MOOC Week 2: In Which I Cry More than Once

This week in our Machine Learning Coursera class, we had an assignment! So far, we’ve just had formative and evaluative assessments, but today we had to actually program something. I am, let’s say, “under-experienced” with programming. Up until yesterday, my programming accomplishments have been: messing with existing HTML/CSS to make my website pretty, a couple codeacademy courses more than a year ago, and a statistics class, in which I wrestled with R every week to find the correct freaking working directory. Once, with lots of help, I made a button in Javascript. It counted how many times it was pressed. It took hours to make and I cried, but eventually, it worked.

the bowl-shaped plot of a cost function
A cost function, J(θ), for a univariate regression model. Here, θ is a matrix of two values, which are represented on the lower axes: a coefficient for one variable x and a y intercept.

Our assignment yesterday involved programming a Cost Function (in ML, a function mapping the sums of squared errors resulting from potential regression coefficients applied to the same data, which are serving here as training data) and the meaty part of a gradient descent algorithm– a program that will grope around on that cost function (hopefully in an orderly way) to find its minimum. The goal of this exercise is to find the point where the error between the model’s predictions and the actual values are the lowest: the best model to predict future data.

Well. As you can imagine, this was somewhat harder than my hard-won Javascript button. It also involved a lot of matrix algebra, which I had happily forgotten existed up until a week ago.

I made my life significantly more difficult by leaving this assignment to the last day– a day on which I had a brunch to go to and a class to teach. I think you can see where this is going?

Fortunately for me, Brandon took the time while I was teaching to do the assignment first. I would have flunked out last night if it weren’t for him. OK, let’s be honest, I would have flunked out in week 1 if it weren’t for him.

What he discovered, through much annoyance on his part and much to my relief, is that the assignment as written looked very long and complicated (15 pages of instructions!) but really consisted of editing 3 files. It took me a while to believe him and stop reading the assignment instructions, but– let it be known across the Internet (and especially among future Coursera students)– he was right! Saved me hours I did not have to spend parsing the assignment doc.

Of course, it was still difficult. Not only was I having to re-google matrix algebra repeatedly, I had never used Matlab before and had forgotten nearly everything I learned about writing code. The assignment took almost all the time I had available (even with a generous amount of help from B). Repeatedly running code and getting “inner dimensions must agree” was abundantly frustrating. I didn’t have time to take a break and recoup or calm down or be grateful for my progress– I had to get the assignment in by midnight. This is all complicated by my false and self-fulfilling belief that I am inherently bad at math and my long-running battle with a paralyzing fear of failure. By the time I submitted the assignment, I didn’t feel much relief or accomplishment– I felt I was about 11 years old, crying at the dinner table with my dad, trying to get through my algebra homework.

Obviously, we can’t have this happening every weekend for the rest of the summer. So here’s the new plan:

When I feel frustrated, I will take a break. I’ll get a glass of water, take a walk, or lay down for a bit and encourage myself. Remind myself of all the benefits of not getting something right the first time.

We aim to get the assignments done by Tuesday. They are due Sunday night, so we will have plenty of time to be kind to ourselves.

We will keep evaluating the plan so we can make it better if need be.

From this week forward, I’ll be trying to see this class as an opportunity to learn to use failure as a tool for learning (in addition to its curricular topics and Matlab benefits : )

 

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Talk Nerdy to Me

whatsthepointlogoQuick note to tell you about a podcast I’ve been listening to lately: fivethirtyeight’s What’s the Point.

It’s about how people use data and algorithms in different domains, and what the consequences are to the rest of us. I’m really enjoying it, especially (of course) when they get into ethics. I recommend the most recent episode, “The Gap Between What you Like and What You Say You Like.” Super interesting, accessible, and relatable.

I love podcasts. They are an easy and interesting way too keep up on and learn more about things I am curious about, and they keep me from being bored while I clean and commute. I’ll do a future post on my podcast addiction, but suffice it to say, if I’m not actively reading or writing, you can bet I’m listening to a podcast.

