Ask the grumpies: Why is it so hard to stop worrying about what other people do?

Leah asks:

Why is it so darn hard to stop worrying about what other people do? At work, I can’t control what others do. Their choices do affect me, somewhat. But I can’t control it. How do I learn to stop fretting about this?

#1: Heck if we know. I suck at not worrying. I mean, maybe just get older and you care less about what other people are doing? I dunno.

#2:  Getting older helps a lot!  There’s just too much going on to care about other people unless it directly affects you.

I’m irritated that my TA isn’t getting problem sets done on time.  I worry that my students will learn less because of it.  I’m worried that there is something I could do that would make things better but I’m not sure what.  I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with me having those worries.  And maybe fretting will help me come to a solution, I dunno.

Economists tend to really take to heart the idea that we should not fret about sunk costs, but to do cost-benefit analysis for things that we could still change.  If it’s worth it, change it, if it’s not worth it, then you’ve made the decision.  If it’s something you really can’t control, just accept it and expect it because there’s nothing else you can do.  (Serenity…)

But in reality, I dunno.  There’s often just too much uncertainty so you don’t really know what the costs and benefits are and it’s not clear what the effects of any action would be.  People are unpredictable.

So I guess we’re punting this one too (we tend to put the hard ask the grumpies last…).  Does the grumpy nation have any advice?

23 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: Why is it so hard to stop worrying about what other people do?”

  1. Mrs PoP Says:

    I’m kindof where #1 is here, but this book is on my list to read at some point:

  2. Ana Says:

    I am getting better at not worrying. I don’t know if its age, or simply realizing and truly internalizing that I need to prioritize things within my control, or therapy, or ??? but lately I’ve been a lot more DGAF about what others do.

  3. Tulip Says:

    I think it is about respecting others. If I don’t recognize that I cannot determine their choices, then I do not really respect them as people. I want to be respectful, so I need to respect that they will make different choices.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Hm… what about when your TA is disrespecting two classes worth of students?

      What about if the person in question is racist and/or Donald Trump?

      Maybe it’s not always such a bad thing to worry about other people’s choices even if we can’t change them.

    • Leah Says:

      I definitely see this point, but what about when the choices are seemingly irrational and/or counter to being collegial, or company policy, etc? There’s the normal “we do things differently and that’s okay” sort of thing that doesn’t bother me at all. But then there’s the “we were told to do X in this way, yet you persist in doing it in Y way.”

  4. chacha1 Says:

    In the case of someone whose performance I have some control over – like in my case, my assistant, or in your case maybe your TA – if there is something I need done I give clear instructions and then I assume that the task will be taken care of. I don’t, however, assume that I never need to think about it again. :-) In my experience people who know they are being watched tend to take care of business a little better than people who know nobody is paying attention. My review won’t make or break my assistant, except maybe it will because law firms are always looking to trim the budget. A TA is not a “direct report” to the academic superior, as far as I know, so the only recourse for a TA who is not getting the job done is probably to advise the department and then call it a day. Personally I would be updating whoever is in charge of the TA program, because there is almost certainly another student out there who wants the job; or maybe the unsatisfactory TA has some other crap going on that constitutes a legitimate cause for delay. In either case, the work needs to get done and if it’s a TA who is supposed to be doing it, and isn’t, I’d be feeding that info upstream so that the delay is not attributed to ME.

    Re: worrying about co-workers, that’s a road to dementia. It’s functionally impossible to improve the performance of people who do not rely on you for a performance review. Worrying about management failures that allow poor performance from others is also a road to dementia. If the workplace sucks too much, find a new one. Otherwise, take care of business and let the company be as dysfunctional as it wants to be.

    But! The main question! Uh … I dunno. I care very little about what people do (and even less about what they think) at the macro scale. Even at the micro scale, my immediate circle of concern, there’s not much that people might do, that has the potential to affect me, *that I can influence,* so I tend to care less and less about it. Inside my circle of control, I don’t have to worry about what other people are doing, because *I* take care of business.

