Gruffalosian Epistemology

You know you’ve gone down the philosophy rabbit hole when you start seeing example everywhere you look. Like reading a book to your three year old.

The Gruffalo is a classic children’s book by author and illustrator combo Julia Donaldson and Axel Schaeffer. There’s even a short film version of it you can watch via the ABC.

It tells the story of a mouse taking a stroll through a deep, dark wood wanting to find a nice place to eat an acorn. On his journey the mouse comes across three sinister characters who each try to lure the mouse away so they can eat him. Each time the mouse responds by telling them yes, they could do that, but it might upset his friend the Gruffalo. He then proceeds to give a detailed description of some of the Gruffalo’s terrifying characteristics.

The mouse is feeling pretty proud of himself for pulling the wool over the eyes of the snake, owl and fox, and is walking away confidently to eat his acorn when he bumps into…a Gruffalo! Just as the characters we’ve met so far, the Gruffalo considers the mouse will make a fine snack.

This is very unexpected for the mouse, who was not aware that he was in fact describing a real thing. But the mouse is quick witted, and explains that while he could try to eat him as a snack, he might not get what he bargains for. He claims to the Gruffalo that he is the scariest creature in the woods, and not only that – he can prove it!

The mouse instructs the Gruffalo to follow him as he returns along the path through which he came. As the mouse travels the path with the Gruffalo behind him, he once again meets the fox, owl and snake. When they see him (or rather, the Gruffalo behind him) coming, they each cower in fear and make a rapid exit. The Gruffalo is convinced that the mouse is in fact telling the truth…he’s the scariest thing in the wood and might be best left uneaten.

Now there’s lots of lessons you could draw from this story. But as I said, I’m viewing the world through a philosophy lens at the moment, so for me this is story about knowledge. How do we know what we know, and when do we know it?

What constitutes knowledge is a major area of discussion in philosophy. For a long time, it was thought that you know something if you have a justified true belief. All three have to be present, otherwise it’s not knowledge. That justification can come from a number of evidence sources. You can experience it yourself through your senses or you can receive testimony from a trusted source.

Then a guy called Gettier came along in the 1960s and suggested that it’s possible for someone to have a justified true belief without having knowledge if they just happen to stumble across the right answer. He started providing examples of when this can happen, and so did other people as they started to question it more. These became known as Gettier Cases.

So I’m wondering, is The Gruffalo a Gettier Case?

We know from reading the story, that the Gruffalo exists within the story, so that takes care of the truth part. Prior to bumping into the Gruffalo, the mouse doesn’t believe it to be true so he obviously doesn’t have knowledge of it until he has personal experience. The snake, owl and fox on the other hand each form a justified true belief about the Gruffalo from hearing the mouse’s testimony, so in that sense they have knowledge of the Gruffalo’s existence. But there is no direct connection between what turns out to be the truth of their belief (the Gruffalo’s existence) and their justification of it, because it was based on false testimony from an untrustworthy source. So is it really accurate to claim that they know it? Do you require something more than justified true belief to truly have knowledge?

I’ll put it to you another way – if some guy that looks like Santa and calls himself Santa rocks up at your house on Christmas Eve, does that mean kids all over the world currently have knowledge that adults don’t? They have evidence of his existence – testimony from all sorts of trusted sources, presents left where there were none before, physical manifestations of the man in red at shopping centres all over town. They are playing the snake, fox and owl characters in our story and we’re the mouse.

I share this because I’m lost in the abyss that is the total head fuck that is thinking about thinking (aka philosophy), so I thought I’d share the joy/pain/who knows what?




Know your customer

My son turned three this week. Its the first birthday that he’s understand enough to get excited about it. And he sure was excited. He had expectations about what a birthday entailed and one of those things was cake. A cake with Lightning McQueen on it.

In a year where covid has taken away so many little flourishes I figured the least thing I could to was make him a cake. Im also a child of the women’s weekly birthday cake book, with photos from my own birthdays and the cakes that went with them firmly imprinted in my memory.

It was a workday and I didn’t have a whole lot of time on my hands for cake decorating so I went with a can’t go wrong packet mix. Only it did go wrong.

The cake part was fine, but the icing went…weird. It separated but in a really strange way which made it really grainy. By this time it was late in the day. I had no ingredients to remake icing. I could go to the shops but it would be annoying and add stress to the day.

