Rowland Carlson

Interviews → Quarantine Phone Calls / Nina Polo

On mental tools, being an outsider, martial arts, improving yourself, actively networking, actions you can do now

Date: 2020-06

Download: audio (mp3)

Link: https://anchor.fm/quarantine-phone-calls/episodes/Rowland-Carlson-Data-Scientist---Chicago--USA-eesm18


Rowland:

I remember my childhood home. I remember picking figs in the backyard. I remember drawing with chalk on the driveway. I remember playing in the pillow fort in the basement. I don't have an idea of what order these memories are in. But all of my earliest memories come from that home.

Nina Polo:

Tell us, who are you, where are you, and what are you working on?

Rowland:

I'm Rowland Carlson. I'm working as a Data Scientist in the Chicago area. I've built a mental toolkit over the course of the last few years. I've found that it prepared me fairly well for current events. So I'm digging into my memories and finding what were those tools that I used, what was it that convinced me to adopt those tools in the first place, and I'm writing on my website to try and share what I find in that process.

Nina Polo:

Hmm, mental tools. Can you tell us a bit more about them?

Rowland:

Things like Roman Stoicism, the idea of not worrying about things that are outside of your control. Ideas like meditation, ideas like how to set up routines. Little mental tools to snap me back into a healthy mental space.

Nina Polo:

Yeah. Can you tell us about any new opportunities that you have now that you didn't have perhaps a couple of months ago, before the crisis?

Rowland:

I have found that I've had a lot more time to focus. Previously, my evenings were filled with activities in the outside world. Those are not happening right now. So I've been using that time to write, to build my website, to read a lot more, and to think about what I can do next in order to get to my next opportunity.

Nina Polo:

You were mentioning this toolkit, and I visited your webpage as well, and I saw that you are inviting people, you want to share some of the tools that you have encountered. Can you tell us a bit about the format of how are you are imagining or thinking you are going to be sharing these with people?

Rowland:

Often times, when your presented with a tool: I can tell you not to worry about things you can't control, but if you've never done that before, it's going to be very hard to adopt that mindset or mentality. So I'm looking for that 3 second moment where I went from not believing that idea to believing that idea. Then expanding the story: what led up to that moment? What immediately followed that moment? Instead of me telling you an idea, I'm looking for you to come along with me on a ride, a journey to see how I discovered that idea. And maybe your own experiences will map onto to that, maybe they won't. It's my hope that there's some commonality that you can use to adopt the tool on your own without me.

Nina Polo:

Right, so are you using story telling skills?

Rowland:

That is correct. I'm breaking them into how that character, in this case me, has chosen in a moment of challenge. And what comes from that.

Nina Polo:

Can you tell us an example?

Rowland:

Sure. There was a point where I was traveling to a weekend event. And because of my work schedule I had to travel alone. I really wanted to carpool with my other friends that were going to that event, but I was unable to. And because I chose to travel alone, we kept missing each other. We missed each other at the hotel. We missed each other getting to the event. We missed each other for lunch. I even got to the dinner restaurant 5 minutes early and was worried that I missed them again.

But that Sunday, at the end of the weekend, I was having a conversation with another friend that had traveled alone to the event. As she was talking through being left out from things, being an outsider, trying to help her with her problem made me re-contextualize my own situation.

I realized that I had chosen to drive alone. And over the course of my life up until this point, there had been a number of places where I could of gone along with the group but instead chose some option, either traveling alone, rejecting a group idea, etc. that would drive a wedge between me the group I wanted to be a part of.

I was doing this unconsciously, and in that moment I could choose whether or not to be an outsider. I found after that point that being somewhat of an outsider is beneficial. As it allows me to see ideas and concepts that are not well adopted by my team and coworkers for example. But when I want to fit in, I can examine those behaviors and say "okay no, I want to fit in here. I'm not going to reject it out of hand like I'm used to doing."

Nina Polo:

Very interesting. I think that this choice, as you said, of being an outsider, of taking some space from a group to observe better. I think it's a very interesting skill to be able to take distance when you need to take distance. Because you need to observe or reflect a bit more. Even sometimes get in touch with your own feelings regarding whatever you're working on with your collaborators.