    Tangent: in my observation, a lot of people worry about things other people might do when those other peoples’ actions will have nothing to do with the worrier regardless. That, I don’t understand. If what they do doesn’t actually touch you, blow it off. It’s like homophobes worried about gay marriage. WGAF?

    Right now I worry about my job situation, when I let myself. But there’s absolutely nothing I can do to affect the outcome other than continue to do my job well, so most of the time I just … do the job, and occupy my brain otherwise. Displacement activity is key. CBT techniques help. Consciously doing things to relax myself helps. Never missing a day of yoga helps. My cat helps. Being 50+ helps.

    But mostly it’s about recognizing whether or not I can affect an outcome. If I can’t, well …. I DGAF.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Yeah, day before yesterday I spent a long time in the chair’s office arguing that I should be able to hire someone else. He’s taken a “collect more information” attitude before we go through the administrative process (he doesn’t want to pay for 2 TAs and doesn’t want to fire this TA this semester if he can help it) and I’m @#$2ing grading this week’s assignments myself (“make sure he doesn’t charge for the hours you worked because I don’t want to pay for them,” said the chair), which looks like it will take ~8 hours of my time.

      He did get some problem sets to the students last night and I’ve gotten a huge number of complaints. He didn’t add numbers correctly, marked things wrong for saying “units” instead of “people” (when people are units), just didn’t see entire pages of problems, and so on.

      That serenity poem is spot on– we need the wisdom to know the difference.

      • chacha1 Says:

        Jeez, what a pain. I think that last delivery of problem sets ought to be all the “more information” the chair should need. “TA can’t add” = “TA gets fired.”

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        He wants to know if the other prof is having the same problems with her 50 students. But she’s out of town and not answering my emailed question about it. (And she may not be having any problem because her classes are before mine during the week, so he might be doing her classes and then running out of time with mine.)

        Getting a few additions wrong isn’t generally that big a deal– with 100 sets people are bound to make mistakes, but given how long he’s taken and how many mistakes there are… I just don’t know.

      • Kellen Says:

        So he doesn’t want the TA to do the work or pay them for it, but he also doesn’t want to fire the TA? Last nights grading problems sound like “more information” to me.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        We’ll see what he has to say after I gather all the info he wanted. Personally I think I should be able to hire someone for me even if the other professor is happy. The TAs are paid by the hour so it doesn’t matter how many we have! But there’s some complicated problems with finding replacements.


  5. xykademiqz Says:

    I will say that you should be ecstatic that you have TAs who can write solutions to HW. There has been so much budget slashing at my university and especially in the department that we get ridiculously low TA appointments (like 4 hours per week), not enough to teach discussion or write solution to HW. The word is “you don’t get to have TAs for duties that don’t scale with the number of students, like writing HW assignments or teaching discussion. You only get a TA for things that scale with the number of students, like when you flip your classroom and then need more people walking around and tutoring people in small groups.”

    So I am the one who teaches discussion and writes solutions to all HW (and also grades all exams)…

    So be happy that you have TAs who will write solutions to HW, even if late.

    I fuckin’ hate the flipped classroom. And I hate even more the stupid evil state defunding public university. And corporatization of the university in general.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Well, it’s more complicated than that for reasons I can’t go into.

      I will say that this class is the only class we have a TA for because it’s a required math class for all the first year majors and the TA marks >100 problem sets/week. I provide solutions– he basically just has to see that if the answer is .5 widgits, that they put .5 widgits and showed some work.

      I grade the exams.

      I don’t get TAs for any of my other classes, just this one because it is such a slog nobody would agree to do it otherwise. (Or we wouldn’t assign homework and half our majors would fail from taking the exams without doing homework, the major would shrink, and we’d lose power from being a large major etc.)

      • Kellen Says:

        Man, I can’t wait until I’ve learned enough Python to develop a test-reading algorithm that could do that TA’s job for you. Our intro to accounting classes used to have at least some open ended (or at least show your work) problems, but the new lecturer was like “This is insane” so all of her tests are now multiple choice bubble sheets. I understand where she’s coming from, but I think it is a better test without multiple choice as the only type of response.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Really this is something I could have my 9 year old do. Do the numbers match and did they write something besides the answer?

