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Origin Story

(This took a couple extra weeks to write and post.  Hey, it’s a busy time of year.)

When I was young I thought of growing old,

And what my life would mean to me…

Would I have travelled down my chosen road,

Or only wished what I could be…

“Kyrie,” Mr. Mister


This spring has been an interesting time of innovation and re-imagination, both locally and more broadly.  Although I will not be taking a flight to Wakanda in the near future, I was obviously very intrigued by the Black Panther “origin story.”  Living out one’s origin story is hard, in part, for one simple reason: no matter how seriously or strongly one feels one’s passion, the subject of the story has to live their lives forward in time.   The movie scriptwriter and director can work backwards based on the story they want to tell (and the events they already know will be important for the story arc).


Figure 1: Flight to Wakanda sign, Atlanta airport (credit: CNN)

Unexpectedly, I have had the chance to consider my own origin story over the past few weeks—not just because of the opportunity to reconnect with history, but the ability to see in the present how pieces of the story fit together to tie present and past (and maybe, to tie past and present to future).


Bring to mind, if you will, a moment from your childhood where many things were possible, and you felt that a hero or heroine was speaking directly to you and your imagination of what you “want to be when you grow up”.  I remember begging my parents to let me stay up late on Christmas Eve when I was six years old-not to wait for Santa Claus, or listen for reindeer, but to listen to astronauts speak for the first time from the orbit of the moon.  The following Christmas, one shouldn’t be surprised that I had an Apollo Saturn V model (like this one, shown below) waiting for me on Christmas morning.



Figure 2: Saturn rocket model, 1969: photo from


It’s critical to recognize that things rarely work out this clearly or directly; I meet people my age and older who still ask the question of what they want to be.  (Sometimes, that’s about the awareness that life takes us on different paths; sometimes, it’s an admission that even as our bodies get older, we don’t always feel like we’ve “grown up”.  Wasn’t “grown up” supposed to mean that things made sense, or were more clear, or had resolved all the youthful uncertainty?  Apparently not.)  But, nonetheless, imagine such a moment.  And now imagine that a chance to see and hear that hero appears in your email inbox, in the form of an invitation: come see a panel discussion by the crew of Apollo 8 for a book launch about their mission to the Moon.  The opportunity sells out, as would be expected… but not before I have my tickets.  I’m off to Chicago, to hear about the Earthrise photo and the Christmas Eve message and, and, and…

This is the event that made me, and gave me the life I live today.  This is primary inspiration.

I arrive at the Museum of Science and Industry in time to work through the line, and find a seat, before the lights go down.



Figure 3: Barrett at the MSI, with NASA SG Jacket


The movie director and screenwriter in my head can create a scene for the event, but that’s not really how it works out.  I’m not called out, or accidentally run into Frank Borman in the hallway, or finding myself shaking Bill Anders’ hand.  (As it turns out, I’d already seen and Jim Lovell before, so what does that say about leading a fairly special existence?)   However, is this really something that I can mark as a failure or disappointment?  I am learning more of what it was to them to be an inspiration to the world, as well as the inspiration and impact they felt to see all of human existence out their window in a single frame, knowing that they were the first to do so.  They are telling the story so that the director and screenwriter are stunned into silence.  The crew describes the surprises, and serendipity, and nearly sacred experience, as they experienced it and as they remembered it: living their lives forward, rather than worrying about the director’s intention.



