Following my heart, but taking my brain with me

I own 48 champagne glasses. You may wonder why. The reason is that after getting my PhD (in Australia) in 2014, I organized a seminar in Finland where I spoke about my research and served sparkling wine to toast my hard-earned degree. The department, where I worked at the time, wasn’t in the university main building and having the catering company in charge of the cafeteria bring champagne glasses over to the next building was surprisingly expensive. Way more expensive than just buying glasses from IKEA. And, having spent the past four and a half years applying for grants to cover tuition, living costs etc., the more affordable version seemed like the way to go.

So here I am, the proud owner of 48 champagne flutes. They have been put to good use. I have used them myself when organizing events, and friends and family have borrowed them on occasion. This spring alone they have been at a wedding and a high-school graduation party. And I tell people not to worry if any should break. God knows I have more than enough, and as you already know, they really weren’t very expensive.

But still, they are special to me. They are symbolic of good things to come.

After I graduated, a friend and I fantasized about what the perfect work place for us would be. I mean, I had just written a PhD on opting out, and I was spending a lot of time thinking about work places, sustainable working cultures, toxic environments, good work routines, and basically just what does and doesn’t work for me personally. My friend and I fantasized about one day having an office together where we would do everything on our own terms. We hadn’t quite figured out what our business would be, but we did know what we wanted and we didn’t want, what practices we did and didn’t appreciate. We dreamed about this fantasy place and I jokingly told her that I already had the champagne glasses for office celebrations.

And so, these 48 glasses, became symbolic of my future – my future office, my future business – a place where I would work with what I love, in a way that I love. I didn’t really know if that was ever realistically going to happen, but the glasses have been a reminder that it could. You never know, right?

Well, let me tell you something. On August 1st, I am moving the 48 glasses into my new place. Take that in for a second, I can hardly believe it myself.

You see, I have a vision. I want to be involved in changing working life as we know it, and I want to bring people into a space that doesn’t look like an office to talk about work. I think we have to be taken out of our usual environments and see alternatives to more effectively challenge our mental models, and that is what I plan to do.

I have three legs that I stand on: research, consulting and painting. I’ve been doing research for the past ten years, but I also have a background in consulting and I want to take my research back to the business world where my findings belong. And then I have my painting. My painting is my passion and it has snowballed into a second job during the past couple of years. It has expanded to the point that I simply need a bigger place to paint, and I figured I could combine my three legs in one space. Not only that, after looking for a place for some time, I have finally found my perfect space and I signed the lease just a couple of weeks ago!

I call it ‘The Art Place’ – a place to paint but also a space for reflection and dialogue. A place to talk about and practice the art of change, of leadership and of reinvention. A place to think about alternative solutions for work and different ways of understanding work in a space that doesn’t look anything like an office. It will look like me and all three parts of me. I will be my space.

When I try to describe to people what it is I’m doing, it’s hard to do in just a few words. Yesterday, on Instagram, I saw a quote that said it all:

“Follow your heart, but take your brain with you.”

That, my friends, is precisely what I’m trying to do. So please stay tuned – more soon as I start setting things up!

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Should finding your passion really be your life goal?

“If you don’t know what your passion is, realize that one reason for your existence on Earth is to find it.”

Oprah apparently said this. At least according to Thrive, an Instagram account I follow.

So, what do you think about that? I saw the quote the other day as I was scrolling through my Instagram feed. At the time I paused and reflected over my passions – writing and painting to name two – and felt lucky to have these passions and to also actually be able to make a living off them. Still, something about this quote just bothered me, as motivational one-liners often do. The thing is, we seem to really love these motivational quotes, but the fact is, life just isn’t that simple.

I was a bit surprised that Oprah had said this because she is usually quite insightful and nuanced, and to be honest, I think telling people to dedicate their lives to chasing their passions can be quite problematic.

Well, I scrolled down to the comments section because it’s always interesting to see how other people react, and I was happy to see that many of my fellow Thrive followers were much more pragmatic and nuanced than Oprah on this particular occasion.

