Quality of life

I recently had the honor and pleasure of being a prereader of an amazing book that is yet to be published. I can’t really tell you very much about it and I won’t give anything away, but there was one thing in particular that I read that struck a chord with me and that I have thought about ever since. It is about being present in the moment and the effect that has on our wellbeing.

The thing is that life can get hectic. We’re pretty much expected to be all over the place at the same time all the time. Time accelerates and for many this can cause a feeling of life spinning out of control. In fact, research has shown that doing many things at the same time – everyday life for most of us – intensifies time to the point that we actually feel like we have less time. So, by doing many things at the same time, we’re actually not saving time, but maybe rather wasting it, or at least feeling like we’re running out of it.

Well, in this book I mentioned, I read about the importance of slowing down, being in the moment and noticing our surroundings. I know this is important; research tells us it not only calms us, but also helps us remember who we are and what we’re doing. It’s about allowing ourselves time for reflection (whether or not it’s done purposefully or just by being in the moment), which, in turn, helps us create coherent narratives about ourselves and our lives. And the ability to create these coherent narratives is essential for our wellbeing.

So, this passage really spoke to me, but not only because of the parallels in my research. I have actually also experienced this and it has made a great difference in my life.

I’ve always been one to notice interesting colors, shapes and patterns in my surroundings. I think it’s the artist in me. But for the longest time, I didn’t really allow myself the time to actually slow down enough to really see what was around me. I didn’t do this knowingly, I was just constantly on my way somewhere, always in a hurry because I felt I was needed where I wasn’t. I was always feeling guilty about never being in any one place enough at one time. I was never at work enough, never at home enough, never anywhere enough.

Well, when I started painting again a few years ago, I also started allowing myself the space to notice my surroundings for inspiration. Gradually I started seeing things more and more. The way the wind tickles the leaves of the trees. Or how the sun shines through those leaves on a sunny October day, making them look like a million sources of light. Or how they fall and land creating polka dotted paths for us to tread.

And you know what else I have noticed? The more I do this, the more I see the beauty that surrounds me everywhere I go. And the more I do that, the better I feel. It makes me feel happy inside. And it calms me, at least for the short moment in my hectic day when I stop and think, wow, look at that!

So, take that moment. Stop and admire what you see around you, even things that at first might strike you as ugly. Notice how interesting and intricate they may be. Maybe just a tiny detail. And carry that with you as you continue with your day.

Sometimes it is just that simple.

It’s personal

One thing I often hear when interviewing people about opting out, is that they didn’t really feel like they could be themselves in their previous jobs. There were aspects of their personalities and their lives that they felt they had to keep hidden. Children, care responsibilities, health issues, personality traits… just to name a few. This is one of the reasons they generally feel so good about the work solutions they opt in to instead. Many of them choose or create workplaces where they don’t have to keep these things hidden, which is one of the reasons they finally feel like they are exactly where they are meant to be. Why they experience such a profound feeling of authenticity.

I mean, how many times have we not heard, ‘it’s not personal, it’s just business’?

That seems to be some sort of a mantra in the business world; that and the idea that that which is personal needs to be kept separate from work. Well, I beg to differ. Work – like all aspects of our lives – is highly personal.

The reason it is personal is that we are people. Businesses are made up of people and we a come to work carrying our selves and our lives with us. Granted, we are often encouraged to leave all that at the door, which I think is actually part of the problem.

It is problematic on many levels. First, whatever is going on in our lives affects us and our performance, even when are encouraged not to talk about it at work. Of course it does. If we can talk about whatever is going on, whether it is positive or negative, if we can share that with colleagues (who we, by the way, spend most of our waking hours with), then we can also support each other at work. Not surprisingly, research has shown that this has a positive impact on performance.

But not only that, if we share whatever is going on with us at work, people will also know where we are coming from when we react in certain ways, which just makes it easier to communicate, collaborate and be understood. Knowing where the other one is coming from is key.

