If Finland is the happiest country in the world why do people long to opt out here too?

I’m reading Anu Partanen’s book The Nordic Theory of Everything at the moment. It’s really an excellent read; I wish I had read it sooner. Partanen’s book so clearly explains the differences between life in Finland (or the Nordics) and the US and how these two very different social, political and cultural systems come together to create independent or not so independent individuals. 

Now, especially if you’re from the US, you may be guessing that the US system is the one that creates independent individuals, not the Nordic welfare state, but, perhaps surprisingly, it’s not. It’s the Nordic system that does that. 

One of Partanen’s messages is that the Nordic countries are most certainly not socialist, despite popular (American) belief, and that any Nordic person would balk at the idea. On the contrary, the Nordic model of social security and support allows individuals to be independent and to create good lives for themselves, instead of having them depend on for example parents, family members and employers just to be able to afford important, but basic, things like education, health care, day care etc. And yes, if you visit the Nordic countries, you will see that individualism actually does run strong throughout our cultures, for better or worse.

I strongly recommend the book, but that wasn’t actually the point of this blog post. What I want to talk about is how it is possible that opting out experiences can be so similar in both countries despite the differences that rank Finland at the top of so many lists* and the US much further down? How is it that people in a country like Finland long to opt out of their current jobs and lifestyles just as much as Americans do? 

Finland has recently, once again, been declared the world’s happiest country. It kind of makes you wonder, if this is the case, why is it that the opting out stories I have collected in Finland and the US are so remarkably similar? Why is it that people who live in a country with free education, free health care, more reasonable working hours, five weeks of legislated vacation time per year, long maternity leaves, paternity leaves, even longer parental leaves after which they are guaranteed their job back, high quality affordable day care etc. etc. etc., have very similar experiences to those who do not enjoy any of the above? 

How can it be that they also feel exhausted, they feel a lack of control over their lives, and they also have difficulties creating coherent life narratives? How can it be that they also reach a point when something’s got to give, or if not, at least long to leave their current way of living and working?

How come so many of the world’s happiest people don’t seem so happy?

Well, first I want to say, that no system or country is perfect. The happiest country in the world does not necessarily mean absolute happiness at all times. Finland is also ranked one of the most gender equal countries in the world, but that does not mean that the work here is done. Finland has not reached a state of perfect gender equality, nor will it any time soon at the rate we’re going.

I recently read that Finnish mothers are among the most stressed and exhausted in the world. The main problem is (in addition to the all-consuming motherhood ideal of today) that while Finland has among the highest percentage of women working fulltime, women also continue to be mainly responsible for childcare and household chores. While working life has become more equal, home life has been lagging behind, compared to Sweden for example. 

But one factor that has become glaringly obvious to me during all these years of researching opting out and having the privilege of hearing countless people’s opting out and in stories, is that regardless of any national differences, one common denominator is corporate cultures and ideals. They tend to be similar throughout the world thanks to globalization and global organizations, and they also tend to override local practices and sometimes even legislation. 

Let me give you an example. 

It happens, in Finland, that when a man wants to take some legislated paternity leave to get to know his child and to share the load with his partner, his employer may let him know that ‘it is simply not done in this company’. 

Research has also shown that men with low incomes are more likely to take time off to care for their children than are men in high-powered corporate positions. 

So what should we do? We need to work on changing work. We need to create corporate cultures that belong in the 21stcentury. 

* In addition to being ranked the happiest and one of the most gender equal societies, Finland is also considered one of the most stable, best-governed, least corrupt, and best-educated countries in the world.

Calling all like-minded people!

I haven’t opted out just once, I’ve done it twice. 

I first opted out of a career in consulting in 2009 to work on a PhD. And then I did it again sometime around 2017, when I realized that I didn’t want an academic career either, at least not the publish-or-perish-in-order-to-reach-full-professor kind. I didn’t leave the academic world, but I did step off the proverbial career ladder to do it on my own terms. 

I had a light-bulb moment when I was reworking a particular paper to be resubmitted to a journal for what felt like the millionth time. Several journals and even more reviewers had me and my cowriter jumping through hoops in what seemed like a never-ending loop of critical feedback, rewriting, rejection, resubmission… While the paper was undoubtedly getting better, much of the time it was also a question of nuances and reviewers’ preferences. And ironically, the actual research results remained the same no matter how many hours we spent revising. 

