Do you set things up for failure or for success?

I experienced something heart wrenching this weekend. I’m visiting Adelaide for work and I love taking walks in the morning in the wonderful parklands that surround the city. The sound of the birds and the scent of the gum trees are what I always take with me when I go back home and I’m trying to enjoy them as much as I can while I’m here. There is a large green area very close to where I live where there are horses. Those of you who know me, know how much I love horses and I enjoy walking over there just to look at them.

On this particular day there were just three horses out in the pasture. They were further off in a different enclosure than usual so I walked towards them to get a better look. I find Adelaideans so friendly that I end up having meaningful conversations with complete strangers every day (this is true), so I thought maybe I could have a chat with the owners of the horses.

As I approached, I noticed that the people there had been saddling up two of the three horses and that they were leading them away towards the gate. The horse without a saddle was trotting alongside them looking very excited to be going on an outing. He (it could have been a she but let’s just say he for the sake of simplicity) didn’t seem to register that he wasn’t wearing a bridle or a saddle, he just knew that his herd was leaving so he was leaving too. A man started waving a stick at him to distract him and in the meantime the other two horses slipped out with their riders and the man with the stick quickly followed.

What happened next was the part that was so heart wrenching.

The horse left behind panicked. Horses are herd animals and this horse’s herd had left without him. He started neighing and he neighed and neighed and neighed. He called after them; it sounded like he was crying and shouting at them to come back. In a complete panic he started galloping from the gate where he was standing towards the fence (where I was standing, but on the outside), which was also towards the direction his herd had gone. He ran around, back and forth and then full speed towards the fence again, grinding to a halt right before he crashed into it. Then the was off again. Then he came back and he neighed and called out to them again. By this time, they were out of sight.

I tried talking to him, thinking maybe my voice would calm him down. Maybe it did, I don’t know. Either way he started trotting back and forth along the fence, stopping to neigh and to have bowel movements (he had a few so I can only conclude that it was caused by the stress). He went back and forth like a caged animal, but with this nervous energy that he would suddenly not be able to contain and then he was off again galloping in a panic.

At one point he came over and reached out to me over the fence, so I put out my hand. He sniffed it and then he was off again. I talked and talked to him, but there was nothing I could do. I didn’t know this horse; he was someone else’s property and I didn’t have a right to touch him. Nor would it have been wise, we’re talking about 500+ kilos hurtling around uncontrollably.

I stood there for a while feeling miserable for this animal. Out of compassion, I was unable to leave. I felt that at least someone should stay with him, but finally I just had to go. Again, I had to remind myself that this was not my horse and there was nothing I could do. The owners/riders would be back soon. I turned to walk away and the neighing that had stopped by then, started again. It broke my heart.

Where I come from and where I horse-back ride, this would never have happened. We have a strict rule never to leave any horses alone in the pasture. If there are two of them and you need to fetch one, you always take both because you can’t leave one behind. And the reason for that suddenly became absolutely crystal clear to me.

One of the things that really bothered me though, was how unnecessary all this was. This horse was subjected to extreme stress and the situation was potentially very dangerous. He could have been hurt in his panic-stricken state. If this happens regularly, which I assume that it must, it invariably has a long-lasting effect on the horse and his wellbeing. So, you end up with a horse with all kinds of issues who might become nervous in different situations, causing even more potentially dangerous situations for no reason what-so-ever. I say no reason because this was a situation that could have been avoided. You can just decide never to leave a horse alone like that and you will have a much calmer, happier and healthier horse that is a lot easier to handle. And a horse that is easier to handle makes you calmer and happier, which in turn has a positive effect on the horse again. See what I’m getting at, it becomes a good circle.

But isn’t this true for most things in life? You can set things up to succeed or you can set things up to fail. By creating situations and doing things in a way that minimize friction and conflict, you enable everyone involved to succeed. By not doing so you potentially set yourself and everyone else up for both conflict and failure. Or if nothing else, it just makes it harder to get anything done.

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Opting out of the expected and in to the unexpected

I was adopted about a week ago. I was adopted into an opting out family, which now consists of two opting out sisters, me and Kenieshiear Czetty.

What happened was that I was found through my Instagram account (@ingrids_silk_painting) by the creator of the opting out podcast series.

Kenieshiear contacted me through Instagram (this is social media at its best, connecting people globally), saying how she was so excited to find me and my opting out research, and that she felt like we were sisters. It was mind-blowing, I was just as excited to be found. However, I’ve been travelling for the past three weeks and I have had such a bad internet connection that, excited as I was, I wasn’t able to listen to any podcasts until the other day.