I love it you're also talking about joining the group and being part of a group so you can contribute as well.

Rowland:

The main takeaway for me was that my life up until that point had been plagued by loneliness. Because I felt that I'd been the odd one out. I wasn't a part of the group. I felt lonely.

I realized in this moment that not only was being an outsider an asset, as we've just described, but that the loneliness was almost self-inflicted. And I now had the choice to either be lonely or really be an outsider. Being an outsider by choice removes the loneliness from the equation. Because I know that it's something that I've chosen and not something that's been forced upon me by outside forces.

Nina Polo:

Yeah. Don't you think that everybody, all of us, at some point need to be alone. Being alone is something that we need as well. There are many things that cannot happen unless you take that time to go and dissolve yourself in your loneliness and with your time on your own. Don't you think?

Rowland:

I think there's a difference between solitude and loneliness. I think loneliness is generally a negative thing. But I agree that solitude is a very powerful asset. The art of writing is rewriting. Going back and editing your words, making them sharper and crisper. I believe that the art of thought is reflection. So taking the time to either write down or talk through the ideas out loud. And only by examining those thoughts, those beliefs, those questions whatever they might be. Will you actually be able to mine out the value of them instead of just sitting at a surface level.

Nina Polo:

Yeah. I'm thinking that maybe some of us might avoid solitude because we're afraid of that the loneliness or the negative understanding of solitude. And so we can avoid it because we feel lonely but we can avoid it because we ignore solitude as if it was something bad.

Rowland:

Yeah. I think there's a lot of value in getting to solitude. But often we get caught up on our own mental demons. Where because we have unresolved mental issues, either serious psychological issues or just things we worry about inside of our own heads, we're afraid to confront our own thoughts. Left in a room to our own devices, we'll pull out our smartphones or pull up a website and start browsing. Instead of engaging with the ideas in our own heads.

Nina Polo:

Yeah. You're definitely right. This confinement that I think we've never experienced ever before. It was something that forced us to go into the solitude of our inner worlds. And I think that was kind of a present within the crisis. Any thoughts on that?

Rowland:

I think, and this is part of why I want to share my mental toolkit, if you're not in a good headspace coming into a crisis like we have now, the mental pressures that we're under are only going to make that worse. But if you're in a good headspace and you have the mental tools, either within yourself or externally with a therapist or otherwise, to engage with your own thoughts you can gain a lot from the solitude. I personally have gained quite a bit from being able to think clearly and uninterrupted for the first time in a long while.

Nina Polo:

Yeah, it's true. I've never thought about how trauma can be something that stops you from being able to go within the solitude of your soul and just stay still there.

Can you tell us about some achievements that you have accomplished?

Rowland:

I don't tend to think of things in terms of achievements, I think of things in terms of ongoing things that I do. But one thing that comes to mind: about two years ago, I started studying historical swordsmanship. Early 17th century Italian rapier. Late 16th century German longsword. Going from a mental space, as I do in work to a physical sphere, where I can think about: how does my body feel? What does it feel like to move in this way? I've been collecting a bodily vocabulary. What it feels like to move this muscles group, what it feel like when I move that muscle group.

I think, in the same that we were just talking about with our own thoughts, being in a better connection with my body has allowed me to feel a lot more confident and a lot stronger as I move through the world.

Nina Polo:

Yeah. Rowland, I practice Aikido. I've been practicing Aikido since 2012, which is a martial art. And we do practice within weapons. I often say that if we were more educated in martial arts there will actually be less conflict among us. Because we would know how to deal with our feelings. With how do we feel. But also with our reactions to external stimulus.

Can you tell us a bit more about about your experience in martial arts?

Rowland:

I think, ultimately, regardless of which martial art you're practicing, your goal is to maintain control over your own body. When someone is attacking you, your goal is to not be controlled by them. You don't want to be grabbed. You don't want to be hit. You don't want to be damaged. And just the understanding of: How do I avoid getting hit? How do I intercede in such a way that prevents me from being hit? It gives you a lot more room to think about these things.

