You’re not a fraud

I remember when I enrolled as a PhD student and I was in the middle of my own opting out and in process. I had left a career in business where I felt like I knew what I was doing and what was expected of me, and had stepped into the academic world where I hadn’t set foot for years, not since I was a young, inexperienced Master’s student. I went from feeling competent and knowing what was expected of me, to having zero knowledge of what the so-called rules of the game were. Other academics were very welcoming and everyone seemed to take me seriously enough, but still, clichéd as it may sound, I felt like a fraud and that I was going to be found out any minute.

A few months after I enrolled, I was at a gathering at the department at my university and a distinguished professor emeritus wanted to say a few words. She spoke specifically to the new students and verbalized exactly what I had been thinking. She talked about how when she started out, she, like me, felt like a complete fraud, worried that she was going to be found out. She never was found out though, and the reason was of course that she wasn’t any more a fraud that anyone else. With this story she explained to us that this is the way everyone feels. Everyone worries about belonging, about being accepted, and about being taken seriously no matter who they are or how far they have come in their careers. She assured us that we weren’t alone and no matter what we think or feel, we aren’t frauds, that we belong there as much as anyone else, and that we need to remember that always.

I felt so relieved. My worries were acknowledged and I could relax a bit. What a wonderful, thoughtful woman.

A couple of months after that, when I was taking a doctoral course that was taught by a world-renowned scholar, I saw evidence of how this phenomenon that we also know of as imposter syndrome, really does affect everyone. My teacher was not only globally recognized for his research, he was also just a very good teacher. We always had the most interesting discussions in class and he was pedagogical in his methods. He never made me feel like a fraud or that I didn’t belong.

One day during class the energy level had been low among the students. I myself had a severe case of low blood sugar, which just makes it hard to concentrate. By the end of that class, my teacher, the professor, really looked like he was feeling down. It turned out that he felt the class had gone so badly (which it really hadn’t), that he had failed to engage his students, and he started questioning his role in the course (which was central, believe me). I felt bad for him, but it also comforted me to know that even someone, who so obviously has proven that he is good at what he does, can feel that way. It made me see that when I feel that way, it doesn’t mean that I don’t belong or that I’m not good at what I’m doing, but that I’m just human. It’s human to feel that way from time to time.

I was watching an interview with Brené Brown on her new book Braving the Wilderness the other day and she really summed it up quite nicely. She said, “Don’t walk through the world looking for evidence that you don’t belong because you’ll always find it. Don’t walk through the world looking for evidence that you’re not enough because you’ll always find it. Our worth and our belonging are not negotiated with other people.”

So on that note, don’t doubt yourself. Know that you belong anywhere you want to belong, and most importantly, you’re not a fraud.

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Who to trust

As I write this, the US is still sleeping with only a few hours to go until they wake up to the day of the inauguration of their new president. I don’t usually get involved in political debates on my blog and neither will I now. However, I don’t think recognizing that what Trump represents and the rhetoric he uses is problematic and often hateful, is taking a political stand. It’s rather adopting an ethical and humanitarian perspective.

But what has been happening in the US certainly isn’t unique. It is part of a trend that we have been seeing for a while now, in the Western world anyway. And with upcoming elections in Europe, I’m pretty sure we haven’t seen the last of it. Although this development has been and continues to be awful and scary, we can only hope that if anything good comes from it, it is a realization that we just have to do something. All of us. We cannot just sit around and think that the problem is somewhere else. It is here, it is among us, and whether we like it or not we are all a part of the society that has created this. So if anything good is to come of all of this, it is people coming together as active citizens, with a will to work to make all of our countries more humane places.

As a citizen I find these developments horrifying and highly worrisome. However as a sociologist I have to say I also observe them with interest, because based on what social theorists have been saying for years, this really isn’t very surprising.