One of the main messages from the comments section was that if you don’t have a passion, and maybe not everyone does, that has to be okay too. Because if you tell everyone that they should spend the lives looking for passion that might not be there, it’s “a mindset that can work towards frustration,” as one person put it. Not everyone has a passion, but if they are told that they must find theirs, it invariably sets them up for a feeling of failure, or not being good enough as a person, or not looking hard enough. Or maybe you’re passionate about something mundane that can’t be translated into a successful job? Does that mean your passion isn’t good enough? (No, it doesn’t).

Or maybe all jobs don’t have to be based on passion. Maybe not everyone wants or needs to be passionate about their jobs and that has to be okay too. Or maybe they can’t. Maybe they found a passion and tried pursuing that but then realized that they also needed to afford to live.

You get the gist.

The thing is, I’m all for passion, but I’m not for sweeping generalizations where we forget that the world consists of a multitude of people with different realities, hopes, wants, and needs. I’m all for dreaming and encouraging others to do the same. What I’m not for is one-dimensional motivational quotes that become mantras and that many just can’t live up to.  Life isn’t just about passion, it isn’t just about happiness, it isn’t just about living your dream. It’s so much more, and thank goodness for that!

The question isn’t where is this going, but rather where do we want it to go?

Last week I participated in a two-day workshop on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and digital skills. It was part of an international project on AI and digital discovery that my good friend and colleague Anthony Elliott* has been involved in developing and leading. Anthony argues that what is happening in the world today is no longer a technical revolution, but rather a technical tsunami, where the development and implementation of new technologies is so fast and wide spread that it is unlike anything we have ever experienced before. There are mind-boggling innovations being done in all kinds of areas and arenas, but few have considered what the social connotations of these innovations will be. How will they, for example, affect how we interact with each other in the future? This is something we have actually already started to see since the introduction of social media.

Well, as you can imagine, getting together with academics and practitioners for two days to discuss these issues was an exciting experience. However, there was one thing that struck me right at the start.

During the two days, we were split into groups to talk about and create an understanding of different aspects of AI and leadership and how AI will change leadership in the future. Each group was assigned one aspect of this and right then I thought, wait a minute. The question was formulated, ‘where is so and so (insert an aspect of leadership and organization) going’ but shouldn’t the question have been ‘where do we want it to go’ instead?

Because this is the way we often talk about technology, AI, and any form of innovation and development. We talk about it as something happening to us rather than something we can be involved in shaping to our needs. But the thing is, these new technologies are created for us as tools to help us in our work and every-day lives. We should be involved in talking about and affecting the direction they take – all of us, not just IT developers, coders and engineers. We need to think about what we want and need these tools to do, because yes, AI sounds like something fancy but it is in fact just a tool.

So, AI will transform social life, it already has. And we can’t stop it from happening, it is already here. But we live in a time of change and I am a firm believer that now is the time to affect in which direction we go from here, and that is something that we should all be involved in.

Which brings me to another thing that struck me in the workshop. During the two days, each group was sent on a ‘learning safari’ to get our heads around the questions at hand. My group had a Skype interview with a leader in a Swedish media organization, who had experience of AI and digital implementation. She said something that in all its simplicity was actually quite profound. She said, “I’m not afraid of AI.” The reason she isn’t afraid, is that she has been in contact with it. She has seen what it is and what it does and can do, and she has worked with it. She knows that it isn’t anything to be afraid of; that it isn’t a mystic being developed to replace us and everything human, but a tool to use and shape to our benefit.

So yes, let’s create more opportunities and get-togethers like this workshop so that people – people like you and me – can talk about what our wants, needs, and fears are for the future. Let’s make this our future. Let’s be involved in deciding how it should unfold.

*see his new book The Culture of AI

“At least for now” – nothing is forever and why that’s okay

One of the things people often wonder when I give talks on my opting out and in research is, what happens further down the line? What happens after a few years, maybe this new lifestyle or way of working proves to not be so wonderful after all and maybe my interviewees will opt out again?