I realized I was working my butt off for the wrong audience (and not really having a very good time while I was at it). I came to academia from the business world and I have visions for what we need to do to make the world of work a better place for all of us. Reworking a paper ad absurdum and then to not even have it seen by people in the world that I want to impact, frankly just felt like a huge waste of time. 

It was then I realized that it just wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to continue doing research, but I wanted to do it on different terms, on my own terms. 

When I started talking about how I wanted to work, some of my former colleagues seemed genuinely worried. Although I’m touched by their concern, I think it was mostly because I was talking about doing things in a way that they didn’t understand. It seemed unheard of. If you haven’t moved between worlds and seen different ways of working and living, it’s hard to imagine doing things differently and going against the expected. I know it is. Banal as it may sound, it was for me too before I opted out that first time and realized that there are so many ways to live your life and make a living. 

Besides, one of the things I have learned over the years is that there are several paths that lead to the same result. We don’t all have to do things in the exact same way.

At the same time my art took off and before I knew it my professional life had warped into something very exciting and unique. It wasn’t planned, but I thankfully had the presence of mind to let it happen, maybe because I was feeling so frustrated with where I was and what I was doing (or rather how I was doing it). My art was a breath of air. What started as a side gig suddenly grew into a part-time job. 

Now I was not only doing research differently, I was combining it with painting, which must have made it all seem even weirder and harder to understand. I still get asked about what it is I really do. Some ask me if I’ve left the academic world altogether (no I haven’t) or if I’m working as an artist full time (no, not yet anyway, and I’m not even sure that I want to). When people ask me, ‘so do you paint or do research or what?’, I just say ‘yes, all of the above’. I guess it must seem like a whacky combination, even though it makes perfect sense to me. 

But it can also make things tricky. If what you’re doing is hard to define, marketing yourself and your products and services can be challenging. People feel comfortable with what they recognize, and a researcher-writer-storyteller-consultant-artist may be hard to, recognize that is.

And then there is the business of finding your group. We all need supportive people in our lives and having your own reference group, be it colleagues, collaborators, friends or networks, can really make all the difference. You need people who you can discuss ideas with. You need people who can give advice when you’re stuck. You need people who can cheer you on when the going gets tough. This is hard to do for someone who doesn’t understand what you’re doing, so friends and family who may be hugely important in your life and who mean well are not necessarily helpful in this respect. 

I do have people in my life who can cheer me on, but being a researcher-writer-storyteller-consultant-artist with my own business can also be lonely at times. I’m thinking there are probably a lot of us out there who could really use each other’s professional input and support. 

So, in an attempt to grow my own reference group, I’m calling all like-minded people. If you’re doing things on your own terms and could use a supportive group, let me know. Maybe we can set up an international group of so-called opt outers. Or if you’re in the Helsinki area, maybe we could have a group meet up at The Art Place. Coffee is on me! 

You can message me through one of my social media accounts or email me at theoptingoutblog@gmail.com

I look forward to hearing from you!

Does control kill creativity?

One of the things I do at The Art Place Finland is host silk painting workshops. Having never had formal training in silk painting, I’ve come up with my own techniques over the years that I’ve later understood aren’t generally done on silk. I’ve simply not had the sense to understand what you can and cannot do… 

When painting on silk, the colors spread more or less uncontrollably along the thin threads and silk painters often use different types of resist to control the process. I, on the other hand, don’t use any type of resist at all. 

I never planned to do things differently. Like most things in life, it just happened. After I received my PhD a few years ago (seven actually), I took up silk painting again after a break of several years and painted with my kids in the summer at our getaway in the Finnish archipelago. After all, I didn’t have a thesis to work on anymore, so what on Earth was I going to do with all that free time?!

We were out on the island and I ran out of gutta, the resist I liked to use at the time. I was practically in the middle of nowhere with an itch to paint but with no way of getting more gutta any time soon. So, I decided to paint without gutta, and fell completely in love with the process of allowing the paints to move around on the fabric any which way they pleased and working with that. 