There is something about the way of the world, which is different from anything experienced before. As Anthony Giddens writes in his book Runaway World: How Globalisation is Reshaping Our Lives, “We live in a world of transformations, affecting almost every aspect of what we do. For better or for worse, we are being propelled into a global order that no one fully understands, but which is making its effect felt upon all of us.”

Technology has played a huge part in this. It has made the flow of information instantaneous and without boundaries; it has made the world a smaller place. However technology, the information age, and new forms of media – like social media – have also helped create a new power center. We are all involved in creating and spreading news, and we are also involved in deciding what news is spread. This in turn creates a distorted world image, one effect of which is an overestimation of risk. Ulrich Beck coined the expression ‘risk society’, which he defines as our way to systematically deal with the insecurities and hazards that modernization has brought.

What this means in practical terms, is an inevitable questioning of the very foundation of our society. No longer do we trust authorities. No longer do we trust doctors to know what’s best for our health. The world has become a scary place with an overload of information, and we just don’t know what to believe anymore. On top of this, there is a lot of false information going around the internet, and unfortunately this false information gets a lot of clicks spreading it even further. And let’s be honest, most of us aren’t very good at recognizing what is false and what is trustworthy. So we trust no one. Or we decide ourselves what is true and what isn’t. Or we believe populist leaders who promise some relief by saying that all this is crap and that they will make life (or America in Trump’s case) great again.

It’s worrying.

So we are definitely living in a time of crisis. But a crisis can also bring with it creativity, clarity, and change. Let’s do that. Let’s use this crisis in a constructive way. And let’s do it together.

Reinventing the New Year’s Resolution

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions. And every year I’m sort of surprised what a big deal they still seem to be. I’m like, what? Do people actually still make New Year’s resolutions? Even though we know that most of them fail by the end of February? Well, judging by all the campaigns, ads, books, and products for a new/better/healthier you that I see all over the place, they really still seem to be quite hip – or at least a great sales opportunity.

It makes you wonder. Why is it, that come January, so many people want to change who they are and how they live? We seem to suffer from a collective bad conscience regarding weight, habits, and lifestyle choices. And according to Meenakshi Gigi Durham, author of The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It (a very good book by the way, I recommend it warmly), manufacturers depend on this. Through advertising, manufacturers and advertisers create myths and goals, like unnatural body ideals to name one, which by definition are impossible to achieve ensuring that consumers, especially female consumers, keep coming back for more in the hope of finally achieving what has been promised. Even though they are striving for the impossible, if they think and hope it is possible, I guess it is no surprise if they feel that they just aren’t trying hard enough. However, unfortunately, if that is the case, no New Year’s resolution will do the trick either.

But have you considered this: maybe you don’t need to change; maybe you just need to give yourself a break? What if New Year’s resolutions fail so often because they mostly focus on things we may not really want to do anything about anyway? So here’s a thought, maybe we should stop obsessing about ourselves and instead focus on others. Maybe our resolutions need to be about spending more time with family and making a greater effort to gather and keep in touch with friends. Or maybe they should be about helping people we don’t even know but who really need help. This sounds like it might be much more fun and as an extra bonus it may just make us feel so good about things that we end up sticking to our resolutions. Think about it. Instead of turning inwards, let’s make resolutions that aren’t just about us.

 

Insultancy for the masses

When I was at the beginning of my consulting career, my colleagues and I used to joke about setting up an insultancy company, as opposed to a consultancy company. We didn’t seriously believe in this idea, but laughingly we would talk about how people would surely pay for some tough love.

Well, it was funny at the time – I guess you just had to be there – but reading my local newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet a few days ago, it occurred to me that we really were way ahead of our time. I still don’t really believe that people would pay to be insulted, not in any great numbers anyway, but apparently, now-a-days, what people do pay for is to see others get insulted.

