Make no mistake

Last week I got to visit the painting studio of a very talented Finnish artist, Fanny Tavastila (check her out on Instagram, I really love her paintings: @fannytavastila). Seeing her space and hearing her talk about her creative process was both interesting and inspirational, but it also gave me food for thought.

One of the things she talked about was how she deals with mistakes. Like when she adds something to a painting and changes her mind, but can’t conceal it completely. Or if something happens and leaves a mark, which can’t be corrected.

What she does is simply let it be a part of the painting. The reason is that any mistakes are part of the creative process and the painting simply wouldn’t be what it is without that process. So she doesn’t worry about it too much. After all, it’s also part of what makes that particular painting unique. It’s part of the story.

This really resonated with me, because isn’t this also true for people? I have made plenty of mistakes in my life – we all have. But when asked what I would do differently if I could do it over again, I’m not sure that I would do anything differently. Even though there are situations I really wouldn’t have minded doing without, without those mistakes I wouldn’t be who I am today. I mean to be honest, the bigger the mistake, the more I learned about me and the world around me.

Besides, I didn’t plan on making mistakes. I was just acting to the best of my knowledge and ability, because that was who I was at the time. Now, luckily, thanks to my mistakes I know better.

But this is actually a problem in society and in many organizational settings today. We aren’t very forgiving of ourselves or of others, and we tend to strive for perfection. We worry about making mistakes at work, even though we are bound to make them if we take risks or develop something new. And we cannot learn new things if we don’t try.

So on the one hand we talk about the learning organization, and on the other hand we don’t really have a lot of patience for mistakes. Although risk taking is seen as a strength, mistakes are seen as a weakness. That, if anything, is a contradiction.

Another thing people often see as a weakness, is asking for help or admitting that they don’t know something. The other night, my husband and I were having another one of our kitchen table discussions, and he was telling me about an article he had read about corporate leaders who struggle when they don’t have all the answers. They often feel alone because they don’t have anyone they can ask for help.

My spontaneous reaction was, well what about their team? That’s why experts are recruited, to solve problems and provide answers to difficult questions so that ‘we’ as an organization can figure out what the way forward is. No one should even expect the leader to have all the answers, but still, apparently, they often don’t feel comfortable asking for help and admitting that they don’t.

Think about it. If you can’t support each other as a team, should it really be called a work community? I mean, to me it doesn’t really sound like a community at all, it sounds more like a random group of people.

But the same goes for others too. It is not only leaders who have trouble admitting they don’t know in the fear of being perceived as weak, or dumb, or just unprepared. What I have found though, is that if you’re wondering about something you should just ask, even if you’re worried it’s a stupid question. If it isn’t clear to you, it probably isn’t clear to others either. And no matter what others may think, the one who actually asks finds out, while the one who doesn’t just continues not to know.

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Put your money where your mouth is

Yesterday was the first day of the rest of my life. That’s what it felt like. And Wednesday marked the end of an era. After almost six years with my previous employer, I have changed jobs. Or actually I’m still doing the same job – my research project on men opting out – I’m just doing it at another university.

It feels like a really good move for me. I’m a sociologist and for the first time since I got my PhD, I’m going to be surrounded by sociologists and social psychologists and that feels really exciting. I’ll be meeting new people and finding new opportunities for collaboration. In that way, changing universities before the end of a project is not a bad idea at all, even though it wasn’t originally part of the plan. It will give me the chance to prepare for my next step before I’m actually there.

However, my decision to move was not only based on thoughts of the future. What triggered it all was actually an unfortunate chain of events that made me realize that I simply couldn’t continue working there anymore. The routines (or lack thereof) and practices were so detrimentally against everything I stand for. I make a living researching, writing, and talking about sustainable work solutions, workplace wellbeing, and work environments that are respectful of the individual and their needs. I’ve made it my mission to change organizations for the better, so you can imagine the cognitive dissonance of working in an environment that just didn’t live up to these standards. It felt hypocritical.

Well, I reached a breaking point and decided it was time to put my money where my mouth is. I realized that it was time to expect a sustainable and respectful working environment and culture not only for others but also for myself – for me as an employee.