They often say it in a way that suggests that they suspect that I may have missed something, or that I am romanticizing opting out and in and have an unrealistic image of what is really going on.

Well, I’m always glad when I get asked this, because the fact is that this is exactly the thing: the new lifestyle is not forever. It’s good for now, and the people I have interviewed are generally aware of that.

The reason is that things change. Situations change, we change, our needs change, and we invariably adapt our lives accordingly. Some people will opt on to the next thing, someone might even opt back into what they opted out from in the first place, and that’s fine because that is what they want or need to do at that particular time in their lives. The difference is that once you have embarked on an opting out and in journey, you become more attuned to your needs and keep revisiting your situation to check that things are still okay. You remind yourself of what your terms are, terms which change and evolve over time.

I was talking to a new friend of mine the other day. Although we live on different continents we share a similar story. She opted out of a corporate career to become an artist. We were talking about her new lifestyle and when I told her she seemed right in her element, she responded with “at least for now.” Don’t misunderstand, she has gone all in. She sells her creations, she is passionate about what she does and she is good at it. Still, she knows that this is “at least for now.”

Realizing that it is good for now is a strength. It is a strength to understand that things not only might but will change. That doesn’t mean we don’t value what we do now, nor does it mean that we don’t do it full heartedly. It just keeps us open to new opportunities when they present themselves, and it keeps us able to rethink our terms and our lifestyles when needed.

And it’s the same for me. I love where my life is going professionally at the moment. It’s great – at least for now.

 

When it hits you in the gut: what the pay gap really feels like

When we hear about phenomena in the world, we can usually understand what it is we are talking about intellectually, but still it is often just statistics. It doesn’t have a face, it doesn’t feel like it’s happening to real people – real people with real feelings. Take the gender pay gap for example. Yes, I think many of us agree that it must be wrong to pay people less just because of their gender. Or their race for that matter. But it’s still just numbers. Pay should be fair, but looking at the statistics, it doesn’t really affect us. It doesn’t create a sense of urgency.

And one thing I know, is that without a sense of urgency, it is very hard to create change.

So, when I saw an article about how a woman reacted when she realized she was being paid less than her colleagues because of her gender, I though yes, things like this give these issues a face. They give them a feeling, one that helps us understand that this is not just a statistic, this is something that really affects Anne, Elisabeth, Sofia, Andrea… It affects how they feel about themselves. It affects their sense of worth. It affects their motivation. It affects what they can and cannot buy for themselves or for their children. It affects them. They feel the pay gap, it is something that can be felt.

In this article you see a woman who realizes she is holding her colleague’s pay check and you see how her face changes from confused to horrified to defeated. It describes so clearly that this isn’t just a statistic to her; it is a real, lived, physical experience.

Incidentally, the day after I read the article, I was looking through some papers in my office and I stumbled across a piece of memory work I once did. A few years ago, I participated in a workshop to learn about a method called memory work. What we were supposed to do was to write on a theme from our memory for a few minutes without stopping and just let it flow. Afterwards we read what we had written to each other.

The subject we were asked to write about was “A time when I was conscious of my gender.” As I sat down with a pencil and a blank sheet of paper, I spontaneously started writing about an experience I hadn’t thought about for years. The words tumbled out of me faster than I could write them down. It was a story about the gender pay gap.

As I later read what I had written to the group, I got strangely emotional. This memory that I had buried deep inside my mind and not thought about in years, was surprisingly painful to read out loud. It was like ripping open old wounds. It was almost an out of body experience, because although it was about me, it was about a much younger version of me. Yet, it still felt surprisingly raw and painful. Maybe because I had never told anyone about it. I mean, it was embarrassing. I wasn’t being paid what I was worth.

