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!