Then I remembered who my customer was. A three year old who had no expectations of what a cake should be other than a candle and Lightning McQueen. That was still achievable.

I slathered the cake with rough as guts icing, complete with bumpy race track. I positioned a few cars and done. Ugly but met the requirements.

And the three year old was thrilled.


Ugly but adequate

Cleaning the Whiteboard

Yesterday I did a total reset the whiteboard I’ve been using to plan out the completion of my thesis. Partly in procrastination, and partly to set my intentions. I wiped it completely clean, including the aspirational completion date of October 2020. Sigh.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s 2020 has not been as productive as they thought it would be. When I set up that whiteboard initially, I was flying high with motivation. Then when the stay at home recommendations started coming in my work shifted from the office to the kitchen table. My whiteboard stayed in the office and gradually things slipped.

I wouldn’t say it was lack of motivation, more a scrambling of my brain. And a rejig of schedule that was just enough to set many things off kilter. You work to get it back, and then there’s another shutdown. Even though it only lasted a couple of days, it was still enough to throw me mentally off balance.

But as I set up my new whiteboard I began to notice that even though I’m not where I had hoped to be, I’ve still made quite a bit of progress. The idea of completing my thesis isn’t a fanciful flight of fantasy, it’s just a long slog. A marathon that is slowly but surely nearing it’s completion. So what if I don’t make record time? I’m not racing against anyone but myself. Just finish, that’s all that matters.

What kind of gardener?

This morning as I walked home from dropping off my youngest at childcare I took a moment to appreciate the gardens. Despite my hayfever fuelled daze, the beauty of the emerging springtime gardens still shone through.

One garden demanded my attention as I strolled on by. A modern design that really complimented the old cottage that it led to. One of those gardens that only uses three or four plants of differing textures and heights within a complimentary colour scheme. Sea lavender and silver grey succulents. It looked strikingly beautiful and very well maintained.

I really enjoy these kinds of gardens. I truly admire them and the work that must go into making them thrive. But I don’t want one.

My garden is a bit of a rambling mess, but I think it’s beautiful. I love to look at it through the view from the study. Seeing how it changes through the seasons and years that pass by. Why? Because I love the process of gardening more than the garden itself.

I enjoy the sense of experimentation. I find fulfilment in seeing what thrives, but also seeing what dies and why. For me, the idea of maintaining a small array of plants to consistently be at their healthiest sounds like a bit of a chore. Like housework. Another thing on a list of things that needs to get done.

I feel like maybe it’s this way with the whole generalist/specialist thing. I can fully appreciate the value of specialising and admire the qualities of people who do. But it’s just not where I find fulfilment. To some people, that may mean that my career looks less attractive. More like the rambling garden with a scruffy kind of beauty than the polished landscape design.


Un-sticking the Regulator

I grew up in a fiery household. My parents clashed with one another, often. And yet, despite this we had a steady stream of visitors who seemed to find comfort within our chaos.

My Mum would be the one inviting them in. She’d offer the shoulder to cry on, the emotional support to anyone who needed it. She even invited someone for Christmas lunch she met in the queue at the supermarket one time. My Dad, forever the extreme rationalist, would offer the practical assistance. Provide the framework for enacting change. I saw how people benefited from both of my parents. I also saw how they each could get hurt by their extreme positions; Dad from being too guarded and Mum not guarded enough.

Despite my gender, I am much more wired like my Dad, but I have always had great admiration for my Mum. I recognised early on that if I wanted to be of service to others then I needed a way to achieve some sort of balance between the emotional and rational approach. And I wanted to be in service of others, without question.

I’ve always been pretty good at internally regulating this balance in my personal life, but my professional life has been a different story. When I started working in a hospital my internal regulator turned fully toward the rational and there it stayed.

It was a natural response to the environment I suppose. Steep learning curve, mistakes that can end up in harming someone or at the very least hurt your reputation. Focusing on the technical suited me well and I was rewarded for my rationalist approach. It helped form a protective mechanism which enabled me to work in emotionally challenging areas like the paediatric intensive care unit and not get consumed by it. And PICU was full of sad stories.

One day when I was visiting PICU I came across a situation that put a great big dent in my protective shield. I saw a mother sitting and cradling her small baby, all swaddled up in hospital blankets as newborns often are. But I could see that this baby was no longer living. It had died earlier that day and she was spending her last moments with it before saying goodbye. Sitting silently in her sorrow.