And I've found there have been enormous mental benefits to thinking through these various things. When I'm in, say, an argument I'm less likely to rise into extreme conflict. Because I've had a weapon pointed at my face. It's not threatening for you to raise your voice in the same way. It is, it still engages that fight or flight reflex. But I've been in that position before, and I understand that escalating it into more anger, more violence isn't going to solve the situation. I need to remain calm. Take, perhaps, a defensive posture be that in communications or physically. And seek to de-escalate or control the situation. Or at least prevent myself from being controlled.

That piece of "control" also applies to whoever I'm engaging with. In the same way that I don't want to be controlled, they also don't want to be controlled. So any action I take should not be one that necessarily strives to control them. Because they're going to react viscerally and say "No, I don't want controlled." Asking questions instead of ordering someone. Leadership is getting people to follow you, it's not barking orders at people. And martial arts has a very nice tie into that.

Nina Polo:

Yeah. I love it. There are so many things to say regarding martial arts and how they help us navigate emotions and relationships. And this avoiding, or being able to neutralize conflict before it even comes to express itself. Perhaps one of the nicest things I'm reading from what you're saying: through the training with martial arts, somehow you get to have a better control on your reactions. So you're not reacting to what's happening outside. But you become more of a strategist in the way you operate. I really enjoyed what you said as well about how you deal with the person who is trying to attack you is also needs to be strategic. You don't want to give potential where you shouldn't. It's so interesting. I could go on and on with martial arts.

Rowland:

The other thing that's really helped me is the more physical side. By learning how to breathe properly. By learning how to stand properly with good posture. I have significantly less back pain than I did before I started martial arts. Just the ability to walk smoothly instead of stomping everywhere. It makes movement feel so much better. It's very hard to describe if that's not something you've experienced.

Nina Polo:

Yeah. This education of your body, of your breathing. Also the gaze, for example, being capable of a very wide observation of whatever is around you. Instead of letting yourself being distracted by the smallest disruption around you. It's super interesting, but as you said, it's like educating your body and your senses and who you are.

Tell us about a challenge that you have encountered and what helped you overcome it.

Rowland:

In the fall of 2016, I decided to retire from online gaming. I had done it extensively. And I had to turn and smell the ash that had become of my life. I had been using gaming as an escape. You could replace gaming in this situation with television, or books, or anytime that a hobby takes over past your livelihood. That was the situation I was in. And so I found myself as a factory worker. I found myself depressed and anxious. I found myself with 60,000 dollars in college loan debt that I had no idea how to pay back.

And a little bit less than 3 years after that, I was accepting a position as a Data Scientist. I was feeling a lot more satisfied. And I built this mental toolkit that allowed to do that. And over the course of those 3 years, I transformed. I would argue that you wouldn't have wanted to have this conversation with the me prior to that decision. I have changed fundamentally on pretty much every axis since then.

Nina Polo:

And were these changes, where did they come from? Did they come from a posture of "I really have to change" or was it more observing new opportunities? Tell us a bit more. It's really fascinating.

Rowland:

It definitely started with this desire to get out the factory. Because I quit online games, and that was my entire friend network. So I no longer had any friends except for maybe a couple coworkers I talked to. These were people who had been working in a factory for 10, 15, 20 years. They had accepted the lifestyle that they were in, and I thought that they were crazy. And so, initially, there was this strong burning desire of "I gotta get the hell out of here."

And that led me to starting to read. I had convinced myself that I hated reading. Because novels put me to sleep. And textbooks are universally dry and not engaging reading. But I found during that period that nonfiction, because I could immediately apply it, was very engaging to me. So this person that wanted very desperately to change his station in life, found tools through books.

So I bought one book, which was kind of a fluke. I was visiting a bookstore, and I had just gotten a raise, so I was like "Okay, I have a little of extra spending money. I'll buy a book." And in the back of that book was a list of other recommended books. And I started buying those and reading those. And it turned into a virtuous cycle where I would read one book and adopt an idea, and as you were saying, my vision would slightly widen and I would see slightly more opportunity. And I would realize that "okay, I'm missing a skill over here." And I would find a book on that skill and then my opportunity would get wider in that area. Getting stronger and strong, like compound interest.