However, there is yet another aspect. I often talk about how I time and time again hear about how organizations are reluctant to give their employees control over where and how they work, because if they can’t see them, how do they know they are working? (Yes, this is true, I hear this all the time.) The problem is trust. If people say that, they simply don’t trust their employees enough. However, the better you know someone, the easier it is to trust them. So if we really get to know an employee, we can also feel confident knowing that they are working when they say they are, even though they aren’t in our line of sight. Communicating about work issues and about how it’s going also becomes easier, which again, makes it even easier to work together and to trust each other.

We have to get to know each other better at work, and when we do, it will change working life as we know it.

We have to be allowed to be whole human beings, not just employees. We have to want to know more about each other. We have to really talk to each other without being worried about opening a can of worms. If really getting to know someone means also hearing about the hard stuff, then so be it. As compassionate human beings we will know how to react. Besides, often it doesn’t even involve reacting, just listening, and we can all do that.

Monica Worline and Jane Dutton, the authors of Awakening Compassion at Work: The Quiet Power that Elevates People and Organizations, argue that compassion, which has always been considered a “soft” value, is anything but. It’s a strategic value, which organizations need to focus on to become truly successful:

”Compassion is an irreplaceable dimension of excellence for any organization that wants to make the most of its human capabilities…  Without compassion, workplaces can become powerful amplifiers of human suffering.”

All this is on my mind as I set up my Art Place. I want the place to be personal. I want it to look nothing like conference rooms business professionals are used to spending time in. I want it to look like me, and I want people to be struck by this when they walk through my door.

Since talking about work is highly personal, I want to invite people to talk about work in a space that is just that, personal. We are people, and people are personal, and once we can see that we can create more compassionate workplaces. We can create places where people don’t have to worry about not being able to be themselves, where personal isn’t considered the opposite of professional, and where people can thrive.

So let’s do it!

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!

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

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.

Colleagues are people too

I had lunch with a friend a couple of days ago and she told me about some weird stuff that had been going on where she works. Gossiping on a level that even school children would balk at. Kind of like when you say someone is acting like a four-year old but also know that a four-year old would know not to act that way.

We ended up having a lot to talk about. I have also experienced some pretty low behavior in places I have worked, and it made me wonder: what is it that makes people lose all sense of what is polite and civilized?

We are taught at an early age to say hello, goodbye, thank you, and sorry. When we are kids we learn that it is bad to be impolite, and that bullying and other unacceptable behavior will be punished. But then when we become adults and are put together in an organization where hierarchy, power, stress, and uncertainty play in, we suddenly somehow forget all these things. Or have we simply forgotten that also colleagues are people who deserve to be treated with respect?

This is obviously not the case in every work community, but I have witnessed more adverse behavior during my years of work than I can count. And to put it bluntly, it’s just plain rude.

Lately, when talking about my research, I’ve been asked what a manager should do to create a sustainable work environment that people won’t want to opt out of. There are a number of things of course that one can do to create places where people can work in ways that work for them. However, the first and most important place to start is simply to get to know the people you work with.

Now I’m not talking about team building exercises, I’m talking about really getting to know them. That means sitting down and having real conversations with the people in your team. Asking them about what is important to them, what they think about and, not to forget, how they are doing. This will help you understand where a person is coming from and why a person acts or reacts in a certain way.

But most importantly, it also builds trust. We tend to trust people we know – really know, not just think we know.

Besides, we all have a lot more going on in our lives than just work. Things that happen to us outside of work invariably affect us when we are at work, but often we aren’t exactly encouraged to bring those other parts of us with us to work. We sort of leave our other selves at the door. But being allowed to come to work as a whole person, and not just a worker, can make a huge difference.

Unfortunately, however, a lot of managers don’t seem to want to have conversations like that. Maybe they don’t want to make the time, or maybe they’re worried it might get difficult or ugly. Isn’t it then just better not to know? That answer is no. We need to also have the difficult conversations in order to be able to see each other for who we really are, and in order to make working environments humane.

But most important of all, we need to treat each other with respect. So, if you are one of those people who has forgotten that your colleagues are people too, dig deep down in your memory. What was that again that your mother (or father or anyone else who brought you up) taught you?