I was asked by the nurse if I could organise the antibiotics for the family. They needed to be treated for whooping cough. I felt as though she wasn’t just asking me to organise medication, she was tasking me with delivering the family a physical token of the fact that one of them was the responsible for that baby’s death.

As much as I would’ve liked to avoid doing this, my rational nature won out. Thinking through the scenario it became clear to me that if I wanted to do my job of providing them with the information they needed then I couldn’t ask them to collect their medication from the dispensary like everyone else. They didn’t need to be around other people, and I couldn’t risk someone inadvertently adding to their distress. I had to deliver it to them in person. I needed to understand their situation and tailor my approach accordingly.

When I brought the medication to the family I found a group of people who were completely and utterly exhausted. Too exhausted to be emotional. Nothing left to fake a smile. An empty kind of shared silence that I’d never encountered before. They didn’t need any small talk. They didn’t need any attempts at sympathy or empty platitudes from me. All I had to do was quietly and respectfully provide them with their drugs, basic instructions and written information they could refer to later. Let them get out of there as quickly as possible.

That day I experienced something that I’d only really known intellectually up until then. When your business is dealing with people the most rational thing you can possibly do is consider their emotional perspective. Its not about being fluffy, it just makes sense.

I was reminded of what I learned growing up that day and started to use my internal regulator in my professional world. I’d like to say it got fully recalibrated then and there, but it was more like it got unstuck. Bit by bit, with practice I get better at using it to dial up the right mix of emotional and rational approach to suit the situation in front of me. I don’t always get it right, but one thing’s for sure, I’ve become a more compassionate and effective professional because of it.

Chunky or fine?

I like to make my own muesli. Not because it’s particularly cheaper or healthier or any other noble reason other than it tastes good. I don’t use a complicated recipe, but I do use macadamia nuts. That makes it feel indulgent. It feels like I’m having dessert for breakfast some days.

There is one pivotal decision when it comes to making a batch…how fine to chop the macadamias?

Too fine and you lose the presence of the macadamia itself. It blends into the other ingredients and kind of loses the justification of the higher price tag. It needs to be chunky enough to know it’s there. To feel the crunch and appreciate the flavour.

What other aspects of life present us with similar decisions? Blending in or standing out?

Make your presence known…and, potentially, your nuttiness too.



One Man Guy

One Man Guy by Rufus Wainwright is one of my all time favourite, emotion filled songs.

It starts out with Rufus accompanied by an acoustic guitar. Waxing lyrical about being a loner. But what makes it truly amazing are the layers of harmonies that emerge and fade and then build throughout.

Its by uniting with the other voices that the one man guy truly shines.

As useful as a foot in the face

I can handle most of the gross things that come along with parenting pretty well, but wobbly teeth is just not one of them. My daughter has been tormenting me with a wobbly front tooth for months now. Since well before Easter it’s been wriggling away and I’ve been trying to avoid it.

The other night after dinner she and her little brother were being their rambunctious selves jumping around on the couch. Yes, I know I should probably do the whole “the couch is not a jungle gym” type line, but there are some times in life where a moment of peace (not quiet peace mind you) is worth the price of deflated cushions.

This was one of those times. My husband and I were enjoying an uninterrupted conversation amongst the screams and laughter that was growing in volume. And then, silence.

If you’re a parent you know that sudden onset silence is one of the most suspicious. It usually means one of two things: mischief or injury. The latter is typically followed by a loud scream breaking the silence. That didn’t come.

I looked at my daughter and she had a strange expression. She was making a comic like gulp. She looked dazed.

“What happened?” I asked, waiting for her to unleash about her brother.

Nothing. Just shock. Her hand went to her mouth.

“I think I swallowed my tooth!”

“What do you mean you swallowed your tooth?” I asked as I tried my hardest to suppress just how grossed out I was feeling by this. “How did that happen?”

“He stepped on my face. I THINK I JUST SWALLOWED MY TOOTH!”

We looked around for a while between the cushions, over our floor that was in desperate need of a vacuum. Nothing. She disappeared to the bathroom. I kept searching to no avail. Oh no. The tooth that has taken months to dislodge has gone missing.