Nina Polo:

Beautiful. How did the career change happen? Not only did you get rid of lifestyle that wasn't serving you and you start educating yourself. Not only did you do that, but you also changed career. You became a Data Scientist. You were a factory worker.

Can you tell us a bit about that?

Rowland:

It came in degrees. Shortly after I started making these life changes, I'd say about six months, I was able to move from the factory line into the office of the factory to work as a Data Analyst. I had interviewed for a communications position, and I kept bringing up technological solutions to the communications problems they were facing. And one of the people who was interviewing me, who knew me from before, suggested "have you talked to the tech department?" I was like "no, I work on a factory. I'm exhausted at the end of the day. I don't have time to do anything." But, a few weeks later, someone from the tech department actually came out and said "hey, do you want to work in the office?" And I was like "yes, get me out of here!"

By degrees, I started as a data analyst building dashboards for the factory. But under that boss I was able to train on the job. The deal was that I stayed at factory pay, but was able to train during work hours. And I developed data analysis skill set. A machine learning skill set. And started working on projects in the factory for that.

And then, two years into that process, actually as a dinner I went to as part of the historical swordsmanship I did, I was talking to a friend about machine learning. And a guy across the table asked "have you considered using it for anything else?" And, at the moment I was satisfied with my job, but a few months later as I wanted to grow and exceed the capacity of the small town I was living in, that thought bubbled back up to the surface. And I reached out to that individual, and he was able to hook me up with my current boss. And talk through things.

That didn't even work immediately. I ended up applying for a position that I wasn't qualified for. Both my current boss and I realized that immediately. But I asked him, in the same way I asked sword masters whenever I get a chance to meet one, said "hey, I'm not going to see you for a while. What can I do in the meantime to improve by the time I see you the next time?"

I asked him for one thing and he sent me a list of five. I found an online course that hit four of those five points. And I worked through that course. I did all the homework and then I sent him an email back, two or three months later that said "hey, I did a course that addressed the things that you said." He was so impressed that I would follow up and actually do the things he asked me to do, that he ended up starting the process to get me into my current position.

Nina Polo:

Beautiful, Beautiful. I have two questions: I'm wondering how much the study of swords and this discipline you also developed helped you in this transformation and this gaining momentum and acting upon it? And if you could highlight one or two tools that you used that you also think are the core of all of this new energy that came within in you and got you out there, showing up?

Rowland:

I think the primary thing was exactly the last word you said, showing up. When I started studying historical swordsmanship, especially of September of 2 years ago, I said I was going to do this properly. I threw myself in, I would ask lots of questions of every teacher I could come across. I would do all of the homework, I would engage, build community, reach out to people, and take action. It was that aspect of showing up and doing my best at every opportunity that I think was what was seen by the recommendations I ended up getting for my current position. It was during that winter, where I thought about it: "Wait, I'm doing all of this in my swordsmanship, and I'm growing really fast as a swordfighter."

"Why am I not doing these things in my career?" I didn't have a ready answer to that question. So I spent all of winter thinking about how do I apply these ideas to my career. And that's what ultimately what led me to think and go: "Okay, I probably do need to change. I need to go to some place that has teachers in my field and learn from them." In the environment I was in, I'm the top expert in what I know. And that means the only person I have to ask for help is the internet, and I hadn't cultivated an online community to help me, so it was just me. It was that idea of showing up and delivering your best, regardless of who is or who is not watching that I think helped me the most.

Nina Polo:

Beautiful. Tell us, if you had an advice to your 18-year-old self, what would it be?

Rowland:

So, my 18-year-old was kinda stubborn, and he wouldn't have listened to any of the advice I would have given him. He thought he was clever, and that often meant that he ignored appropriate advice.

But there is one idea, well there's a set of ideas, but the one idea I would want to share with someone in that position is: stay in contact with everyone you meet. Especially in the modern era, where we have email, there's no real excuse for losing contact with people.

Through my online gaming I've met tons of people and played with people all of the place. But when I left those games I effectively lost those friendships, because I had no way of staying in contact with them. Because when you're gaming, or when you're doing any hobby together with people, you're in the same place, you're doing the same things, it's very easy to find friends. Because you all have something in common, but when you stop doing those things, it's not as natural to maintain those friendships. Especially in the age of LinkedIn and Facebook, we often think of our networks as passive. You add me as a friend, you add me as your network, and then you're in my network and I don't have to do anything.