Figure 4: Apollo 8 crew

And what about me?  Well, I am wearing my NASA Space Grant jacket, with the iconic “meatball” logo.  Not surprisingly, that gets some attention: a few people ask if I work for NASA; I’m much better now at saying “yes”.  After taking a look (and some picture) at the Apollo 8 Command Module (and a framed and signed version of Earthrise), I am approached by a woman with a clipboard.  Would I mind being videotaped for the Museum about the Apollo 8 event?  Of course.  I’m excited: perhaps too excited to answer the questions smoothly or calmly, I try to express the excitement of being able to be reminded of my origin story…


If the director in my head were managing this story, I would probably have finished here.  But surprisingly, there is more.  The very next day, there was an awards dinner for Engineering faculty, and I was awarded the Engagement and Service Award.  I did not expect or anticipate video testimonials describing my effect and impact, through Indiana Space Grant and the senior capstone projects. I am unable to refute the messages or their meaning; I see no reason to reject the story anymore.  And a week later, I am back at the Indiana FIRST Robotics State Championships, watching the excitement and tension of the competition in one of Indiana’s historic high school gymnasiums.  This is new history being made, of course: the students are vying for the chance to represent Indiana at the World Championships in Detroit, where the NFL draft has taken a backseat in an NFL city to the prior commitment of K-12 students and their robots.  A total of 15 teams earn their opportunities that day, including brand new teams and teams of underdogs who have overcome negative assumptions and lowered expectations to win awards of excellence.  It feels like a small thing, for INSGC to offer financial support to help them on their journey.  Who knows which of them will remember this month as part of their origin story, and the events that set them on the path for a life beyond their imagination, and successes not yet dreamed.


Figure 5:  Detroit FIRST Championships, Einstein Round Robin.  There is an origin story being written out here.

… For Government Work

Although it was not that cold this winter, and we actually didn’t get a real snowstorm until after the Equinox, the real emergence of Spring here in DC allows me more time outside to appreciate my experience here and what I am learning during this Fellowship.  There are lots of features for me to appreciate on a sunny day, such as the cherry blossoms in bloom, or the re-awakening of the flowers in the courtyards, along my walking and bus riding routes.  Even my senses and sense of pace have been involved.  (In late March, I had surgery to remove a polyp that was taking over my nose and sinuses.  That forced a few days off, and a slower pace of activity while I was recovering.  Now, my sense of smell, already acute, is coming back online with even more sensitivity and range.)  It’s no longer the “time is money” or “he who hesitates is lost” lessons of childhood forcing me to rush to everything.  It’s April, and literally, it’s time to stop and smell the blossoms.



During one of these sunny, warm days, I came to contemplate the impact of my experience at the Department of State on my sense of *self*.  The look and sound of BSC in a suit and dress shoes, striding with purpose to his office at Main State, evokes a certain set of descriptions that aren’t really the same as BSC in a tweed jacket and cords and sneakers, keys jangling, walking around West Lafayette.  Oh, and don’t forget the shades.  A friend had asked me to send a picture of me in work mode, and so I did, wearing the classic Ray-Ban Wayfarers (they’re actually a vintage pair, with my own prescription inserted), standing in front of the Department of State sign (and taking care not to use an angle or direction that would disturb the Diplomatic Security folks)…


There were two responses to this picture.  My friend commented that I wasn’t smiling, and looked upset and grim.  (No, it was a combination of pain from the doctor checking on my nose, and just thinking hard about what I needed to do.)  So, I took another picture, with a smile and a different background (the National Academies building across the street):


The second response was my own.  For somewhat surprising reasons, I recognized in that picture a reminder of my research career.  Compared to many psychologists and engineers, I spend a lot of time doing “fieldwork,” including a research method known as “participant observation” (where one spends time “embedded” in another culture or organization, working alongside of the regular people living that other life, in order to learn what’s important to them and how they come to view things—and not make foolish errors about what designs will or won’t work for them, or what their daily challenges are).   Of course, cultural anthropologists might laugh at my calling this “fieldwork”: I’m not living in a hut somewhere 15 miles from the nearest paved road.  But it does mean that much of my data and thinking comes from talking to people who are not me, and don’t have my world view—they’re not designers or researchers about systems, they’re performers in, or users of, the systems that I study.  They may or may not reflect on how and why they do what they do.  I’m fundamentally an outsider to those aspects of their organizational and social culture.  (This is something that I’ve experienced for most of my life.  More on that later.)

