HELPLESSNESS: a personal note

feeling helpless, like a chimp in a cage ...

feeling helpless, like a chimp in a cage …

I have felt very helpless while working on a project from April till September.

I was asked to take over a course from teacher W..

I mistakenly recognized the subject as something I had taught 5 years ago, but I had to admit to myself that I knew close to nothing about it when I did a sit-in. It was a different subject with a similar name.
Perhaps I should have declined then, but having a lot of time at my disposal, I thought that all would go well. Besides, I could ask plenty of questions to teacher W.

The sit-in in W.’s class was a disaster. I had been severely ill the first two weeks of April. The sit-in was a couple of days later. While I had regained about 80% of my strength, my mental capacities were not strong enough to sit and swallow new knowledge for 8 hours in a row. And while the morning session was still bearable the afternoon I was hardly awake. I realized I wouldn’t make it the next day and the day after that, so I apologized and copied the necessary software to my laptop.

The biggest problem I had was teacher W., the person I would have to follow up. Our personalities and teaching style were apparently very different, and the communication never worked well. In fact, it didn’t work at all.
I probably didn’t make a good first impression. You can sense it when somebody doesn’t see you as fully qualified. And indeed I was not. But his unhidden disappointment led to a chronic communication problem.

Since I had only assisted day one of the sit-in, I had never actually seen the software perform what it had to do, so I had no idea what was to be expected when doing a full install by myself. Even worse: the software works under windows server. I am a Linux teacher/sysadmin, and my knowledge of windows server was at least 5 years behind.

When one month later, and fully cured, I arrived for the next sit-in, teacher W. pretended he had never seen me before. There was also the problem that no computer had been foreseen for me. Perhaps I hadn’t communicated well enough about this 2nd sit-in? Who will say.

So I started preparing a test lab at home, all by myself.


Cannot ask questions! There is no information on the internet – all closed source. Besides this, having to first get accustomed with the newer versions of windows server. Setting up a virtual test environment needing 16GB of RAM while I only had 8GB.

How can you test closed source if you don’t have a license or a key, was another question. So I started to dig myself in, in this wonderful world of windows servers and 90 days licenses. But other work soon took over, and then the kids were home for holidays.

A meeting mid summer was hardly assuring. Teacher W. had set up a new environment in the classroom. Very performing but even more things to learn. Showing my problems with licenses resulted in a quick fix and haughty responses. The meeting was very short and most of my questions remained unanswered. But at least, now I had licenses.

Was it only inside me, only me feeling this arrogance? I know that in such cases it is difficult to separate facts from stories inside my head.

My helplessness came to peak when 10 days before D-day, I had still not seen the software work. I had done a lot of work already, but it simply didn’t click.
I thought of quitting, and read my contract. I noticed that 10 days before D-day was the last day of cancelling without financial repercussions. This was the last day!

I texted a colleague (a windows server certified guy) while he was teaching, to contact me a.s.a.p.. He phoned me 10 minutes later, and we discussed my problems. He had seen the software work, and to my surprise had made his own exercise material on it, which he promptly emailed to me. One day later I saw the software work for the first time in my life.

Helplessness and frustration.

The frustration only comes when there is someone to blame. When we had a flood a couple of years ago, I just started pumping the water. Perhaps while pumping, the helplessness is already gone. The helplessness is felt that moment when you see the overpowering mess.

More helplessness

Teacher W. would now do a sit-in in my first class. I couldn’t teach the subject my way.
Two students recognized him from former courses and the questions were not asked to me anymore, but crossed the table to expert W.
The first 3 days of teaching the new subject I uttered the mantra ‘this too will pass’ a hundred times.


You cannot circumvent the course material that W. had painstakingly brought together in previous years, when W. is in the room. You can only show that you know your subject for only 55%.

Fear? No, a feeling of surrender to the situation
Hope? Yes, “this too will pass” was my mantra of hope.

Pictures by bvdb (whoisbert) June 2013 – @Antwerp-zoo – Canon Ixus HS230 – IMG3082

30 thoughts on “HELPLESSNESS: a personal note

  1. It sounds like you are teaching many subjects at once! Some IT topic I cannot fathom, and the delicate art of choosing to know and be oneself despite being immersed into one life’s unavoidable crocks of pickling solution. If people paid attention, and learned some of the latter from you, they would surely have been blessed indeed!

