work on developing it was a worthy topic.