That insight quickly spawned a new one: the Department of State is the third federal government agency in which I have functioned as participant observer since I began my graduate research career over 30 years ago, for weeks or months at a time.  My prior agencies were the National Park Service (NPS), and NASA.  What is profoundly interesting about that collection of agencies is that they are profoundly mission driven, and have a great deal of unique visibility.  (It’s said that a former Secretary of State defined their job, and the role of the Department in general, as “explaining the U.S. to the rest of the world, and explaining the rest of the world to the U.S.”)  NPS is there to conserve and protect our natural and cultural heritage for future generations.  NASA brings the universe to us, and takes us further out into the universe.  (Yeah, I want more of that.)

I recognized as well that these are very romantic, idealistic views of the world and what we should be doing in and with it.  Managing occupational safety, or confirming regulations over drug approvals, or ensuring people pay their taxes on time are in fact really important features of living in a complex society that is also a safe and healthy one.  The folks who work there even have their official seals and logos and organizational cultures.  However, I dare say that they do not capture the cultural imagination and romantic vision of the following:

  • a park ranger in their hat or baseball cap hiking in the backcountry, explaining the meadow flowers and the remnants of people who lived in the area 200-400 years ago;
  • an astronaut in their space suit, or flight controller in mission operations, or engineer or scientist analyzing data that enhances our exploration and understanding of the solar system;
  • a diplomat flashing their official passport in some far-flung airport, or at an embassy or ambassador’s reception, engaging in the gentle statecraft that enables a broader, richer, more peaceful world.

The challenge for romantic idealists is that they can get caught in their ideals, writing scripts for the movies that play in their own heads.  I find myself doing this a lot, and maybe it’s a remnant of having a very vivid, broad imagination as a kid, combined with living in and between multiple cultures just a few miles from each other in Philadelphia.  Not surprisingly, I caught myself a few days ago in such a “movie script” moment: I was writing a document, and imagining the cheers of a crowd as a “VERY SENIOR GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL” finishes an announcement and walks off the stage, shaking my hand and thanking me for putting together such an excellent policy.  (It’s kind of like the scene in the movie, “A Christmas Story,” where Ralphie imagines an enraptured teacher marking a series of “+” after the “A” grade on his essay.  I’m actually not that fond of the movie, but given the number of times it plays each December, it’s hard to avoid seeing the scenes again and again.)  That is a nice movie scene, but in truth, it’s very rare that a solo author of a policy really gets the policy enacted, or their work acknowledged, in such a direct way.

When I get myself out of the movie and start to re-examine the real world (even the biographical movies, such as the recent hit, “Hidden Figures,” are not piecewise accurate, nor were they filmed in real time), I really need to bring myself back down to the ground and face the harsh reality… or is that a mistake, too?  Consider the list above.  I have been that ranger, and worked directly with them, working in the backcountry and the visitors’ center.  I have been that engineer, working with those astronauts and flight controllers and flying in the vomit comet.  And just this week, I was that diplomat, working to support the international relationship as a member of a country desk and enjoying a conversation at the Ambassador’s residence.

Am I enjoying my experience?  Do I think it’s worth it?  I keep getting asked that question, and the answer is even more true now than it was six months ago: without a doubt, this is one of the most important adventures and educational experiences I could have had at this stage of my life and career.  These are lessons I could never learn if I stayed in the lab, no matter how brilliant or talented or hard working I might be there.  The realities of these experiences themselves are amazing and precious and valuable beyond my ability to fully recognize in the moment.  (Yes, it was ideas that I observed and learned and developed at NPS and NASA that have influenced the papers I’ve shared and work that I’ve been able to present while I’ve been here at State.)  There is yet more for me to learn, and do, and integrate, as I continue to experience a world and career filled with opportunity and danger and change.


Not bad, as they say… for government work.