And this one’s got about a year’s worth of back episodes to listen to :) Gotta love that offline listening <3

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I’ll Try Really Hard Not to Drop Out of this MOOC

Is this Angelina Jolie?
No, I don’t think it is. (Photo Credit: Bart Everson via Flickr)

I’m taking a MOOC! A MOOC is a Massively Open Online Course; this one is on a platform called Coursera, and it’s about machine learning. ML allows computers to learn in a meaningful way without being programmed. Google uses machine learning to improve its search results, Apple and Facebook use it for their photo recognition software, Tesla (and many others) use it in their self-driving cars, Google used it to beat the best humans at Go, a famously complex game, and IBM’s Watson is helping people tackle cancer. Not that I intend to compete with any that, but suffice it to say, I’m interested.

There are lots of people in our “class”– last we checked, around 750 had introduced themselves on the forum! Of course, studies show that completion rates for these types of classes are low– a little below 7%. I am definitely concerned that I might be part of the 93% who drop out for whatever reason, so I’ll promise in advance to be reflective and write a post about why I quit if I in fact do. I read through some of the posts my classmates have made introducing themselves, and they truly are from everywhere– France, India, China, Rwanda, Kentucky– and have all different levels of education. I’m not the only doctoral student, and there’s at least one middle school student enrolled!

For this class, there’s some recommended content knowledge, but no formal pre-requisites. It doesn’t cost money to take the course, but if you’d like a certificate, you can pay about $50. B and I aren’t taking it for a certificate, we’re just curious!

It’s not part of my degree program, so I don’t need to take it for any kind of credit– I think the understanding of the technology and the social experience of taking an online computer science course will be useful for my research. Machine learning could be an interesting data analysis method for me. It will certainly require its designers to make interesting ethical choices, and if I get the chance to study such a design team in the future, it will be helpful for me to understand the technology they are using.

So far, the class is interesting. This week, we are learning about the algorithms that statistical programs like R use to find coefficients for univariate regressions. It’s a fun counterpart to the linear modeling class I took first term which used that kind of software. It promises to tough, and an excellent opportunity for me to practice what I’ve been learning about growth mindset and grit!
We completed our first week today. I’ve passed all my assignments and have only cried once!

More info (& crying) to come on this, I’m sure.

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First summer weekly reflection

Today I did my first reflection on my weekly schedule. As I explained last week, I am trying to continuously improve my work habits so that I am as effective as possible by the time I have a huge, independent dissertation project on my plate in a year or so.

Here’s what I observed this week:

  • I did not stick to my schedule on weekends. Although my Saturday is indistinguishable from my Monday, the same cannot be said for my friends! I want to maintain and improve my social connections, which I rarely have the opportunity to do since my move, so it’s important to me to carve out time for friends and family.
  • My starting time is manageable. My first draft of the weekly schedule included 5 hours of work per day, 7 days a week. I worked from 11:30 am to 4:30 pm. I started that late so I could enjoy staying out or up late on an occasional “work night” since every night is a work night :) I found it easy to be working by 11:30, and could consider moving it up a bit if necessary.
  • I don’t need a lunch break. I had scheduled one in last week’s draft, but didn’t use it. I will get rid of it, and I will think this week about breaks. Studies show that they are important for productivity and health, so I will need to include them.
  • Ambiguous work tasks tank my productivity. I spent nearly entire work day completely wasting my time until I realized that the task on my plate was intimidating and confusing because I didn’t know what specific things to do to accomplish it best. “Work on the paper” is too vague for me.

Here’s how I addressed each observation:

  • Weekends. This one is an open question still.Each draft of my schedule includes a section for “open questions” to acknowledge and focus my attention on unsolved problems. I may not have an answer for every problem right away, and I refuse to let the perfect be the enemy of the good in this project. I had to adjust my weekend schedule anyway because I took on a class on Saturdays, so I’ll experiment with this new schedule and see whether it’s easier or harder. I have another idea to solve this waiting in the wings, but I want to change my schedule incrementally so I can get the best picture of what actually works.
  • Starting time. I decided to stick with the 11:30 starting time for another week to solidify the habit of daily work at a comfortable time, but I will consider moving it earlier for the following week. My goal for evaluating start times will finding one that supports the most productivity during the day, not starting as early as possible for earliness’ sake.
  • Breaks. I eliminated the lunch break and brought in another project that had originally been relegated to free time. I’ve added breaks to my open questions and plan to observe my needs and existing habits for breaks closely over the next week.
  • Ambiguous work. This last week, when I wasted a day I redeemed it near the end by using GTD’s project planning technique to clarify my goals, define my desired outcome, and create concrete, goal-oriented “next actions.” This cleared up my thoughts and the next day, I was back on track.