    • Thank you for your encouraging comment, Michael.
      I’m not special. I seem to be able to go deep enough in self and analyse what is going on there, although probably still fuzzy, and then put it into writing.

  2. Thanks for posting this Bert. The poet Burns said: ‘the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men 
gang aft agley.’ The truth of uncertainty, anicca, and 
Ajahn Chah called it (mai nae). I have the idea that life should conform to some definite plan and when things don’t fit with this created concept I suffer the concomitant frustration… the human condition.

  3. I had these turn-myself-into-an-expert-on-subject-X-in-a-weekend experiences, too – when I was a freshly minted employed consultant. It felt like a rite of passage you have to go through to prove yourself to the other members of the tribe 🙂 Usually projects were urgent and somebody would call me – just when I was frantically troubleshooting a problem onsite with a customer – and ask “Can you do X?”, … and I had about 10 nanoseconds to say yes or no. Then you do a quick mental assessment and risk management in terms of proficiency versus “billable hours”.
    But I believe it is always difficult to decide on embarking on a project unless you are 100% confident – no matter how much time you have. You said it: Communications and the human factor are most critical. As demanding as my colleagues and clients had been with respect to the job – the communication at the human level was fun and easy. My first mission impossible job became legend and we had a good laugh about it some months later.
    I guess if W. would have behaved in a different way (or if it would have been a different teacher) everything would have gone much better – even if all the other factors (misunderstanding about the software product, license keys, virtual machines…) would have been the same?

    • Most of the time communication with W. looked like this:
      Unknown packet type.
      Destination unreachable error PDU was received.
      Source quench (destination too busy).
      Could not fragment.
      Packet lifetime exceeded.
      No subject is ever too difficult if at least we are provided with the basics and essentials.
      My expectations to be treated with the same information/explanations professionalism as whenever I took over a course from a colleague at big blue in a recent past, were unfortunately incorrect.

      • 🙂 You explained it very well – and I fully agree.

        I wonder why such people don’t consider how they would like to be treated themselves? In the IT sector there is so much fluctuation – it is not uncommon to work with the same person in different settings, very often roles are interchanged quickly. It happened to me often that I was the customer first, then the client or the other way round – or that I was the senior expert in one subject, but a newbie in another. Recently I interviewed a former student of mine in relation to a field rather new to me – but this time I was the student and he was the expert.
        People change their jobs so often that the saying of ‘meeting the same person twice’ is really true.
        I think even if you are very experienced in something for a certain period of time you’d better not act as an arrogant know-it-all – as you might meet the other person as your client or manager someday.

        • I came to see W. as a self made man. Coming from very far, laying the tiles on his own path, and having worked his way up. Always doing his work by himself. a very hard worker.
          Having made his own unique path, it is perhaps not always easy to assess the needs of others who climb the mountain from the other side.

          • I understand – to some extent. Now I am probably at risk of contradicting my own values and sound arrogant – but I consider myself rather self-made, too. I started in IT coming from a different field and after some years I was considered quite an expert in a very narrow field and could cherry-pick projects.

            I had always felt though that ‘among us’ (…which includes nearly any IT colleague / vendor / partner / customer / direct report I ever worked with…) there was always a strong sense of community and camaraderie.
            This is really one of the features of the IT sector I had truly enjoyed: knowing some really, really brilliant people whom I hardly ever met in person, no ‘networking’ and ‘socializing’ required. But when there was a technical issue suddenly popping up I could count on them, and vice versa. I also had my share of sudden panic phone calls and e-mails I answered late at night. So the story of your calling your Windows Server colleague is what I experienced to be the default.
            (I opted nearly out of that, but this is a different story … international projects come with their specific downsides.)
            What I found is that sense of humor is probably THE best criterion ever to predict if I can work well with somebody. I had always figured the ‘geek community’ is so great because of that infamous humor?

            • I see a lot of serious people without any humour in the world of closed source. “I have paid for this knowledge, you are not going to get it for free”.
              Not that Mr. W. would be like that. I simply don’t know. There has been an unfortunate sequence of events … and any story filling in the gaps is just that, a story. Everything could have equally been related to my own pride and incorrect expectations.

            • This is a very interesting discussion!! Yes, it all comes probably down to individual stories – probably I have just been blessed with working with those people. I come from the dark world of closed source – but I met all these funny geeks there … not really different in their sense of humor from open source guys I worked with later at networking security department. But I started out at the ‘inside’ and maintained some strong ties – that probably makes a big difference.