In the letter from the editor there was a short reflection of the talent shows and competitions that are shown on reality TV. The popularity of talents shows is nothing new as such; people have always liked them. But, according to the editor, what is new is that these shows have become increasingly rude and often just mean, as the people participating get insulted and taunted by judges and by each other, which viewers seem to really enjoy. I don’t watch a lot of TV, so I hadn’t reflected over this very much before, but that letter from the editor really rang true with my blog post last week. I wrote about rudeness on social media and how it really sets a bad example, and of course it isn’t only social media. There is something about our social climate today, which affects how we treat each other both virtually and in real life. The culture of insultancy really seems to be going strong.

So on that note, let’s be kind to each other this holiday season.

Happy Holidays!

I will be back after the New Year with new blog posts, see you then!

 

The age of self-centeredness

I have a 10-year-old who is one of the most empathetic people I know. When classmates get hurt or teased, he feels their pain. He also often wonders why so many people in the world don’t seem to empathize at all, why don’t they seem to care about what happens to others? As a mother, I find this a hard question to answer without sounding too dismal about the state of things. You want to instill hope in your children. You want them to be optimistic and see the best in things, but the same time you can’t protect them from everything and neither should you. They also need the tools to deal with reality, to deal with setbacks and bad news. They need to develop resilience; they’ll thank you for it for the rest of their lives.

So I don’t always know what to say, but we do have conversations about things that are confusing, like the lack of empathy. We talk about social media a lot and how people seem to think that it’s okay to say very hurtful things to others just because they don’t do it to their faces. And let’s be honest here. The threshold to being rude to others is lower on social media, especially if you don’t know the person on the receiving end personally. But it is still rude and hurtful, and when grown-ups act this way they set a really bad example to their kids. They teach them that it’s okay to speak to people this way, which in turn can be seen in how kids talk to each other at school. Sometimes I wonder what happened to respect. Growing up, my mother taught me that if you don’t have anything positive or constructive to say, then it is best to just not say anything at all. A pretty good rule of thumb if you ask me.

But what is really going on here? Well, some have argued that what we are seeing is a culture of narcissism. *

According to social theorists, a reinvention and therapy culture has evolved, at least in the West, which creates a self-absorption that really doesn’t strike me as very healthy. If you’ve been to a bookstore lately, you will probably have noticed the vast number of self-help books, books that promise to make you the very best version of yourself. It seems there is nothing you can’t do or achieve with the right book. They, along with the endless number of reality shows that have entertained us for the past couple of decades, where people get made over or provided with fast therapy before millions of viewers, bring a promise of reinvention and instant transformation.

This may sound like a good thing, but unfortunately this constant obsession with the real and true me tends to become a bit destructive. The quest for authenticity seems to make everything we do or say okay as long as we are being true to ourselves. Instead of good or bad, our behavior becomes a clue to who we really are, an insight into our unique inner selves.

Translated into plain English, this just means that therapy culture not only makes us self-centered, it makes it okay to be self-centered.

I think there is some truth to this, even though it is only part of it. There are naturally other factors, which also play in, like the heightened awareness of risk that people experience and the threat of a loss of identity, which the xenophobia that is bubbling more or less under the surface in many corners of the world, testifies to. But that is material for a separate blog post. In the meantime, I wonder, what can we do? How can we get people to become less self-centered?

 

* For more on the culture of narcissism see for example The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations by Christopher Lasch or The Fall of Public Man by Richard Sennett

Whose reality, whose truth?

After the US presidential elections, Brexit and all the other worrisome developments we have seen around Europe, this is a question that comes to the fore as people all over the world struggle to understand what’s going on. Whose reality is more real? Whose truth is more true? Because one thing has become painfully clear, we live in a time when we are finding it very difficult, to not only understand each other, but also to see each other for who we are. Thanks to preference-driven media (you get more of the types of things you click on) we read what we like, see what we want, and communicate and socialize mostly with those who are like-minded and of similar opinions. This makes life very comfortable and convenient, but it doesn’t make us aware nor prepare us for any other opinions or realities that may be out there.

This is kind of ironic considering all the talk of celebrating diversity that we hear in the organizational context. With markets becoming more global, organizations have to have a workforce that can meet the diversity and multiplicity of wants and needs among customers. Diversity has quickly become a strategic issue, something that every self-respecting company today needs to pay attention to.