Little did I know that it was the start of something new for me and a method that a good friend of mine later named ‘the no-resist technique’.

However, I find that there is a lot more behind this technique than just a lack of resist. It’s a wonderful metaphor for collaboration and dialogue – for life. 

Just like in life, if I didn’t accept what is happening in my paintings as I paint – because it truly does live a life of its own – take it from there and work with what I have, I would never complete a piece. Correspondingly, in true dialogue with others, we have to listen and accept what the other person is saying and build the conversation from there. If we don’t, it isn’t actually a dialogue. We talk at each other instead of with each other and fail to find a mutual understanding. (This is a method also used in improvisation theater, by the way. You have to think ‘yes, and…’ instead of ‘no, but…’ in order to be able to build on what the other actors are doing and saying.)

I teach the no resist technique at The Art Place Finland. It’s fun, but it also fosters an attitude and a state of mind that you can take with you to your work or everyday life. 

In June, I had a lovely group of ladies over for a workshop. One of them was an academic and a thinker like me, and after the workshop, when she posted pictures on Facebook, she asked the following question: “Can you create without taking risks?” Or, in other words, can you create or be creative without letting go? 

I’ve been thinking about that and, at least when I paint, I‘ve noticed that the paintings turn out better when I do indeed let go and don’t try to control the process. I allow my brushstrokes to move in a way that feels natural, and instead of trying to create a certain look or end result, I pick up on and emphasize happy accidents and surprising details that evolve on the canvas. 

Painting commission can therefore be tricky. I accept commissions and enjoy doing so. Being involved in realizing someone’s vision or dream is magic it itself. However, it involves more or less controlling the process and creating a piece of art that corresponds to what has been agreed upon. It means you can’t lose yourself quite as much and let the process take you wherever it wants to go.

No, I don’t think control kills all creativity, but I definitely think it hampers it. If we are too controlled we don’t come up with all those seemingly wacky ideas that lead to brilliant innovations. Something to consider in a world where we increasingly try to control our surroundings?

You’re on the right track

I feel like I just scaled a mountain. I launched my webstore yesterday. 

Getting the webstore set up has been on my to do list since last summer when I first decided it was what I wanted to do. When I first started looking into it, I felt like I was standing in the middle of a jungle and had no idea in which direction to start walking. I just didn’t know where to start and I suddenly acutely missed all the tech support departments I have worked with and have had access to during my professional life, departments that I am embarrassed to say I took for granted. Now that I am on my own and have to do every single thing myself, I finally appreciate what I no longer have. Little did I know the amount of work that goes into what they always make seem to effortless. (I apologize profusely to all the wonderful tech support professionals who have helped me over the years!)

Fast forward to the present. I can tell you I have really learned a lot. I have had to figure it all out: shipping solutions, payment methods, return policies… not to mention the actual software that I had to get my head around just to get the information on to my website. At times, it has been really frustrating and I have all but changed my mind about the whole thing. When I haven’t been able to figure something out or struggled to get something to work to the point of it feeling almost hopeless, I have learned that it is best to just stop, take a break, and come back the next day.

It was at a time like this when I received an uncannily well-timed email from Susan David. You may have heard of her. She is a psychologist and an expert on emotional agility. I have signed up for her newsletter. If you want you can do so too here

This particular newsletter was about emotional difficulty and how it isn’t necessarily an indicator of anything actually being wrong. Susan talks about how one shouldn’t mistake “an uncomfortable part of the creative process for a symptom of dysfunction that must be stamped out.” In reality, according to her, it actually often means we are on the right track. 

She had my full attention. Did the fact that I couldn’t seem to get my head around how the shipping template worked just be a part of my creative process? It was stressing me out, to say the least. However, when I read the newsletter, banal as it may sound, it was like Susan was telling me not to let it get to me, that feeling the way I was, is completely normal. It wasn’t just me, and it didn’t mean that I was on the wrong track. Thank you for that, Susan!

Her advice is to first let yourself process these emotions. They are valid and they are bound to emerge. Second, she recommends to try to reframe these experiences not as roadblocks but as evidence that you are actually taking steps to achieve your goals. 

Well, that was definitely what I was doing, I was setting up a webstore for crying out loud! And, as it turned out, the next morning, after having slept on it, I had a light-bulb moment and figured the whole shipping thing out. 