Tangential Perspectives on Organization Learning

I always knew what I wanted to do: anything in the space program. Getting a job offer to come to work at NASA Mission Control in Houston was beyond my wildest dream. To tell the truth, I would have paid them to let me come and sweep out the floors. But it worked out much […]

via The Road Not Taken — Wayne Hale’s Blog

Weekend Balance #1: Learning the Right Things

Approximately 5:30 Friday (yesterday) evening, I told my unit chief that I was headed out for the evening and weekend.  That was not only okay, it was expected; I’d been heading into work 11 hours earlier to work on a very active set of reports from the day’s activity in Japan, which I summarized and sent out to our colleagues.  (Ah, the joy of nearly 24 hour coverage due to time zone differences: the Japanese Embassy in Tokyo starts to wind down about the same time that the first folks in Washington are getting on the Metro to start their work day.)  He surprised me by encouraging me not to think about work for a couple of days as I went to a concert and planned for a quiet time at home.  Well, those who know me will recognize an immediate disconnect: Barrett to not think about work for whole days at a time?

Well, that is a challenge these days, for multiple reasons.  It’s actually something that we discussed in a couple of our (distributed, online) lab meetings last fall, about finding appropriate forms of balance and mechanisms for taking care of one’s internal resources.  Now, it would have rung hollow if I were to take 3-4 hours on Christmas Day to write up a blog entry on work-life balance.  (Don’t worry.  I spent much of the day with a roaring fire, computer games, and lots of cookies.)

When I woke up this (Saturday) morning, I was looking forward to coming out to the kitchen to a waiting blanket of snow, to make some tea and settle in for a quiet day… of typing up notes and responding to Purdue emails and designing new projects.  That is a day off?  Well, it is a day away from reading media reports of Japan – Korea tensions or considering meeting preparations for trilateral engagement.   But on the other hand, the truth is that I have somehow set myself to try to manage two full-time jobs.  How does that really work?


McPherson Square, with the first snow of the season: a good day for learning.

One of the first recognitions is the difference between what I want and what is, and if there is a gap between the two, what do I want / choose to do about it?  The truth is, I specifically chose the Jefferson Science Fellowship opportunity as a unique experience to expose me to activity and opportunity that I could not get in my past patterns at Purdue, with a few grad students and departmental responsibilities and a few obligations to the state of Indiana.  Those aren’t bad things, but there was a gap that needed to be addressed.  (When I return to Purdue, there will be another gap, because for me to return to exactly the set of activities I left this past August would be a waste of this experience, no matter how familiar, or comfortable, or well-prepared I am for them.)

I am seeing this recognition in another context when I think about the experiences of my students.  To be here, in Washington DC, is more than anything an experience of learning.  And sometimes, learning takes up all of my time: it is one of my primary job tasks.  Learning is also a task that takes focus, and discipline, and patience.  I’m not just talking about the process of collecting a bunch of facts for later regurgitation, which is what most students think of in the context of taking a class for a grade.  I mean a deeper learning, about context and discernment and recognizing what aspect of this pattern is important, and real, and valuable for me to integrate into a larger whole.

Well, that can be a process of life discipline, which then applies to everything.  Learning is about noticing how I balance on one leg during morning exercise, or how well I could run through the cold last night to catch the bus or rail, or… how I improve the management of the lab.

It’s often been suggested that I have a casual approach to managing the lab.  Actually, this is not true.  I could insist on clocked hours, minimum amounts of in-person time in the lab, weekly reports, and any number of other rules.  Some people actually have de-selected the lab because I don’t have lots of those rules.  As I experience this year as an immersion in this bureaucracy, I recognize that it’s not that students don’t learn anything if I impose such rules; however, it’s clear that they can easily learn the wrong things.  Did you reflect on the task, or simply put in the time?  Did you embrace the difficulty as a form of instruction, or simply as a burden?  Do you examine the situation as a system with gaps in design or execution of objective functions, or just complain about how “they” don’t care about (fill in the blank with whatever you feel is important from your local perspective)?  Do you even think about what the various objective functions are?