Surely I could find it. I had to find it. How were we going to manage the disappointment of a six year old who has been waiting in anticipation  for months to deliver her prized front tooth to the Tooth Fairy? On top of that, the thought of her swallowing it was too disgusting to cope with. Must. Find. Tooth.

Back she came from the bathroom.

“Are you ok?” I asked, ready to console her about how swallowing a tooth is normal and not something to worry about.

No consolation was necessary. She broke out her gappy smile and had pen and paper in hand ready to write a note to the Tooth Fairy and tell all her friends.

Life’s like that sometimes I think. Waiting for what feels like forever for something to happen. Allowing nature to take it’s course. Learning to be patient. Then every now and then something comes along like a little brother stepping on your face to accelerate progress whether you like it or not. You can’t always control the circumstances, but I suppose you can control your response.


Reflections of A Year of Blogging

This month marks twelve months of (relatively) consistent blogging. This is my 128th post. I started wanting to improve my writing skills, I never realised how transformative the process of writing would be.

Writing consistently has has helped me to take more risks and push myself out of my comfort zone. It has introduced me to new connections and opportunities. But, perhaps most importantly, it has helped me to develop a stronger sense of self. Its this sense of self that has afforded me the confidence to forge my own path and see what happens.

I certainly didn’t think twelve months ago that I’d be founding a startup with my husband! Yet, in many ways writing and launching a startup have been similar pursuits. Each requires you to manage this weird juxtaposition of hubris and humility within yourself. Putting yourself out there and saying something out loud, being audacious enough to offer something up to the world means that you have to back yourself and your idea. But it also means that you’re learning and iterating your approach in public view. That means you have to be humble, recognise and learn along the way.

Honestly, it’s a challenging headspace to maintain. Whether or not I can is yet to be seen. There have been weeks like this one where I feel flat and uncertain. Others where I’m flying with optimism. But it’s been maintaining some degree of process that has kept me going relatively consistently. I’m grateful to have learned that. And the writing has been a key part of that process.

It makes me hopeful for the next twelve months.


Our talent pool is leaking

This week I came across a paper about achieving gender parity in pharmacy leadership positions. Don’t get too excited, it’s still predicted to be about 10 years away! But it did make me think a bit deeper about why it might be this way. Pharmacy has been a female-dominated profession for many years. In my experience, while there are pockets where boys clubs exist, the vast majority of men I’ve come across in the profession are far from sexist. I know plenty of strong female pharmacists within the profession that garner respect and do good work. What’s going on?

When it was being talked about on Twitter, one of the comments from a ‘next-gen’ pharmacist wondered if we will be having the opposite conversation in in 20 years. I could see where he was coming from. From his perspective, he’s the sole male representative on a number of committees – maybe gender disparity is a generational issue? I’m guessing many early career pharmacists feel similar to him, that the future is female. I’m not so sure about those who have had children since starting their career will think it’s such a sure thing though.

We don’t seem to talk about the impact of children on career much in pharmacy. At least I’ve never come across it. It seems to be one of those things that despite occurring often, its rarely talked about openly and sincerely. There seems to be some sort of stigma attached. Acknowledging that you want to balance work and family life can be interpreted as being weak and less committed. Ignoring it and ploughing ahead professionally can be interpreted as being cold and unfeminine. Then there’s the judgement associated with not having children!

I think one of the positive things that’s come out of the Covid-19 pandemic is that it’s forcibly dropped the veil between work and home life. Talking about family responsibilities, and the impact that this has on career development has become (slightly) less taboo. So what the hell hey, let’s talk about it.

I can’t speak to other women’s experiences, so I’m going to stick to speaking about my own. This feels much more self-indulgent than I’m typically comfortable with, but I can’t think of another way to communicate it so I’m just going to go with it.

Let me start by explaining that I’ve never been a particularly clucky type of female who fawns over other people’s babies and plays with small children, but I have always wanted to have a family. There was never any doubt in my mind that if I was indeed able to have children, I would. In fact, the very potential of having children impacted my career before I even had either a career or children. Pharmacy made it onto my shortlist of careers in part because of the potential to continue working part time.

I started off in hospital pharmacy in 2003 where I was pretty happy taking on whatever opportunities presented themselves to me. One of the things I noticed early on though was that there seemed to be a gulf between those who were early in their career and those in the later part. There seemed to be a relative absence of female pharmacists in their mid-career (30 to 50) who were available to mentor those of us earlier in our career.