It hasn’t been easy. Change never is, even if it is good change. In fact, the other day I read something that really resonated with me. It was a post about decision making and how making good decisions can be painful but that you have to push through. And it has been painful, it really has. Especially the limbo I was in before I was able to actually move.

But I know it was the right decision for me. I now look forward to just getting on with it, and to being able to look myself in the mirror and be proud of actually walking the talk.

Shhh… can you hear that? That, my friends, is the sound of me getting back into the driver’s seat!

When you have nothing to do

I find myself sitting here with time to kill. My job right now is just to wait and it’s taking longer than I thought. I decided to come to a nearby café for a cup of coffee while I wait, but I’m kicking myself for not bringing anything with me to do. I have a lot work to do and I’m thinking I should have planned this better and brought my laptop with me. Or a book to read because that would at least have given me something to do.

But as I sit here at the café table, looking out the window, I have absolutely nothing to do. I sigh because I didn’t bring a pen, so I can’t even write a blog post on the napkin that came with my coffee. The thought of writing a blog post makes me start racking my brain, trying to come up with an idea – any idea – for a post. I draw a blank. Not only do I have nothing to do, I have nothing to say either. I feel completely empty. Except for the hot coffee in my belly of course.

So I sit and look out the window. Cars go by. A couple stands together at a railing, looking down at something below them. One of them is wearing a yellow hood, a fleck of sunshine on this otherwise grey day. But now they walk on.

I pull out my cellphone and check my newsfeeds, but get bored with that rather quickly and I feel dumb for having such a hard time not doing anything. Or I realize that it isn’t even that. It’s more that I feel guilty about not using what should be my working day more efficiently. I’m not using my time wisely.

Even though I know how important time for reflection is. Even though we all need down time for our sanity and wellbeing (although we seldom take it). Even though I know this, believe this, advocate this, and it is part of my research.

It’s just that it’s so hard to unlearn what we have learned. Even if we know that it is the right thing to do.

Then I think maybe that is what I should write my blog post about? Maybe I can just write it on my phone?

So that’s what I do and once again I fail miserably at doing nothing. But I did get some reflection done and the coffee was divine.

The unbearable lightness of success

I’ve had a strange past few weeks. As you know, I threw a book launch-art exhibit three weeks ago, and it was a great success. I’m so pleased. But it has also coincided with what I will for the time being just cryptically call ‘workplace turbulence’, which made the whole event a bit unreal to tell you the truth.

But still, people came, I spoke, we had sparkling wine. I received lots of gorgeous flowers, which I have enjoyed immensely. And I’m so grateful for the supportive and positive energy I felt from everyone who came. Thank you.

However, although I loved every second, I am also one of those outgoing introverts who likes being with people but gets my energy from being alone. Therefore, I always feel completely drained after experiences like my event. Plus, as is typical after periods of high stress, I also came down with the flu a couple of days later.

There I was, lying in bed, too sick to work. I was exhausted and frankly just wanted to hide under the covers. At the same time a radio interview and an article about me and my new paperback aired and was published, that I of course shared on social media while pondering life’s contrasts and ironies. While I was sick and just generally miserable, there was my face, smiling out over social media newsfeeds and radiating success.

Well, I’m better now, the post-event exhaustion has worn off, and my job situation is sorting itself out. A few days ago, my daughter and I had a very meaningful conversation about what it means to be successful. I told her about the irony and the mixed feelings of the past few weeks. We agreed that although achievement and success feel great when you have worked hard and get to see the result of that hard work, this type of success can also be very fleeting. Being recognized in the media can be flattering and exciting, but it doesn’t ultimately make you a happy person.

So, what is success then really? Or at least a more lasting feeling of success?

For me it is having a meaningful life. It means doing meaningful and important work, important in that it adds to the greater good. And it means meaningful activities and experiences. This includes relationships, good conversations, and spending time with and being there for the people who are important to me. And I know I share this feeling with many others who opt in to lifestyles where they are able to make more space for relationships.

But this is something we rarely talk about today, especially not in conjunction with the term success. And our hectic lifestyles really don’t enable it either.

This is something to think about. What do you want to see when you look back on your life?