As a result, I now have a much deeper appreciation of what choices are being made when one of the members of the lab considers taking on a full time job at various stages of her/his graduate professional progression.  These are not trivial decisions, and there are various reasons why someone may need to choose to work at a job during one’s graduate career.  And I’m not casual in my feelings about this.  But I need the student to learn the right lessons, and I have learned (with both students, and children, and other organizational participants) that the right lesson comes from a well-designed combination of the teacher, the student, and the lesson (there is an interesting book on this called The Seven Laws of Teaching, originally published in 1884.  Read widely, question deeply.)

One of the lessons is that getting a PhD is about learning to think about questions, and developing answers, that others have not done so.  If you can’t work your way all the way through your own dissertation topic and method and analysis and interpretation, you really don’t deserve the PhD.  Yes, your advisor can help you, but if you need your advisor to give you all of the steps, then it’s not your PhD.  (Thanks, I already have my own, and I don’t feel the need for another.)  Another lesson is that very few people outside of academia, or those who do not have a PhD already, really understand what that first lesson is about.  There is just a different way of thinking and working going on.  Not bad, not good, just different.  So, if you’re used to approaching the world with one set of priorities and tools, and you move to another place where people don’t approach the world that way, you’re going to have to shift back and forth… and most people don’t shift back and forth among ways of thinking that well.

On the other hand, given how much I think about rules and lessons and managing and studying humans for a living, if there is a rule or insight or lesson I try to share, it’s usually not just for the sake of the rule.  (See above.)  That’s not casual either.   If there is a disagreement between myself and a student on a dissertation topic, or methodological approach, or insight available from a course, there is a possibility that the student is right and is operating based on information not available to me.  (In other words, they are good and working in an alternative domain.)  However, one observation of learning the right vs. wrong lesson is when I see students trying to fulfill the letter of a rule, but miss the spirit; or try to avoid the rule because it’s not ideal or fun or convenient (or “fair”?); or argue with me about how my accumulated experience is not relevant for a particular case.  Again, there may be reasons why any of those is correct.  But, to be honest, that’s not likely, and what concerns me more is, what lesson is the student learning or trying to execute?

So, as I move forward through 2017, there are lots more lessons to learn, and quite a few gaps to examine and determine how I might want to resolve them.  I admit that I am nowhere near content with my resolution of how to perform both Purdue vs J Desk jobs ideally.  (One lesson is, I really want to do this J Desk job really well, because that is the priority and opportunity available to, and surrounding, me now.  I care about the Purdue version / job, but it’s hard for me to do that full time too, and still care for my health and sleep and eat properly.  So it slips in priority right now… but I know that’s only for a year, not for an indefinite shift as a career.  That’s a lesson also for the students.)

Lessons are, in fact, about resolving gaps—not just gaps of factual knowledge, but gaps of how experience can affect interaction with the world.  I continue to explore how to find the right gaps, and resolve them in good and effective ways, to solve the right problems.  That’s a fairly comforting and happy thought for me as an engineer.  And although we didn’t get as much snow as I might have hoped, I can improve my recognition of what gaps were most important for me to close today.



Way of Learning, Way of Exploration

So, I did promise a big announcement in my return to the blog last week.  I normally would try to develop a well-crafted story, designed to increase tension and drama, an essay as a piece of “sudden non-fiction”.  Depending on which draft of this entry I consider, I have very different ideas of whether and how to do this. Let me share the part of the story now that has already been generally announced: I have been named as a Jefferson Science Fellowship (JSF) awardee for 2016-17. My one-year term in residence with the Department of State in Washington, DC is scheduled to begin in August, allowing me a ringside seat for the US federal elections in November, and the inevitable administrative turnover through and beyond January 20, 2017.