However, on the most part companies, unfortunately, don’t really live up to their own rhetoric. Managers still tend to hire like-minded people, and although there may be some awareness of cultural diversity, organizations don’t generally recognize all the other types of differences concerning lifestyle choices, preferences, and needs among their employees, and they certainly don’t seem to embrace them. Although research has shown that diversity does provide real advantages. As I once heard Mellody Hobson say, if everyone in a management team is in agreement, run because that is definitely not good!

But back to the media bubbles we create for ourselves. Media providers increasingly provide us with what we think we want. But the thing is, what we want and what we need is not the same thing. We need to acknowledge that our reality is not the only reality, nor is it the most important reality. To quote one of my favorite authors Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, there is a danger of a single story.

I have a friend and colleague who I admire very much. One reason is that she doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable; she doesn’t only talk to like-minded people. She is an academic and an activist, and she actively engages in public debates. I was there when she defended her doctoral thesis a couple of months ago, and I have to say, it was one of the most inspirational and thought provoking events I have ever attended. In her thesis, one of the things she argues for is to replace the idea of the universe with what she calls the pluriverse in order to both acknowledge and embrace the diversity and difference between peoples, realities, perspectives, and truths that make up this world in which we live. Maria recently published her lectio (the talk she gave at her defense) on her blog Sustaining Roots. Go check it out; it’s a great read.

Only by seeing, acknowledging and accepting the multitude of stories, realities, and truths that make up our pluriverse, can we create a world for all of us. A world where we can all thrive, not just some of us, and where we can do so in a sustainable way, without destroying this planet we call home.

Harmony, not balance

The other day when I was meeting with a student about her thesis, I was introduced to the career website glassdoor.com, which had just released a list over the best jobs for work-life balance. I had honestly never heard of this site before, and my student was telling me about how she and others in her year spend a lot of time talking about what kinds of jobs they are going to apply for once they graduate from business school. It turns out that they look to Glassdoor for advice and that they base their career decisions on questions like balance and quality of life. Now, it’s not that they aren’t ambitious or don’t have what it takes, these student are high-achieving and have a good chance of landing great jobs when they graduate. To them, there is more to life than work, and they want to have more than ‘just’ a career. Rightfully so, if you ask me.

I like talking to students. It gives me a glimpse of what our future holds. They are after all the ones, who are going to be our future leaders. This conversation about work-life balance and Glassdoor was intriguing to me, but it also gave me hope. These students are going into working life with their eyes wide open, and they know what they are looking for in potential employers.

Work-life balance is a funny thing though. I say funny because it seems to be on people’s lips everywhere, but at the same time I myself find the concept quite problematic (see for example my post Who wants balance anyway?). As a concept, work-life balance came about as a critique of the idea of an ideal worker, of someone who dedicates his or her life to a job. But that isn’t really what has been achieved. Work-life balance has rather become something that concerns mostly women, which at the same time is problematic especially for women, because it strengthens the idea that the valuable, masculine domain of paid work is separate and best kept separate from the less valued, private domain of non-paid (care) work, where mostly women reside. And to be honest, this separation of work from life is one of the things that I find most problematic about the whole idea of work-life balance. My work is such an important and integrated part of my life, which is also exactly the way I want it.

A colleague and I have been working with concepts of balance for the past couple of months and one thing we have found among many women who opt out to adopt new lifestyles, is that this is exactly what they do. They stop seeing their work as separate from their lives, and they stop looking for balance between artificially separated entities. Instead of keeping one from the other and finding balance between the two, they look for harmony and somewhat seamlessly interlace and move between work and other parts of life. This, in turn, provides them with a sense of coherence and authenticity, which is important.

I have a quote tacked to the wall above my desk:

“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”

Mahatma Gandhi

To me this is true on so many levels. I think harmony is the answer, rather than balance.