But then I did. I started listening and listened for about an hour and a half worth of podcasts in one go. To be honest, I kind of toyed with the idea of an opting out podcast of my own at one point, but I’m not sure I could do it. At least not as openly, honestly and spontaneously as Kenieshiear. I have a lot more listening to do, but let me share with you the most profound things I took away from these first 90 minutes.

  • She talks about opting out of the expected and opting in to the unexpected. That’s so eloquently put and exactly as I see it. It may be the expected and unexpected on a personal level, you might surprise yourself. Or it may be the expected and unexpected out of a social perspective. This means that not everyone will get what you are doing, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.
  • If something feels hard, if it’s overwhelming you and making you feel bad, you need to not ignore it but to dig deeper and explore it.
  • You have permission to do what feels natural to you.
  • Lock arms with someone who will walk with you on your opting out journey, someone who will help you ignite what you have. Everyone isn’t ready for this, isn’t open to the unexpected, and if not, they won’t be able to support you. Be sure to find someone who can.
  • If you’ve had the courage to change your life, if you’ve been set free, you can go and set someone else free. “Let’s all be the wildfire of change.” Don’t you just love that?

Anyway, listen for yourself: https://houseofczetty.com/series/opting-out/

The good, the bad and the ugly – debate on social media

One of the interesting and sometimes disturbing dimensions of social media is the insight you get into family members’, friends’ and acquaintances’ opinions and beliefs. Views they haven’t previously shared are suddenly out there as they share posts and participate in debates that are open for anyone to see.  It’s interesting to say the least, but it can also be deeply troubling. Especially in this day and age when many things have become so polarized and opinions and ways of expressing these opinions have become so black and white, not to mention extreme and rude. As a sociologist I can find following debates and reading the comment sections of social media updates fascinating, but it can also be sad and depressing. It makes me sad when so-called friends are just mean to each other in the name of debate. How people have the gall to be so rude when they are not face to face with the person they are talking to is beyond me, but this has actually been researched and found to be true: people are capable of saying things to each on social media that they wouldn’t be caught dead saying in person.

So sociologically this is all very interesting, but personally, reading the comment sections also makes me feel somewhat hypocritical. It makes me feel hypocritical because while I’m a social scientist and I write, publish and give talks to share my knowledge, I avoid participating in these debates. I avoid engaging in debates with people of detrimentally opposing opinions to me, even though I know that change doesn’t come about from only preaching to the already converted.

The reason I don’t want to engage is that I simply don’t know how. I don’t want to be drawn into an ugly argument peppered with insults, name calling and rude insinuations. I don’t want to have my words twisted into something I didn’t say or mean, which unfortunately is what I usually see in social media debates. I would be happy to participate in a calm and mutually respectful discussion, but on social media they unfortunately seem to be few and far between. So I choose not to engage.

But the other day I just couldn’t resist. A Facebook friend shared a post about colloidal silver. There is a growing and highly controversial trend in my country where people use colloidal silver as a health remedy, even though it really isn’t good for you and there are no studies at all that support any health effects. On the contrary. However, I am really no expert on the subject and I have no personal experience so I have just stayed out of it. The reason I suddenly decided to engage was that this said post was about how colloidal silver was supposedly medically approved until 1947 and that this information is proof of its benefits. Now I don’t know anything about this – that it has been approved before may very well be true, but that’s not the point. What got me was the argument that something that was approved over 72 years ago must be good for you.

I am a scientist – a social scientist – and while I am not an expert on colloidal silver, I am certainly an expert on how scientific research is done. I know about ethical guidelines and the rigor of the research process. I know how knowledge is created and that scientists constantly build on existing knowledge. I know that our knowledge continues to grow and that we know much more today than we did before. This is the reason that recommendations change and this is also the reason that we can know that something that was approved almost a century ago, in reality is extremely bad for your health.

That all makes perfect sense to me. What doesn’t make sense to me is to argue that something is good to use just because it was ordinated by doctors more than 72 years ago.

So that was where I couldn’t resist. I commented, explaining what I explained above about research and knowledge creation and development. I was polite, I thought, short and to the point. I didn’t take a stand on colloidal silver, just on the argument of something being approved so long ago.

And I got some responses.

What gets me though is that the responses generally didn’t engage with what I said at all, they were rather loaded comments about colloidal silver. The comment that really took the cake was about how NASA uses colloidal silver (again, I don’t know this for a fact) and that do I think that they are superstitious lunatics too?

At this point I want to point out that I didn’t breathe a word about either superstition or lunatics; I didn’t even think it. This person introduced these words himself, so I can only assume it reflects previous comments he has gotten in debates he has participated in.

But still, my feeling when reading the comment was, “what??”