And I did it! Yesterday I finally crossed ‘webstore’ off my to do list and I can tell you, it felt pretty great. 

So check it out! You can find it at www.theartplacefinland.com

Introverts mostly among women? No, I don’t think so.

I participated in an online seminar last week about introversion and leadership. I’ve been interested in the topic of introversion and work ever since I read Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. For me, reading Quiet was a huge eye-opening experience. There was so much in the book that I recognized and for the first time I realized that I myself am a bit of an introvert. I say a bit because I had never thought of myself as introverted before. I can be very talkative and I have always been told what a social person I am. But reading Cain’s book, I realized that it was not about sociability but more about how you interact with others, how you work, and where you get your energy from. Growing up, I liked spending time with friends, like most kids do, but I also found that after being with friends for a while I was often quite tired and just wanted to go home. To be honest, I thought there was something wrong with me. Why didn’t I want to continue hanging out and having fun like everyone else? Why did I want to be alone? This continued to be true as I grew up. As a student at university, I just didn’t have the same stamina as my other friends did when it came to parties and social activities. I just didn’t want to be together all the time and I was starting to wonder whether I was just not a very good friend.

Well, when I read Cain’s book I realized that no, there is nothing wrong with me, that up to 40% of the world’s population is, in fact, quite like me. The problem is that especially Western culture revolves around extraverted values and ways of being. The same goes for workplaces. Workplaces and work ideals are organized according to extraverted behavioral norms. The standard is already set in business schools where courses are structured so that extraverted behavior gives more points and better grades. 

It needs to be noted, however, that extraverted does not necessarily mean better, and being outspoken, social, and talkative does not guarantee good results. On the contrary, research has found that stopping, reflecting, and thinking before speaking and acting may actually be better for the bottom line. 

The reason I originally became interested in this professionally, is that through my opting out research I have met and interviewed many people who have not felt that they have been able to be themselves in the workplaces they opted out of. It has been one of the factors that has added to a difficulty to create a coherent narrative of work (which we need to be able to do for our well-being), which, in turn, is one of the main reasons why people opt out. This is true for both men and women. In fact, more of the men than the women I have interviewed have described themselves as introverts, and both the men and the women have talked about not wanting to work and pursue a career in the way that is expected.

So last week, when I was listening to the discussion in the seminar, I was surprised when it was suggested that more women than men are introverted. I don’t think that is true and nothing I have seen in my research suggests this. If you think about it, suggesting that women are more introverted is really quite a sweeping generalization and a bit of an essentialist view of what men and women are. It suggests that women essentially are a certain way and men, in turn, are another way, whereas in reality, research has shown that stereotypical generalizations like that just aren’t helpful. There are more differences within the sexes than between the sexes. What that means is, there are more difference among women and among men than there are between men and women. 

Women are socially conditioned to spend more time thinking about and being in touch with their feelings and the feelings of others. They are taught to talk about their feelings, whereas men are taught to pretty much ignore them and definitely not talk about them too much (although seriously, men have just as many feelings as women). As a result, women invariably tend to spend more time engaged in self-analysis, which is a reason they may be more likely to recognize themselves as introverts than men are.

And let’s not forget, girls are still in this day and age taught and expected to be more still and quiet, and less rowdy than boys.  

This does not mean that women have a greater tendency to be introverted than men. 

If you’re as interested in this as I am, here are the readings from the seminar last week. I, for one, am going to check these books out!

Creating Introvert Friendly Workplaces by Jennifer Kahnweiler

Quiet is a Superpower by Jill Chang

Introverted Leadership by Karolien Koolhof

Remote working: why does it have to be either or?

When I opted out in 2009 to start working on a PhD, I also started working from home. My university department and colleagues were literally on the other side of the planet, because instead of enrolling at a university closer to home, I of course chose one that was pretty much as far away as you can get. I like to joke about that because it sounds so crazy, but actually it made a lot of sense, and in hindsight I clearly see what a wise choice it was for me in many ways. 