Draft 2 is on paper!

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Summer plans!

I’m trying a new thing this summer. I want to meet some specific goals in terms of each of three priority projects this summer, but I struggle to remain productive with unstructured time.

I’ve devised a plan for my work days that will support those goals and will help me build on what I learn so that when I have to, say, write a dissertation, I won’t have to figure it out from scratch.

Here’s the plan.
1. Get up to date in GTD. GTD is a productivity system laid out in the book “Getting Things Done” by David Allen. I have tweaked it slightly for my own needs and implemented in in workflowy. The system and software work really well with each other and with my mind, when I am actively using them. The end of this last semester threw me off a bit, so my first goal will be to get my list back up to date. This included narrowing down all the projects I am interested in to the ones I am planning to actively work on this summer. It also includes setting up a time for a “weekly review” so that I keep my list up to date and in line with my priorities.

2. Plan out my week. Although it’s not specifically sanctioned by GTD, in order to make sure I’m spending my time in appropriate proportions on my projects (not just on what seems most urgent or interesting that day) I’ve scheduled out work time for each of my projects during the week. I plan to work about 5 hours per day, 7 days a week.

My first draft of the plan started with a list of the projects I’d identified as important. I allocated a number of hours per week to work on each, and then drew a map of each of the seven days. Along with blocks for each project, I included regular calls, lunch, and maintenance tasks like cleaning. I also have a space for “Open Questions” on the planning page that will serve as prompts for the next step.

3. Reevaluate. On the same day as my weekly review, I have time planned to write about what I’ve learned about working when I have autonomy over my time. This will give me a time to reflect and adjust my plans if I need to.  A week will give me a chance to test out every aspect of the plan before altering it, but each new plan will be lower-pressure: it’s not My Life Plan, it’s just what I’ve committed to for the week.

The written reflections will help me learn week-to-week and help me understand the effects of each change. Hopefully, by the time this summer is over, I will have not only a solid routine established, I will also have a better understanding of how I work and what my options for a routine are so that I can apply all of that knowledge to new circumstances in the winter, next summer, and during my dissertation work.

Commit, test, reflect, adjust. That’s the plan.

I’ve got time planned in my week for blogging, so I will keep this up to date :)

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Downs and Ups

It’s finals time!

I thought I’d throw up a quick post to talk about what the end of the semester looks and feels like, rather than waiting until after I’ve recovered.

Here’s what I’ve been up to:

  • At the end of our first year, we do a review of our progress with a committee. It went well, but compiling the materials consumed a lot of time and thought. The process and the review was a very productive exercise in thinking about my career, so it was worth it. I may to a future post about first year reviews.
  • I took an extra class this term, which I don’t recommend. It was interesting, and supposed to only be IMG_2194two credits’ worth of work, but it turned out to be a lot throughout the semester, and it added significantly to my end-of-semester workload. Today we gave our final presentations, and although the class and its content were great, it’s a relief that that’s over.
  • I bit off more than I could chew for a big final project and I’m excited about the outcome enough that I’m going to do the work instead of scaling it down, but intrinsic motivation is a double-sided coin. That’s how you end up with to-do list like this one.
  • I stayed up really late last night on accident. I wasn’t even doing anything useful, I was relaxing with Gilmore Girls!

So this morning, I had to be at school for a talk and a class. It turned out to be well-worth the short sleep– the talk was about how the idea and practice of trigger warnings have evolved, how they are used, and how they do (or don’t) function in the college classroom.

For some reason I can’t explain, I got really sad in the time between that talk and my class. I’m not used to acknowledging my feelings, so I may never get to the bottom of this one, other than that I was tired and it didn’t take much :)

I tried to take a walk, but the outside is full of people. I sent a text to my partner, but it was early on the west coast, and he was still asleep. Eventually, found a comfortable chair somewhat out of the way, made myself some tea, and meditated a bit.