I had said something calm and was as a result basically accused of name-calling, or at least of thinking of the person accusing me as a superstitious lunatic. How do you respond to that? Is there anything that I could possible say in response that would create a nuanced and respectful discussion? To me the comment about superstitious lunatics was below the belt; it was completely un-called for, and I really don’t think engaging in that would get us anywhere.

However, the problem is, that not engaging does nothing to bring people of different opinions closer towards a common understanding. It does nothing to create dialogue and to help us all understand each other better.

So, there’s the dilemma: to engage or not to engage? Either way, I’m not sure I can stomach it.

What is important to you and when do you draw the line?

I had great plans for this blog post. I had a really good idea and I’ve been meaning to write it down for the past week and a half. It’s been almost two and a half weeks since my last post and for a blog where my intention has been to post weekly, that is a pretty long break. Especially since a person I met about half a year ago, whose opinion I really value, said to me after she checked out my blog, “I just have one criticism, I wish you would post more often.” That was a huge compliment, it meant that she really liked my blog. But it also made me feel pressured to actually try and be more active.

So that has been going through my head too, that and this idea that I have been meaning to write. I have just had too much to do, but have still also felt guilty about not getting my act together. Which is ironic, because this is my blog, which I write on my terms, about whatever it is that I want. No one tells what to write, or when or how to write it. This pressure I feel is all me.

Does that sound familiar?

It’s like when my son went from being a baby to being a toddler. One night, I was sitting on the edge of his bed at bedtime, looking at his window thinking that I really need to get him new curtains. He had baby curtains and I somehow had the notion that he needed kid curtains instead. I was sleep deprived, overworked and just overwhelmed in general, but still couldn’t stop thinking about how I really needed to get my act together regarding his curtains. It was eating away at me until I one day realized that the boy doesn’t even know he has curtains. His curtains were not hampering his development or cramping his style in any way, so why was I worrying about this? So I instantly stopped.

This example might seem ridiculous to you, but it is illustrative of how much of the pressure we have we actually inflict on ourselves.

Even at work. Yes, I know that corporate cultures can be very inflexible and stifling and there are certainly pressures that others put on us. But there are also things that we think we have to do or can or cannot do which actually aren’t things anyone has actually expressively said or taken a stand on.

Like the woman I met about a year ago who was working at a male dominated IT company when she went on maternity leave. They wanted her to come back to work earlier than she had planned and participate in meetings, and she wanted to do it too but was worried about how she was going to be able to do so with such a young child. I mean, she couldn’t take the baby with her to work. None of her colleagues had children and they were all male so that was just out of the question. Or was it? She finally realized that no one had actually said she couldn’t bring her baby to work, so she asked if it was okay, and it turned out that it was. She brought the baby with her to the meetings and nobody even blinked.

What she thought was impossible wasn’t.

But back to my blog. As I sat down to finally write it, I realized that I just didn’t have the energy. Writing about what I had planned to write about would have craved pulling out a few books and checking some facts and I have neither the time nor the energy for that right now. And since no one even knows about these plans of mine, much less expects me to write them down, why on Earth am I stressing about this?

When you have too much to do, you need to focus on what’s important. We’re not very good at that in today’s society, but sometimes you just have to draw the line.

We all need down time and the amount of work or pressure we can or should handle is very individual. You can’t compare yourself with other people; just because they can do something in a certain way, doesn’t mean that it works for you.

We have to remember to also take the down time that we need, regardless of what other people are doing, and not feel guilty about it. Because if you don’t take care of you, how are you ever going to be able to accomplish all the things you want to? If you become too exhausted or overwhelmed to carry on, it really isn’t going to help anyone anywhere in any way.

So, take care of yourselves and don’t think you have to do it all. Think about what is really important to you and focus on that instead.

Are we surrounded by idiots or is the joke on us?

I’m sure you’ve heard of the book, Surrounded by Idiots: The Four Types of Human Behavior and How to Effectively Communicate with Each in Business by Thomas Erikson. I mean who hasn’t. It’s been an international sensation and people everywhere have been taking the test in droves to find out which color they are. Or to figure out what colors the people around them are.

I understand the appeal of taking personality tests like Erikson’s. It can be fun to define oneself and recognize one’s personality traits and behavior in typologies and descriptions. It somehow makes us feel normal and understood yet special and seen all at the same time. And entertained too, when a test seems to hit the nail smack on its head. I used to like taking tests like this as much as the next person, that is until I started doing research and realized just how problematic they can be.