But the point is that I went from a job in consulting where I was expected to be at the office every day, to setting up a home office and always working there. For me personally it was wonderful. I like working at home. I like being alone, I find it easier to concentrate and I don’t get distracted by laundry or unmade beds or other non-job-related things that need fixing. Besides, my kids were quite young at the time and things tended to be so intense after school and daycare, that the quiet of my work day was pure bliss. 

However, in 2009, when I opted out, working from home, or any other place than the office, was not a widespread practice. To be honest, although some organizations have had a remote working policy and made it possible for employees at least some of the time, more organizations haven’t. Face time has been considered essential – you know, if you don’t see your employees how do you know that they are doing what they are supposed to be doing? (For those of you who haven’t realized this yet, seeing them is no guarantee. If they aren’t doing what they are expected to do the problem has little to do with them being there physically or not.)

It wasn’t until this past year when people were forced to stay at home, that many organizations that previously had been reluctant, had to try remote working in earnest. And surprise surprise, they realized that not only was it possible, for some it was better than working in the office. But many have also realized, that having people work in different physical places, puts new expectations on managers and work routines. You cannot lead people in the same way you would if you were all in the same location. This is the reason that the lockdown remote working experience of 2020 has generally been most draining and stressful for managers. They haven’t been able to just fall back on familiar routines.

But this is all fine and good. It is lightbulb moments like these that lead to changed behavior and new practices. However, one thing continues to baffle me. Just as many have previously held that their employees need to be physically present at all times for things to work, now I see debates about how always working remotely really can be a strain and difficult in many ways. I get the feeling it might be a defensive reaction of sorts to all the hype we’ve seen around remote working during the past few months? I mean, it turns a lot of the assumptions we’ve had about working life for a long time on their head. 

But who says working remotely has to mean never coming in to the office at all? Why would it have to be a question of either or? 

Even when employees are presented with the option to work remotely, some will want to continue going to the office every day. A study has shown that few people are like me, and most people prefer a combination of the two. And I think that makes perfect sense. It allows people to come in and meet colleagues, have face-to-face discussions, have in-person meetings…. But it also allows people to work from home or somewhere else when they need to and gain more control over where, when and how they work. My own research has shown that this is something people find extremely important, mainly because it increases quality of life. Simply put, it just makes life easier. 

So yes, having to work remotely all the time is not necessarily a good thing. We have seen that during the pandemic. Although many have reported that they are more productive, they have also reported that they feel tired and miss their colleagues. But that does not mean that we should forget working remotely altogether. Allowing people to have a combination – the best of both worlds – is very doable, as is allowing them to decide what they want their mix to look like. 

And yes, it involves a change of management routines.

What is the new normal anyway?

Have you noticed how everyone seems to be talking about the new normal? It’s like it’s a new catchphrase that people slip into their conversations when talking about life after corona, or rather during corona since it obviously isn’t over yet. Not even for those of us living in countries where it almost feels like life is going back to ‘normal’.

I put ‘normal’ in quotation marks because what is really normal about the life we lived before corona anyway? Is it normal that mental health is higher than ever before mostly due to workplace stress and insecurity? Is it normal to spend so much time sitting still at your desk that you have chronic neck pain and you have to schedule time to just move? Is it normal to deplete the Earth of its resources in the name of prosperity? Okay, you catch my drift.

Well, what is the new normal then? We are in a situation where we still don’t know what is going to happen and how the next few months/years are going to look. During corona, the situation has constantly changed from one day to the next. There is so much we still don’t know about the virus and we don’t know whether there will be a second wave, or splotches of outbreaks, which seems to be what the experts are talking about at the moment.

Yes, a lot has happened since the outbreak, and we have had to reinvent the way we do countless things. Things that have previously been considered impossible are suddenly a necessity. Working remotely is an example. Other examples include consumer habits; we have cooked our own food more, as opposed to eating out. The staycation has become the new vacation.

And the environment has thanked us. We have seen reports of clear waters and starlit skies in cities where there have been none. However, although many of us, me included, hope for a lasting effect regarding this, a few weeks ago I read that the air in some Chinese cities is actually worse now after the lockdown has been lifted than it was before corona.

In a study conducted by YLE in Finland, about half of those who have been working remotely during the pandemic would like to continue doing so, at least sometimes, as they feel it increased their quality of life. According to a study conducted by KPMG, 64% of office workers and managers in the US have said that their quality of life improved thanks to the disruptive impact of COVID-19 (although it has been harder on managers).