It helped a lot to acknowledge how I was feeling, and that it was OK. Someone from my lab even asked if I was OK; I lied to him (Sorry!– bad socialization) but I really appreciated it. For what it’s worth, I think he– and anyone in my department– would have understood. After all, they were grad students once.

So the end of the semester is challenging, as you’d expect. But even though most of the stress is my own fault, I wouldn’t trade it. I’m excited about my occupation for the first time ever, and I am confident I can make it (also pretty rare for me :).

To conclude, I’ll share this Facebook post I made last week about this same paper (that of the big to-do list). I am very happy to stand behind it, even on this less-than-easy day.

Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 10.46.50 PM

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The Alternative?

This is a “reprint” of a post I wrote for an in-class, private blog as an assignment last term, slightly edited. It is a response to articles about mental health challenges in graduate school; something like this one.

I was inspired to fetch and post this publicly by a conversation I had with some more senior (and one former) graduate student today about whether and how we were prepared for the intellectual and emotional work of grad school.

I post this with gratitude to my friends whom I mention here, all now PhDs in their own rights :) 

I feel lucky to be here.

I am aware————————–de=erd   [<– this is the contribution of my cat, Mandelbrot! I’ll use this occasion to try that sentence again]

I was convinced for most of my life that I was only possessed of aptitudes for which I could not be paid: drawing, painting, poetry, the verbal sections of standardized tests, and getting things down from high shelves. This would have been fine– that’s what hobbies and short roommates are for!– except it also turned out that I was pretty bad at doing things that did pay, and pretty miserable doing them, too. I thought I was just not very clever, and rewarding work wasn’t in my future, until I met some grad students.

I had this impression that in order to pursue a PhD, you needed to be some kind of savant– that if I were to meet people who were doing so I’d have so little in common with them that we couldn’t even communicate. But I was way off.

The graduate students I met were sharp, of course, but also friendly and fun! They had meaningful conversations thoughtfully, and, surprisingly, they cared about *my* thoughts, too. They wanted to know what I was curious about, what my ideas were. They even thought some of my ideas and questions were good, and I felt like I was a real, equal partner in our discussions. Meanwhile, at work, I would be asked for my opinion, ignored or over-ridden by someone senior to me, required to execute and stand behind something obviously stupid, and then told to clean up after those ideas went wrong.

And the more I got to know my academic friends, I noticed something really amazing. More than anyone I knew, they sincerely loved their work. People say, “don’t ask a grad student about their thesis topic,” and I can’t think of worse advice. I mean, yeah, don’t ask when it will be done, but if you like to learn,  the person to ask is someone who taken on huge opportunity costs to become an expert in a topic that they care about. So they were experts, they worked hard, and they loved their work. I quickly grew to love graduate student parties, because I could go around and ask, “so what do you study?” It might take a few follow-up questions to convince them I was actually interested, but eventually, I could learn a ton about something from someone who knows all about it, and gave up what is often considerable income potential because they care about it so much.

The value surplus of my friends’ work expand the human knowledge by pin pricks, and I worked to– what exactly? prevent a start-up from failing? Make some board members (marginally more) wealthy?

So if there’s a checklist, my friends had autonomy, mastery, and purpose, and I had none of the above.

After being told by a senior executive that I was here to be “something nice to look at,” being spied on, and finally asked to do something unethical, I quit my last start-up job, and I promised myself I wouldn’t find another until I took those GRE books out of my trunk and put them to use.

I spent the next year gathering research and teaching experience to give this an honest shot. By the time I got into this, I had seen my friends go through comps, prospectus defenses, dissertation defenses, and the job market. It looked terrifying, though they all handled it with grace. They confessed it was brutal, and it was totally worth it.

The choice was perhaps easier for me than them, even with open eyes to the difficulties, because the payoff–rewarding work– was a unicorn I never dared believe existed (and frankly my alternative was pretty shitty.)