Controlling the uncontrollable and the art of letting go

A feeling of not having control is difficult to deal with. In my research I have found that when people cannot control things they try to compensate for it and create a feeling of control by controlling other, smaller issues. For example, when people feel they have no control over their lives or their time, they tend to be control freaks (pardon the expression) regarding things like organized cupboards, clean homes and excel spreadsheets where they keep track of family members’ whereabouts every moment of the day. I have seen this in my research, and I have also seen how people let go of the small things when they gain a sense of control. People have laughingly told me that after having opted out they became so disorganized because they just didn’t feel the need to control the minutiae anymore.

I have experienced this too.

However, an interesting thing I realized when I started analyzing my passion for silk painting (yes, I know, I am capable of overanalyzing just about anything) was how, when I go between a feeling of control and feeling of not having control, I can actually see it in my painting.

One thing that I really love about silk painting is the way the paints interact with the fabric. It’s almost magical. The paints tend to spread like crazy along the threads of the fabric, and there are different ways of trying to control that, if that is what you want to do. Because there is something so satisfying about letting the colors spread and merge and in a way dance together on the silk and just see it happening before your eyes. You can drop water or alcohol on the colors or use salts to create different effects and the exciting thing is that you never really know what you will end up with. After the paint has dried, you see what you have and then you take it from there.

Sort of like in life. You never really know what you will end up with, but you invariably end up with something and then you have to accept that in order to be able to take it from there. It’s called working with what you have.

Well, during this past year, I’ve been fascinated by the idea of controlling the uncontrollable. I like painting without using gutta, a paste-like material that creates borders over which the colors won’t spread. I like it when the colors spread and I like being able to control this without the help of techniques like gutta.

This past year I have noticed a change in my style of painting. I’ve moved away from big sweeping brush strokes and abstract color schemes to create exact lines through colorful florals or black silhouettes. Only when I have been mad or frustrated have I deviated from this (that’s when I’ve taken my frustration out on the silk, and it works like a charm). But on the most part my painting has been very controlled.

Thinking back, this has coincided with a year of searching and wondering what I should do with my life, where I want to go next. I have been feeling unsure and I have lacked a sense of control, and it suddenly became so clear to me that I, in part, have been compensating for that in my art.

Now, however, I have a plan. I’ve figured things out and once again feel like I am on the track towards my future. I have gained a sense of control and, correspondingly, I see the result of this in my painting. This summer, when the pieces started falling into place, I started yearning for less control in my painting, for larger brushstrokes and more improvisation.

But ironically, even when I try to control my painting, it’s still just an illusion. You can never really have full control, just an illusion of control. With silk paints, as in life, you never really know what will happen and where you will end up. But you have to accept what comes at you because only then can you move on to the next thing, in an informed and sustainable way. It’s just easier to let go when you feel safe.

Do more of what you love

I’m often asked for advice on how to opt in. I mean, I guess we can sort of figure out the opting out part on our own. In theory at least, since it’s easier said than done. But how does one opt in? How does one even figure out what to opt in to?

Well, I’m usually very reluctant to give advice about opting out and in. I study the phenomenon, but as I’ve said a number of times before, I’m not an opting out coach. When people opt out and in, they usually feel a sense of urgency, and when that happens, things generally have a way of sorting themselves out because they have to.

But as I was planning my talk for my event last week, I started thinking about my own opting out and in journey and how I as a person have grown during this time. I have learned so much on my journey, not least about myself, and I realized that I have had many valuable epiphanies that I can share.

So here goes. Lessons I have learned about finding your way and life in general:

  • You need to do things, anything, because action leads to opportunities. When it comes to finding whatever it is you are looking for, doing something is better than doing nothing.
  • You need to try things. When opportunities present themselves give them a chance. Even if it seems crazy or out of character, if it is something you think you might like, jump! This does not mean giving everything else up, it just means giving things a try. Kind of like my silk painting. I jumped, I’ve been doing it on the side, and it’s lead me to places I’ve only dreamed about.
  • You need to not listen to your inner critic. He/she is not your friend! It does not matter if you don’t have the formal training, if the competition is tough, or if there are others who are better at it than you. Try it anyway! Otherwise you’ll never know. Besides, doubt is an essential part of every creative process.
  • You need to do more of what you love. When we do things that make us happy, we tend to get good at it just because we do it a lot. And the reason we do it a lot is because we love doing it. Not only that, you also tend to love things you’re good at, so it quickly becomes a good circle, as opposed to a viscous one.
  • You need to talk about it. Tell people! Talking helps shape your thoughts and ideas. You’ll also realize what a great idea it is when you see the other person getting excited about it. You’ll realize that your crazy idea isn’t that crazy after all! And they might know of opportunities or people who can help. Or they might be able to help. This is often how opportunities appear.
  • Don’t wait for the perfect time or for whatever it is you’re doing to be perfect. If you do, it will never happen. You need to just start and you can fix and tweak as you go along. Besides, I’m a firm believer that beauty lies in the imperfections.

Famous for a week

This past week I’ve felt famous. I was interviewed for a Finnish radio station on Wednesday and when I got back from that interview I was asked by another organization for another interview. The term they used was “successful researcher” and, to be honest, it felt very flattering. The thing is, I don’t generally feel wildly successful. I just do what I do, and sometimes it goes well and sometimes it doesn’t. As an academic I get a lot of rejection that can be seriously demoralizing even though I tell myself that it comes with the territory and that I should take it as constructive criticism. Sometimes I wonder if academics are gluttons for punishment or if we just don’t know better.

Monday is the day of my book release–art exhibit. I’ve marketed the event and my book on social media, and people must obviously have noticed it. If it has made me seem very successful, I don’t know, but what I do know is that when we create narratives of what we do it tends to always seem so neat and planned and intentional.

I mean, I opted out of a career in business nine years ago. The story is that I wanted to pursue further studies in the social sciences and writing a PhD on opting out would allow me to do that. Not only that, it would provide me with the much-needed insights to understand what it is about our working culture that is making people not want to work the way that is expected of them. This would, in turn, help me make an impact in the business world, which is where I’m really from.

After that, I went on to study men, which I knew from the start would be my next step. I got the funding I wanted and now I’m doing that. With this knowledge (and with my books that I’m publishing left and right (okay, that was a slight exaggeration…)) I’m now planning on moving back towards the world of business so that I can use my research and nothing less than change the world and the way we understand what it means to be a good and successful worker as well as create real and sustainable solutions for work.

This is my story. This is the story of the successful researcher.

However, the truth is that this is only part of the story. The narratives we tell and the stories we see don’t include the pain, the insecurity, the doubt, and the fear. My story doesn’t say that when I opted out I was not at all sure I wanted to do a PhD. I was thinking about it and decided I needed to jump because I really needed a change. It doesn’t tell us about the identity crises I experienced. It doesn’t talk about how I at one point never thought I was going to complete my PhD. Or about how I was rejected for a whole year regarding my men opting out research. It just seemed impossible to get funding! Or how doing research and writing a book is a complete emotional roller coaster filled with moments of euphoria but also with at least as many moments of despair. Or the worry about what I will do next or how I will make my living. Or the pain of wearing my heart on my sleeve (which is kind of what you do when you put your soul into your writing or painting) and getting harsh criticism or even worse, being met with indifference.

None of this is part of my ‘official’ story or something that anyone else can see. They just see the milestones and successes. And there have been both milestones and successes for which I am very grateful; this book release-art exhibit is one. But that is the thing, nothing is ever as simple as it looks.

I’ve made it one of my missions in life to show people exactly that; that successful individuals have doubts and that their paths aren’t always straightforward or even planned. Like anyone else, they have ups and downs. They feel insecure and vulnerable, but they also don’t give up. They keep going after the rejection. They keep going despite the doubt. Because the fact is that doubt is part of the creative process.

So yes, I’ve had successes and I’ve had failures. I’ve had my share of both. But for this week, I’m choosing to ignore whatever bumps there have been in the road. I’m going to bask in this idea that I am a successful researcher. It will help keep me going when the next obstacle appears.

And don’t you forget to pat yourself on the back either. Celebrate your successes, however big or small. You’re so worth it!