Well, I’ve decided to share it here, my real experience of the gender pay gap. I’ve anonymized it because I don’t want to name any names, but otherwise it’s pretty much exactly as I wrote it in that workshop:

 

A time when I was conscious of my gender

I was about 25 or 26 years old. I was at my second job after graduating from business school, but I was only at my first job for a year or so, so I didn’t have a lot of experience or a lot of self confidence in my professional role. There is one thing I remember specifically that made me very aware of my gender. It was when I saw my colleague’s contract. We more or less did the same job, and we had been working for about the same amount of time – I may have worked a bit longer (since I graduated) – but I realized when I saw his contract that he had a higher salary than I did.

This was the situation: In the office I kept a lot of paperwork that concerned the team. I was the coordinator as well as having [other (the same as my colleague)] responsibilities. In the corner of my office there was a large, locked cupboard with double doors. I was kneeling on the floor in front of the cupboard, flipping through the folders that were kept in there. I was looking for something specific. I can’t remember what it was, but as I was flipping through some papers, I stumbled across his contract. It was in a plastic “pocket” and it had his name on it and I knew right away what it was. I saw his monthly salary, the one he started out with, because for all I knew he may have negotiated a raise already.

I felt the blood drain from my face and a knot develop in my stomach. I felt enraged because they had told me when I was hired and tried to negotiate my salary that there was no way they could possibly pay me more than what they offered. I had felt pretty good about it until now. I felt cheated, and I felt that it was because I was a woman. I had heard about women being discriminated like this, but I never thought it would happen to me. And it just had.

I remember sitting there, on the floor by the cupboard, with the binder in my lap, feeling just horrible. I think that was the beginning of the end for me at that company. I lost faith in the organization and in my superior. I realized that it was just business for him, that he was going to pay me as little as he could get away with. And even worse, I felt disappointed in myself because worse than feeling cheated is the feeling that you let yourself be cheated. I felt I was a stupid girl who let people discriminate me and pay me less than I was worth just because of my gender.

Making the world better for boys too

My idol, Professor Mirjam Kalland, had a column in my local daily newspaper last week. She wrote about boys and girls, about gender structures and about how we value and treat people differently based on their gender. She wrote about gender discrimination and about how this affects both boys and girls as they grow up. Her column struck a chord with me because this is what I am always saying. Although a lot of people don’t realize it, gender equality is not only a women’s issue, it’s a societal issue. It’s about men and women, about boys and girls, about the wellbeing of all.

There is research that shows that gender norms and structures, while still being discriminatory towards women, are not good for men either in a number of ways. One of the ways is men’s health. Gendered structures and norms affect men’s physical and mental health negatively. For example, suicide rates are, as we know, higher among men than women.

I think of this as I watch my son grow up. I have a girl and a boy, both are smart, sensitive, inquisitive, social beings and it pains me when I see how they are treated differently, for no other apparent reason than their gender.

I remember when my son was a lot younger, and nervous about going to the dentist. We have found a wonderful dentist, to make going as easy as possible and I had been taking my daughter there for a couple of years at least before I went with my son. Both the dentist and his assistant were always very kind and patient towards my daughter, making sure not to do anything until she was ready. As a parent you feel so grateful to people who are kind to your children.

Imagine my surprise when I went with my son. He needed the same time and patience, but what he got instead was a snide comment from the assistant (who was female, in case that matters), to be quiet and open his mouth so we can just get this over with and go home.

This was the nurse who had been treating my daughter completely differently for years, and when I came in with a much younger child who was nervous, but calm and polite, and was wondering what was going to happen, like his sister had often wondered, the response was be quiet and open your mouth. I’m pretty sure there was no other reason than that he was a boy and you don’t coddle boys. “How are they otherwise ever going to become men?” Have you heard that before? I have and all of a sudden, I was experiencing it too.