Over the years I took on whatever career opportunities came my way, but I never really got involved in the professional association side of things. Meetings and networking has never been my thing. I met who would turn out to be my husband in 2007. My approach was to work earnestly to establish myself as best as I could early so that I would be in a reasonable position to take a break and have kids around the ten year mark.

In 2011 an opportunity came up to take on a totally different kind of role establishing a pharmacy service as part of a community palliative care team. The following year I got married and turned 30. Amid these life changes I found myself feeling conflicted. On one hand, I was excited to be pursuing a new chapter of my career and doing pretty well professionally. On the other, my years working at the Women’s and Children’s hospital meant I knew all about things like fertility and age-related pregnancy risks that get worse from the 35 year mark. This wasn’t just some sort of quiet, self-reflective kind of conflict either. As soon as I got engaged, multiple people seemed to think it was socially acceptable to ask me about my plans for having a family (FYI, just because a female is of a certain age and in a committed relationship, it does not make it acceptable to ask about personal details like family planning).

Until I found myself in the situation, I never realised that the further involved you are in your career the harder it is to take a break from it. What appeared like a ‘good time’ to have children when I started out my career did not feel like it at the time.

By mid-2013 I found myself enrolled in a part-time PhD and working to finalise the ongoing funding for the pharmacist role I had successfully established. I was also pregnant with my first baby. I was not enthusiastic about telling anyone at work that I was pregnant. I knew my contract was due to end and was comfortable that I was not going to return to the role post-baby, but I didn’t want to risk my pregnancy entering into their decision making process about continuing the role. (I also worked with a lot of older women and I couldn’t stomach the thought of pregnancy being the only topic of conversation anyone talked to me about from then on.) Once the funding got finalised, I told them I was five months pregnant and set to work to get them in the position to find someone great to take on the role. We managed to do that and I left the role in their hands at the end of 2013 with my baby due at the end of January.

I experienced a bit of an identity crisis when I first went on maternity leave which I wasn’t prepared for it at all. I was expecting to get all into cleaning and home projects and stuff preparing for the baby, I didn’t anticipate feeling so lost. I never realised how much of our identity gets tied up with professional role and job title.

This feeling of confusion didn’t go away once my daughter was born. It wasn’t because I felt brain dead or unmotivated. Far from it. I was still enrolled in my PhD,  I was getting involved in other contract work in assessment and teaching. It was more like I felt out of the loop. I still attended the occasional local CPD event, but I felt like I had become an ‘other’ and on the outer professionally. People don’t seem to know what to talk to you about when you don’t have a neat job description.

I made the decision not to return to a ‘proper job’ following maternity leave, opting to continue my part-time PhD instead. I’m grateful to have been in a position financially and with a supportive partner where this could be a viable choice. I’ve been able to remain engaged and intellectually while maintaining enough flexibility to remain involved in family life, and welcomed my son in 2017. It’s been much harder to remain engaged in the professional community though.

While some of the challenges in engaging in the professional community relate to my priorities and how I want to spend my time, I have notices some major shifts in two areas that have created barriers that I am quite sure others would also experience- finances and time.

Pre-children, my expendable income was much higher and I didn’t care so much about spending $500 plus on a face to face CPD activity or even more to attend a conference. I was also employed by a public hospital so I had access to funding which made things much more reasonable. When you’re self-employed or working part-time (or at a low wage like a PhD stipend) it’s a different story.

The other major change has been time. Attending events in real time, be they face to face or online (e.g. webinar) becomes a challenge in logistics and negotiation. Anything that coincides with a meal time or bedtime is not easy to accommodate. Events occurring over weekends and requiring travel bring different considerations. Attending face to face CPD and conferences have become a luxury item for me.

I’m not sharing this to be a complainer, I’m just saying how it is for me. And I’m guessing that if it’s been challenging for me then there’s a good chance that there are others who have also encountered similar challenges. I don’t know what they are, but i think it’s worth talking about them so that we can understand them.

Achieving gender parity in pharmacy leadership isn’t just about fulfilling quotas or achieving representation targets on committees, it’s about making use of the depth and breadth of our entire talent pool. At the moment that talent pool has a great big leak in it. It’s time to fix it.