One problem is defining people and putting them into boxes. When I researched women who opt out, I was struck by how people have often tried to define especially women to explain why they do or do not work and/or have a career. You know, a woman might be a career type of person, or a family first person. Depending on her behavior she can be put in a range of different boxes or categories to explain why exactly she makes the choices she does and/or why she doesn’t seem to want to do what it takes to have that successful career feminist have fought for her to be able to have.

Only that she can’t. She can’t actually be defined by her behavior because there are so many things other than her preferences that shape what she does. So just because she doesn’t prioritize her career at a given time, doesn’t mean she isn’t a career type of person. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to have a career, and it doesn’t mean she doesn’t have what it takes. It just means that at that particular time in her life she may have other responsibilities and priorities and it might not even be a question of choice. Or she may be continuously discriminated and sidestepped at work. Or she may have a spouse who is never around and if she doesn’t take care of her children (or her ailing parents or her sick sibling or friend…), who will?

It might be that she cannot put her career first at that particular time, but it might also be that in five years she will.

The problem with typologies is that they define us as a certain type, while in reality this changes over the life course depending on where we are and what is going on in our life at any particular time. Another problem is that if we get defined by typologies, we tend to be stuck in a box by others, which it then can be difficult to get out of. After five years, the woman in the example above might not even get an opportunity to show what she can do because she has been defined and put in the ‘family first’ box.

And so it is with colors as well. When we get defined according to a certain color or set of colors, either by ourselves or others, we get simplified to the point that it can really be problematic.

When we define someone according to a color, we do it based on what we know about the person, or what we think we know about the person, and not on who the person really is in all his or her complexity. We may unconsciously condition ourselves to only notice behavior that confirms that color and as a result not even notice or acknowledge behavior that contradicts it. This is human, we tend to observe what supports our beliefs (even if they aren’t accurate). It doesn’t matter what a person says or does, we will only see what we want to see. A person might, for example, be trying to reach a common understanding with us, but if we think of the person as red and very competitive, we might misconstrue this behavior and not appreciate what that person is really trying to say or do.

So, if worst come to worst, it might even become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead of just being ourselves, and rising to our full potential, we get pushed back again and again into the box that others have defined for us. It just ends up holding us back.

But still we like typologies. They have a way of making the complexity of the world more manageable, and we use them all the time in organizational settings to determine who we are and how we can work more efficiently as teams.

However, the problem is, that defining people doesn’t actually predict their behavior. Research has shown that just because you are defined as a certain ‘type’, it doesn’t mean that you will act like that ‘type’ is expected to act. Behavior isn’t determined so much by personality, but rather by situation. What this means is that the way team members act and react in different situations, rather depends on the organizational culture, the behavioral norms in that organization, do we feel psychologically safe, the task at hand… to name a few. Defining someone as red or green or yellow or blue, really doesn’t say very much about how that person is going to act in any given situation.

But the thing that really takes the cake, is that as far as I understand, there is no research that actually supports these color typologies. They aren’t actually new, they are just colorful versions of existing typologies, for which there actually is no empirical support. What this means is that this test is neither accurate nor reliable, and no academic I know of would actually use or recommend it.

But then Erikson doesn’t have any formal training in this area, so who knows if he is even aware of this. Or if he is, maybe he just doesn’t care.

If you want to read more about this, here is an excellent article for those of you who understand Swedish: https://magasinetfilter.se/granskning/omgiven-av-idioti/

Tell yourself you can and you will

One of the things that my own opting out and in journey has brought me is a whole bunch of firsts. When I opted out of my career in consulting to work on my PhD, I was flung out of my comfort zone as I navigated new worlds and ways of doing things, and it has continued ever since. One reason is of course that whenever you embark on a new profession or way of life, you are bound to do many things for the first time. But another reason is that once you get in the habit of doing new things, the threshold to saying yes to new ideas and opportunities becomes lower. You simply become more open to trying things you never dreamed you would do.

Let me tell you about one of my firsts. A couple of years ago, my son, who has been following my research and the attention it has received from the sidelines, asked me if I could write a book about my research that he could actually understand. My research was just kind of hard to grasp for a ten-year old.

At first, I was just mostly flattered that he was interested in what I do. But I come from a long line of readers and I’ve read more books to my kids than I can count, so the idea of writing something that a ten-year old could read actually felt quite intriguing. It tickled my imagination and I started getting ideas regarding characters and plots, and what I would want the message to be, that is what main thing about my research I would want to convey.

I didn’t get a chance to write any of this down because, of course, like many other things, there just wasn’t time for anything else than what I was already working on. But he kept asking. Every once in a while, he would ask me if I was working on it yet. He was very persistent, so finally I told him yes, I would do it. I mean how do you say no to something like that anyway?

But still I couldn’t seem to find the time and still he kept asking.