I have been learning a lot about myself over the past three months, somewhat as a continuation of the lessons of the two job interviews I mentioned, and somewhat as a feature of internal exploration.  What do I really want?  What should be my objective function and utility vector for the next stage of my career?  Without a good answer to that, the chances are low that I would actually find a suitable and compelling fit.  The two interviews had given me a type of freedom, but the start of the JSF process helped me recognize that I was not only enjoying thinking about the essays on international policy and engineering problem solving, but that the tasks were drawing on exactly the combinations of skills I had been hoping to capitalize on in those other interviews.  Even during the in-person finalist interviews in December, I had a fun, giddy feeling of what I sometimes describe as collimation: a sense of alignment and integration of energy, doing what I was built to do.  I was having fun, and even stopped thinking—for a while—about the process as a competition for a position against other candidates.


The announcement of Fellows was made in January, but there is still the issue of placement: with which Office would I be working?  Acknowledging the unique opportunity afforded by JSF allows me to think in terms of Adventure: doing something unique, life changing, and decidedly unlike my normal work (even if I did want to build on my unique combination of skills and knowledge domains).  That made some opportunities, normally of some interest, lower priorities for me.  If I could do similar work as a regular GROUPER activity, it’s not really a good Adventure.  So, between the groups with whom I met, what would be my choice and preference… and would they want me?  The lesson from the past interviews did give me a hint: just express my passion and enthusiasm and desire for Adventure, and I would be much more likely to find a proper alignment than if I tried to guess or adjust to some other imagined perspective.  It took a number of conversations, and by the end of the placement week, I was happy to have found that there were at least two offices that I could get really excited about, and another three or four additional options that still would ensure a suitable Adventure.  And then, it was matching time.


To be honest, the email came sooner than I expected.  I didn’t know if I should be thrilled, or nervous.  (Years ago, I had worked an “editor’s response function” of delay tolerance.  Although one usually prefers a short delay to a long one, if you send off a grant proposal or book manuscript or some such long and deeply personal self-expression, you probably don’t want to see an answer come back in just a few minutes after receipt.  It takes hours to read dozens or hundreds pages, and make detailed comments and suggestions for improvements.  It can take only a few minutes to decide that something is so horrible that you don’t want to subject yourself to it any longer.  You want the editor or grant reviewer to take hours, not minutes.)  Close the office door, take a deep breath, double-click on the message…


“It is with great pleasure that I write to confirm your selection as a Jefferson Science Fellow for 2016-2017… You will serve your Fellowship in Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Office of Japan Affairs (EAP/J).  This position is a Foreign Affairs Officer…”


One of my top choices!  I got what I wanted!  More importantly, I get to use the gifts and skills and connections that I am most eager to experience in the Adventure!  I could instantly recall the conversations with my daughter Kyrie on Okinawan mandalas in Final Fantasy X, or the discussions with Drew Davidson about the Aibo robot dog, or even my introduction just a couple weeks earlier to JAXA researchers at the NASA Human Researcher Program Investigator Workshop.  I can call on my systems engineering lectures, and…


I can spend a year of Adventure, being fed in multiple ways, in a range of challenges, in the context of national service.  If I had been selected for and accepted either of those other campus jobs, I wouldn’t have gotten this (because I wouldn’t have felt it appropriate to apply, within one year of starting a position).  So, the objective function works in a variety of ways—my utility vector is better aligned with this position than anything else I had tried to move towards in the past few years.  (It simply took a set of misalignments and frustration to learn this.)  Working with the State Dept. was something I hadn’t even seriously considered 2-3 years ago when I was contemplating job titles and responsibilities.


I have learned to be active and confident in describing and expressing what I want.  I have come to appreciate the broader lessons that come to me when I do not succeed at a task.  There is much to gain when I am open to and accepting of the experience and learning available in unexpected paths.





NSF Video on Industrial Engineers (with GROUPER Alum)

NSF Profiles of Systems and Industrial Engineers

Ashley Benedict is a 2011 GROUPER PhD alumna, from the PERCH stream (of course).