My partner, Brandon, persuaded me to write a plan (in GTD style) for how I’d get in to graduate school. I went back to check it out (had to go look in the “Completed” section by the way– what a trip!)  Here are the purposes and principles for my “get into graduate school” project:

  • Enjoy learning and researching for 4-7 years, and expand human knowledge by a pin prick at a time
  • Qualify for a career in which I can continue to enjoy learning and research (in academia or industry)
  • Qualify for a career in which I can continue to expand human knowledge (pin pricks at a time)
  • Qualify for a career in which I can spread enthusiasm for science among people like me, who initially were intimidated or uninterested
  • Qualify as a expert in something, about which I can write
  • Qualify for a career in which I could feel autonomy, mastery, and purpose
  • Have an income for 4-7 years
  • Expand my social network with more thoughtful, invested, ambitious people
  • Publish a first-author paper
  • Don’t idolize R1, TT jobs
  • Don’t put your name on half-assed work

Fortunately, all of these things can be accomplished if I end up working in industry. So as as intimidating as the pressures created by the structure of academia are, and as much as I want to fix the issues that plague the academy for the sake of current professors and undergraduates, I am walking in with open eyes and and a back up plan.

It’s fun to end with a photo, so here is Mandelbrot gloating about her astute blog contribution.

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Creepy

I hesitate to write this, but I think it’s important. When I was an undergraduate at a large, state campus, I didn’t fully register how different my experience was than my male classmates’, nor how that scaled and effected the subjective experience and opportunity of women at college or in the world in general. As a more aware, 29 year-old graduate student, I’m in a new position to write about some parts of the college experience as a woman with a bit more life experience.

Today, I wrote this tweet about flipping off a catcaller.

My Twitter account is apparently attached to my Facebook account, and the post generated some great conversation there about why people catcall and how to respond.

In fact, it wasn’t just the guy in the parking lot who decided to tell me what he thought of my body today. While I was walking to and waiting for the bus, 6 different guys honked at me or shouted out their car windows loud enough for me to notice over my podcast (most of them were work vehicles, surprisingly).

I mean, I did take the long way today, but still. 6. That even one guy thought I was there for his visual appreciation and that it was OK to go out of his way to express that idea is pretty frustrating, but 6?

So, my enlightened readers know that I was not walking in this parking lot wondering what this random man in a windowless van thinks of my body. Instead, I was walking to the shuttle to get to work, where I think original thoughts, feel feelings, contribute, and otherwise operate just like an autonomous human being. But guess what about that shuttle?

The University offers this free shuttle to help students, faculty, and staff live in more affordable areas and commute to school. I love the shuttle– it’s key to my being able to live without a car! That said, the moment I show my ID to the driver and turn to take a seat, there are three people I look for.

Stare-y McStareson. Stare-y is easy to notice, because he sits in the seats at the front of the bus that face the center, rather than the front, and stares. He is an equal opportunity starer at first– his gaze follows men and women as they get on the bus. If there’s no one actively getting on the shuttle, he takes turns staring at the women he can see from his seat. If Stare-y McStareson is on the shuttle, I want to try to sit in the back– ideally with several people between me and him. I get the sense that he is just surprisingly un-self-aware, but it is quite unsettling. He would be no problem at all if it weren’t for…

J. J tends to sit in the back of the bus. He takes the shuttle at night on his way home from work with a restaurant on campus around 9 when I get out of class, and gets off at the same stop as I do. I know his first initial because he first time we got off the bus together, he was friendly and we had a nice chat as we walked back to our neighborhood. He was the first person I’d met in my neighborhood, so when he handed me his phone to put my number in, I decided against feeling rude and handing it back, even though I got a bit of a vibe from him. When I did this, I figured I’d mention my boyfriend at the first opportunity and he’d get the hint, and maybe we could be friends. I didn’t realize at the time that he went way out of his way to walk me to my apartment. I also didn’t expect him to be so persistent. This is the last part of our email exchange, after I fully registered that there was no hope of simple friendship.

IMG_2122 IMG_2123 IMG_2124 IMG_2125 IMG_2126

The “Hey not being funny. . . ” text is in response to an IRL moment, in which I saw him on the shuttle, he asked why I wasn’t responding to his text messages, and I told him he was making me uncomfortable.

If you’re keeping score at home, that’s 4 times (not including the very first text response, in which I said I had a boyfriend I was very happy with and was not looking for dates) that I tried to get him to back off, very directly. Can you imagine how a young woman who has been socialized to be polite and accommodating would feel and respond to this guy? Even I, Feminist Shrew, felt guilty and mean and scared the first two times, until I got pissed.