Well, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. I see how little boys are treated differently than girls all the time. I’ve witnessed it at my children’s day care (which, for the record, was a wonderful place). I’ve seen girls hurt themselves and how they’ve been hugged and soothed, rightly so. I’ve seen boys hurt themselves, and handled kind of roughly when they’ve been picked up off the ground, even when they are crying. I’ve seen a little boy laughed at by a grown-up at day care when he hurt his genitals, because that was kind of embarrassing and I guess laughter just came more spontaneously than a hug.

And this is in a country that is considered one of the most gender equal in the world, where day care workers have degrees in early childhood education and care.

Well for my son, the gendered treatment continues. He is much older now and very much aware of what is going on around him. He is still sensitive, and one of the most empathetic people I know, and he sees how he and his friends get treated differently than girls in school because they are boys (again, I need to stress, he goes to a really good school).

He says boys are damned before they even open their mouths. He’s frustrated that the worst is often expected of him before he has even done anything. That he is told to be quiet when he has a question and expected to be rowdy, even though that really hasn’t been his tendency. He knows that people often don’t even realize that this is what they are doing – that they don’t necessarily do it on purpose – but the term that comes to my mind is self-fulfilling prophecy. That is how boys will start acting if that is all that is expected of them.

So no, I don’t think gender equality is a women’s issue. I think it is everyone’s issue. I think gender equality really would make the world a better place. For both girls and boys, men and women, and everyone else too!

How do we design technology that actually enhances our quality of life instead of making us lonelier?

I’m reading a book* about iGen at the moment. iGen is the generation of kids who have grown up with the Internet, computers, smart phones and the like. In other words, my kids’ generation. It’s fascinating reading and they are a remarkable generation in many ways. They are tolerant and sensible and instill hope for the future, at least for me personally. I like the book’s approach, the way it says their values and ways of life are not good nor bad, they just are. I like that because we spend so much time judging iGen kids and comparing their ways to the reality the rest of us had when we were the same age, even though the realities they deal with now are completely different from what ours were in many ways.

One thing that strikes me though, yet again, as I read about those who are young today, is the issue of loneliness. They are a lonely generation, and as research has shown in a number of different countries, loneliness among young people today is a huge and rising problem. And one of the problems is, of course, social media. I think no one is surprised by that.

While social media is supposed to connect people, it has especially young people meeting online rather than face-to-face. They have friends who they socialize with, but due to many reasons, they mostly socialize with them on social media platforms. And, as may also not come as a surprise, chatting on social media does not fill the same function as meeting in person. Humans need relationships, we need intimacy and closeness. We experience connections on a deeper level when we meet and have conversations with people in person, which we just don’t do in the brief chats and messages we exchange over social media. These deep connections provide meaning and a sense of community that we as humans all need.

Not only that, research has also shown that even when they are at home with family, iGeners will often rather be alone in their rooms on their phones with their doors closed, than be with the rest of the family. So even though loved ones may be there on the other side of their bedroom doors, they are still often alone.

But what strikes me is that even though social media may exacerbate loneliness among iGeners, possibly even cause it, it isn’t really social media as such that is at fault. Social media is just technology that we humans have developed. It is how we have designed and defined it, and how it has been programmed to be used that is the problem.

The same goes for AI (artificial intelligence). Many feel threatened by it, and worry what it may or may not do to our lives. But the fact is, that it is we humans who decide what it should be and what it should and should not be able to do. The threat is not social media, it is not AI, it is how we humans decide to define and develop it.

There is so much happening in society now. Life as we know it is being redefined as we speak, and we need to make sure it is done in the right way. Social media can be great. AI can change our lives for the better in uncountable ways. We just have to make sure that it is developed to do so, and not to harm us and our wellbeing.

So instead of having social media designed to isolate us and make us lonely, as it seems to be today, how about we design technology to bring us together rather that to keep us apart? How about reinventing social media so that we actually interact with each other more in person and not less? How about using technology to actually enhance our quality of life, and not isolate us and make us lonelier?

This is for all you programmers and developers out there. Please design technology to be the resource it could really be.

*iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant and Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood (and What That Means for the Rest of Us) by Jean M. Twenge, PhD