So finally, last summer, during my summer holiday on the island, I started working on it. For two weeks I sat at the kitchen table in the sweltering heat as my family went on about their lives around me, and I wrote. I experienced flow like I have never experienced before and I was having so much fun.

After two weeks, I had a story about a girl and a boy dealing with questions of gender, identity, diversity, and the need to do things on terms that work for them. That meant that when I returned to work, I had most of a first draft done. I put in some extra effort; I finished it and edited it with the help of my daughter (for which I am so grateful), and then I let it sit. As with all creative endeavors, this was also one filled with self-doubt, but I tried to ignore that and focus on how much I enjoyed writing it instead, and how attached I had become to these two characters I had created.

Now, during my Christmas break, I finally got it out again, reread it and did some final edits. Although it was scary to say the least, I decided to quickly send it to a publisher before I changed my mind because a fundamental truth is that a text that is never sent never gets published either. Besides, I needed an expert’s opinion. Was I any good?

So that’s what I did. I sent it last week and get this, I got a response after just a few days, which in itself felt like a major accomplishment.

Now I know what you’re thinking. By now you’re thinking it was accepted and that I will soon be the author of a children’s book. I mean I’ve been building the suspense for the last 700 words and why else would I share this with the world? But that isn’t what happened. It was rejected, but since I have made it my mission to share not only my ups but also my downs to give a more accurate picture of what success, or hard work rather, really looks like, I decided to write about it.

Yes, it was rejected and I’m not going to lie, I was disappointed. But it was also a very nice rejection. I got many positive comments, constructive criticism, and encouragement to keep writing. And I was also told I’m welcome to submit a new manuscript in the future.

I’m not sure yet what I’m going to do about the manuscript. I suspect I will keep working on it, although not right now. Unfortunately (or fortunately) I have another book that needs to be written, so maybe next summer when I’m on the island again?

In the meantime, I’m going to read it to my son (who is older now but the story was originally for him so he will just have to deal with it). But also, by writing about this I’m taking this rejection (a nice rejection but nevertheless) and actively choosing how I make it a part of my narrative. Now it’s not just a rejection, it’s a part of the story of how I continue to develop as a writer.

Because we should never underestimate the power of what we tell ourselves. If we tell ourselves that we failed, we will feel like failures; but if we tell ourselves that we can do it, we will. And I can do it, I just need a little bit of practice first.

Michelle opted out too

I’m reading Becoming by Michelle Obama. It was a Christmas gift and I really love the book. I love her story and her storytelling. And she writes in a way that is so accessible that I feel like she’s writing to me. I feel like I know her, or rather wish that I did.

What I realize though, now that I am about half way through the book, is that Michelle Obama is a fellow opter outer! She doesn’t call it opting out though. Besides, she did it before the term was even coined (in 2003 by New York Times columnist Lisa Belkin). She calls it swerving; swerving from your path. But nevertheless, opting out (and in) is what she did. She was on a straight path towards becoming a partner in a law firm when she realized that she just didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore. She just didn’t want to continue doing what she had been trying so hard to achieve for years of education, training and hard work. It wasn’t an easy process, as opting out processes rarely (if ever) are, but she felt that her job and lifestyle didn’t provided her with meaning, nor did they allow her any time for anything else. Her work schedule meant she wasn’t able to be there for people who were important to her when they needed her. It didn’t feel right and it didn’t feel worth it.

Everywhere I turn, there are stories of opting out and in. Everywhere I go, I’m met with people who long to do it themselves, in case they haven’t already. It happens when I go to the doctor, to the bank, to meetings. People ask me what I do and when I tell them about my research, they, in turn, tell me about their journeys, what their terms have been (my doctor) or stories of how they long for change and are thinking about what their next step should be (the bank).

People sometimes wonder if it doesn’t worry me that someone like my doctor who is supposed to be taking care of my health longs to opt out, but it doesn’t. The reason is that I know that it is human to want and need a coherent life story and I know how hard doctors work. And just because you long to opt out, or you maybe already have on some level, it doesn’t make you any worse at what you do or any less professional.

If anything, I feel honored that they feel comfortable sharing their stories with me and pleased that I seem to be on to something. And also somewhat amused that it happened again, that I yet again met a person with whom my research resonates.

Those who doubt that opting out is something we will see more of in the future, simply don’t understand what it is really about. It’s not about dropping out. It’s not about not wanting to work. It’s not about not wanting or being able to ‘lean in’ as Sheryl Sandberg argued in her book. It’s about doing it on your own terms in a sustainable way that is meaningful. I think in the case of Michelle Obama it becomes quite clear, don’t you? She opted out and just look at her now!