        If we didn’t have a TA I just wouldn’t have homework be part of their grade and I’d give them solutions. Maybe I would do homework quizzes, I dunno. And then they wouldn’t learn as much which would be sad. But they’re young and need the accountability.

      • gasstationwithoutpumps Says:

        At the University of California, graders and teaching assistants are separate jobs (under the same union contract). Teaching assistants are salaried for a nominal 20 hours/week and are more expensive than lecturers, because departments have to pay their tuition as well as their salary. Graders are paid hourly ($14.56 for undergrads, $15.32 if they have a baccalaureate). Union rules do not permit the graders to do anything but grade, to avoid departments downgrading TA positions to graders, but still expecting TA levels of responsibility. Our faculty use undergrad graders extensively for lower-division courses. I still do all my own grading, but I do use undergrad group tutors @$20.62/hour to help answer questions in my lab sections.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Wow, we pay more. I am surprised.

      • gasstationwithoutpumps Says:

        The grader pay scale was worse before the union. TAs get the equivalent of $30.38/hour (as a salary for a nominal 220 hours of work). Grad student researchers get different pay in different departments, from $18.18 to $35.63, though I think that GSR 8 is the highest used at UCSC @$30.55/hr, which is what our department pays)

      • Leah Says:

        Too bad you don’t have something like webassign for your textbook. That’s really brilliant in physics and chem classes at our school. Wish I had it for my classes (bio and earth science). The ability to auto-grade is wonderful.

        One of these days, I’ll figure out some way to set it up myself, but I’m still at the stage of finessing curriculum and not yet ready to fret about homework mechanisms.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        It’s a math class so most of the solutions are in the back of the book. But they still need weekly accountability or they get behind and never catch up.

  6. Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life Says:

    Hm. I’ve had a bugaboo coworker for a significant amount of time where his level of competence and comprehension is almost a bit boggling, I didn’t want him working for me so was able to give him the boot on my major stuff but not overlapping areas and it was driving me batty. I didn’t have a choice about him working for the company (cronyism, lovely). I could have documented my dissatisfaction with his work and taken it up in a more formal way but as not his supervisor it would have required more work than I was willing to put in for a maybe solution. It could even have gone the other way where the higher ups would push him to work with me more to improve his performance. One of the higher ups can be kind of an idiot that way. *shudder* So my solution to wearing myself to a frazzle over the things I couldn’t control in this situation was to ignore it as much as I was able. That sounds easier than it was, it was a process, but it came down to telling myself that I want this job for now and I can either put up with him as long as I need it until I build up another career path, or I can be ragey about it most days and still need to leave eventually before my head burst. This coworker isn’t on the worst end of the bad to worse spectrum of terrible coworkers but he’s definitely gotten under my skin enough for this to have to be a conscious effort. So for me, I suppose the trick was to focus on the choice I made to stay at this job and accept this as part of the price until the situation changes, knowing that only I could be sure of making one change – leaving. Only applicable for work, though. For the whole presidential election thing, I have to wall myself off from a lot of it because it’s just too constantly negative. It doesn’t mean I ignore everything, I just have to limit exposure.

  7. Debbie M Says:

    I’ve been reading some books set in Thailand where one of the messages the author is trying to get across is that not only should we accept the things we can’t change, we should also strongly consider accepting the things we *can* change. Interesting, eh? But not my style!

    Sometimes at work, being a good example helps. And like you said, sometimes knowing someone is watching helps. And you can always try that strategy of lying in wait for the rare good behavior and then pounce on them to show your appreciation.

    It’s one thing if other people are doing things a different way than your favorite or are even being inefficient or something. But when their work seriously affects the quality of what’s going on, that’s demoralizing for people who want things to go well. In this situation, the main strategy I’ve seen is saying, “I don’t care anymore” a lot, even though that’s not really true. You know, like the Tommy Lee Jones character in the movie “The Fugitive.” “I didn’t kill my wife!” “I don’t care.”

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