Wild Card. The last guy on the shuttle I look for we’ll call Wild Card. I met him a few weeks ago, I was waiting for lunch, listening to a podcast on headphones. I noticed someone waiting to order was looking right at me. Startled, I didn’t register the words he was mouthing at me.

“What?” I asked.

“I know you.” He said. I didn’t recognize him. Alarmed, I took out my headphones.

“What?” I asked again.

He proceeded to tell me where I work and the number of the shuttle route I take to get there. Then he asked me where I live.

Now, I have no proof, or honestly even a reason to believe that this man was anything other than a shockingly unempathetic, immature guy who had no idea how he was coming off. But the risk that his ignorance extends to perceived entitlement to women’s time, affection, or even bodies is non-zero.  And frankly the fact that he can make it to his age without thinking about what it might be like to be a woman is telling and infuriating.

And that’s why I think it’s important to talk about these non-incident incidents. If we don’t talk about what it’s like to constantly assess threats, try to balance being assertive and feeling safe, strategically choosing a seat on the bus, and weighing a long walk home in the dark from the city bus stop against getting off the shuttle with the guy who will not leave you alone, people who don’t have to deal with it will not be able to empathize, even if they may want to.

The privilege of not being female may protect you from this experience, but so may living in a safe neighborhood, or living with a male partner– I’ve lived here for 8 months and I have never experienced this level of street harassment or inappropriate come-ons in any city I’ve lived in the past. But if you haven’t had this experience or it’s a rare nuisance, please consider not dismissing the women who complain about it as paranoid or sensitive. The probability of their being in physical danger may indeed be small, but potential cost of letting her guard down is astronomical, and the emotional experience of being treated like a powerless object is a real, damaging thing.

If you have kids of either gender, talk to them about this stuff. If they empathize, they won’t do it, and they won’t stand for their friends doing it. And when they go off to college or move out to develop their career, your daughters will be prepared to resist the pressure to be polite when others are being rude and creepy. There’s very little risk that your daughter will be so flattered by a cat-caller that she runs away with him, but she could internalize the ideas of men who see and treat her as an object of value for her physical appearance, and that endangers her mental health, her potential, and to a diluted degree, the potential of women everywhere.

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Evolution of a Nickname

I have always wanted a true, organic nickname, but I don’t seem to inspire that in people. I also wish I was the kind of person who came up with fun, personal, endearing nicknames for their friends, but I think I’m not that kind of comfortable with people,

BUT

I am that kind of comfortable with my cat.

2015-10-22 18.57.37
CAT.

This is Mandelbrot. She’s 3, and I’ve had her for 7 months. Over that time, here is the evolution of her nicknames.

Meow -> Mao

This one is probably obvious– it comes from her chattiness– and has also been a nickname that’s evolved for other cats, namely, my parents’ cat Baci. It amuses me to imagine her as a furry little dictator but, again, not exactly unique among her species.

Mandelbrot -> M

This also makes sense, but mostly only comes up when writing about her in text messages. “Mandelbrot” is annoying to type.

Mandelbrot -> Mandie

I thought this would happen, because she is a she, and Mandie is shorter and more girly than Mandelbrot. I called her this once, in a comment on the Facebook post I wrote when I first got her. This nickname died immediately– victim to the doomed nature of artificial, sensical nicknames.

Mandelbrot -> Mandible-beeble-brot -> Mandible-beeble-brat -> M’beebs.

For all the sense this makes, these are the ones that stuck.

Here’s a photo of my cat fully embodying the character of M’beebs:

2015-10-21 10.59.51

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De-slackifying

So far, this is going quite well. I found a few things I was dreading doing and putting off because they were unclear, or complicated, or something I had minorly screwed up in the past and was afraid of.

But avoiding the task doesn’t solve any of those problems (in fact, it exacerbates the latter!) so, once I got my head clear and recovered some of my confidence yesterday, I clarified them, broke them down into next actions, and tackled them this morning.

And you know what?

I didn’t fail or die or anything! My cat even still likes me.

Now, it’s time to go grocery shopping and make a whole bunch of burritos so I don’t have to cook next week 😉

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