  4. Yikes Bert. That is some strong patience and kindness and love that you have to practice everyday in the midst of such opposition. But you seem to have found the answer and for that I am so very glad!

    Well done for seeing it for what it is and just moving forward with your mantra. Trust me, it will pay off to let go but not give up. Sheri

    • Perhaps over-confidence and procrastination have been stronger as patience.
      But I have always been able to step out of the mental story, yes, and I can only blame my own ignorance as much as the ignorance of mr. W. Let’s not forget the patience in that man, sitting in on my course realizing: “I did the right thing”. There is nothing wrong with his perspective, except that we could never communicate, having radically opposing views on subject and knowledge transfer.
      The final decision to ‘not surrender’ and deliver to the students??? — It’s like every hour you postpone, until you forget you even had the choice, and it has become too late to abandon ship.

    • You are most welcome. Mind likes to be in control, helplessness proves to mind, it is not always in control. Such moments have a very powerful effect on the image my mental mind has created of itself.

  5. Anxiety!!!!!! Sounds like a nightmare. Was in a similar position once, in a library cataloging Italian scholarly art books and only knowing colloquial Italian. But performing in front of people– much worse. The mantra “This, too, shall pass” is a good one which I forget to use. Kudos to you for following through despite all!

    • The anxiety … looming … if you walk back through my posts between August 15 and October 2, you will certainly find a lot of it, hidden in poetry and pictures. Not really a nightmare, since the stress was not continuous. There have been several peeks, and I have secluded my self from friends family and blogging at times, … and then the first session with Mr W. in the classroom for 3 days …. Very happy that this is over.

  6. You encountered that experience because it was something you needed. Try to put your finger on what opportunities for learning it gave you and you will emerge victor not vanquished 🙂

    • Thank you my friend, opportunities in learning something about self well taken.
      The situation pointed out that, although I realize the relative importance of mental activity, it still feels very human to have an ego the size of the moon 🙂 Moreover, I learned something on anger, frustration, blame, helplessness, fear, pride and revenge and how they seamlessly operate together. Victor? Oh, it never ends …

    • You say that, because right now, the total amount of miles to walk is well known.
      If I had known this in advance, I would also have politely declined. There is 5 months of time that looks like more than enough to tackle any problem. And while time runs out, you don’t see it yet, cause, doing other things, completely removes this ‘little problem’ from the horizon.
      But then when time is really running out, D-Day minus 3 weeks, there is no other way but to push forward and facing your own shortcomings, and finally asking for a different source of help. That was a hard decision. Asking for help to a colleague – a brother in arms – that I know already know for 7 years, but not really close.
      Saying ‘please help me, I cannot do this alone’ was very difficult. Facing my own ignorance on stupid issues in the wonderful world of MS windows server, a lesser problem, and the final first course in the presence of mr. W. … sigh! … swallowed my ego, and realized I still had one afterwards 🙂

  7. OMG… you poor man, I had a similar situation when I started in a brand new school, new teacher after the last one was fired….and my peer/mentor teacher’s method of guiding me was to say…..figure it out. Here is a number to call for more tech help ( I was teaching digital editing on a system I never had used.) So I get it… but he ended up getting fired the next year….

    • … the only thing that kept me going were the students who ultimately have nothing to do with the politics involved and are entitled to the best …
      I don’t feel things like revenge. There must have been ignorance involved – not knowing at all (or even shyness) in how to transfer knowledge from A to B. But I’m afraid he didn’t learn the lesson. I’ve seen much worse than him, teachers who get their energy from showing their superiority onto some of their students and completely destroying student’s confidence.
      But it wasn’t a good experience for me although I think I learned a lot out of it.

  8. Oh how I understand this post! Trying to teach or demonstrate something you are not yet proficient with and then having the creator or other important official in the class is hideous.
    i hope it all did pass and you are doing well now?

    • The 2nd session, just one week ago, without any ‘personalities’ went well enough. I realize that I need to come up with entirely new material that is in harmony with my teaching style, and I have to skip the slides that don’t give any clue to what W. was thinking while creating them.
      In fact, I don’t like slides at all. Never liked them. Never created any myself. Only used them when provided with additional instructor notes – which was not the case at all right now.

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