But that's not true. I have people on my LinkedIn network that I haven't spoken to in close to 5 years. It would be very strange and probably wrong for me to ask and say "hey, I haven't spoken to you in 5 years, can you help me find a job?" No, that's ridiculous. But if you instead stay in contact with each person, sending an email every 2 months, every 6 months, whatever, it's a lot easier to keep up with them. And it's not this passive kind of stalking on Facebook of what people are up to. It's this active engagement of "hey, what are you up to?" 

What challenges are you facing? Here's what I'm doing. Is there anything you can help with? That's something I wish I had done sooner

Nina Polo:

And paying attention to the needs of the people out there and just paying attention to people around you. But there's also the fact of producing content is a huge part of it. Of keeping your network alive and keeping the connection with people.

Rowland:

I agree, that was another thing that I failed at. I took all of these courses, on data science and machine learning, etc. but while those helped me further my career internal to my company. I didn't really have anything to share outside. Because it was proprietary data or systems that are going into production. I can't, in good conscience, share those things with other companies or other people.

Just making things. Say "hey, I just of an idea, let me write a quick article that explains why I thought of that idea or how I thought through that idea." And if you do this over time, all of sudden you have this body of knowledge for people to look at. I'm a strong proponent that everyone should have their own website, so that way they have a place that's free and stable. Who knows how long Facebook will last, we were all on MySpace, and then we weren't. Facebook looks like it's going to last a bit longer, but ultimately everything you post on Facebook is owned by Facebook, not by you. And if you have your own website, it's the opposite. If I write it in plain text, then that website could stay untouched for 40 years and still have the still information posted.

Nina Polo:

Right. Of course, if you're consistent, you'll keep it up to date and the step forward, the next step when it comes to the communication with the people that subscribes to your website and the internet relationship that you can create. Those that want to hear from you. They want to know what you're up to, what ideas are you articulating. It's true that it's a different thing than the networks and the platforms like LinkedIn and Facebook.

If you had one resource that you would recommend to us checking, over the next few weeks, what would it be? What resources would come up to your mind?

Rowland:

So the one thing, there's so many things I'd like to talk about, but the one thing I would recommend is something called Monica. monicahq.com. It's essentially a customer relationship manager for your contacts. I don't have a particularly good memory, so I as I talk about staying in contact with everyone that I've ever known, that list easily tops hundreds of people at this point. And so, what Monica allows you to do is put each and every person with their birthdays. Or personal information like this person does Aikido, this does swords, this person likes data science.

So when you reach out to them, and connect with your community, your own network, actively, you have the ability to say "oh, you haven't contacted this person in 6 months, you should do that now." Set up reminders to tell you to reach out to people. I'm personally building my own database, but I'm skilled in databases from my day job, so that's not hard for me.

But Monica is already pre-built. It's open-source. And if you're not tech-savvy at all, they even have a paid service where for a fee each month, they'll host it on their servers and they'll just take care of it for you. So it's a really cool tool for building a digital rolodex of all the people that you've met and how to stay in contact with them.

Nina Polo:

Right. It's true that's the basics of networking. Paying attention to people, knowing their needs first and then trying to connect. And it's true that we forget the basics when we're in these huge platforms with thousands of people being part of your network. Thank you for that, that's really interesting.

If you could send the world an email right now, what would you say, Rowland?

Rowland:

I'd like to come back to that idea of not worrying about things you can't control. But, as we've discussed, if you've never done that before you're going to have a very hard time implementing that. So I'm going to turn it around. So instead of not worrying about things you can't control, think about: what is one small action, that you can take, right now, to move you to a better place?

Maybe it's cleaning up a part of your apartment so that you can do exercise inside. Maybe it's cooking a meal for yourself. Maybe it's reaching out, sending an email to a loved one and saying "hey, are you alright?" or moving yourself on your career or whatever. But focus on the little things you can do, instead of the big things you can't do. That would be what I would send out to the world.