But what does this really mean? Does it mean that we will take all our new insights and improve both the world and our lives?

Unfortunately this won’t happen by itself. It is simply too easy to just slip back into old habits and routines. Besides, I think a lot of people don’t want to change, but are rather just waiting to be able to go back to doing things in the ‘old normal’ way.

But seeing what the alternative could be, which many of us have done these past few months, is what makes change possible. So, I do hope we take what we have learned with us and implement the good stuff, I really do! But we have to do it consciously.

In the meantime, I think it’s a bit early to be talking about a new normal. Unless of course the new normal is that there is no normal. Yes, maybe that’s it. I mean what is normal anyway?

Create, create, create!

I follow Elizabeth Gilbert on Instagram. You know who I mean, the author of best-sellers like Eat, Pray, Love. Although I have to admit I have never read Eat, Pray, Love, nor did I see the movie. But I have read a book by her titled The Last American Man. I have a beat-up copy that I bought at some flea market once when I was starting out on my research project on men opting out. At the time, I devoured any books about men I could get my hands on of any genre in order to gain insights into the strange and mysterious world of masculinities (I’m kidding about the strange and mysterious… sort of 😉 ).

Anyway, The Last American Man is a biography, or maybe rather an ethnographic account of the somewhat legendary Eustace Conway’s life and existence (no I hadn’t heard of him either until I read the book). And this might not sound like the most exciting read, but it was really an excellent book. The way Gilbert approached the whole situation and her style of writing was funny, entertaining, insightful, thoughtful and just so good. It was certainly a good read, and I became curious about this best-selling author that I of course knew of but who hadn’t really piqued my interest before. When things become hugely popular and everyone is talking about them and you’re constantly told that you have to read, see, try, do something, I get a little bit put off and then I just don’t. I know, I can’t really explain it, but there you go…

So after that, I stumbled across Gilbert’s Instagram account @elizabeth_gilbert_writer and I have to say, I really enjoy her posts. Again, what a funny, generous, positive, insightful and sensitive person. The other day she was interviewed live on Instagram, which I watched part of, and something she said just resonated with me. I can’t remember it exactly word for word, so I might get this wrong, but what it in essence was, was that we all have a natural drive – a need – to just create, create, create. Not just people, but also nature, nature of course creates too. It includes everything from creating life, creating order where there is none, creating art, creating beauty, creating meaning, creating connections, creating music… It’s what we do; we create, create, create.

I don’t know if I’m able to convey this in a way that makes any sense, but it just made such perfect sense to me as I was sitting there in my kitchen on a Sunday evening, preparing myself for another week of social distancing and distance schooling (my kids) and (what feels like) a million meals and absolutely maddening amounts of dirty dishes. Ironically, or perhaps not, this feels like one of the most creative periods of my life, which kind of sounds funny since I’m not painting nearly as much as I usually do.

About three weeks ago, like for so many others, my calendar was wiped clean. Everything I had planned, events, talks, silk painting courses, my exhibition… everything was either canceled or postponed. That is generally bad news for entrepreneurs (and I know there are so many entrepreneurs out there really struggling right now), but in a way it was a blessing in disguise, because I finally had the time and space I so badly needed to actually finish writing my book. And I am making great progress – I’m planning on having my first draft of my manuscript done by the end of April (I know can you believe it?! I barely can).

That is of course very creative to say the least. And I want to point out to those of you who were thinking you were going to work on that book you always dreamed of writing during the Corona lockdown but haven’t been able to get started: this isn’t that. There is so much to deal with both practically and emotionally during this time that just managing to get what has to be done from one day to another is more than enough. It really is, so don’t beat yourself up about it. This is my day job, what I am supposed to be doing but have been struggling with due to a lack of time. It’s not a dream I’m finally making happen (although in a way it’s that too, but that’s a long story).

But that’s just my book. I think for all of us, this is a time when we really have to be creative and do things differently, and I think people are rising to the occasion in a way they probably never thought they had in them.

I’m not doing the heroic work that health care workers are doing, or my kid’s teachers who are absolutely amazing. For me it has entailed being creative in the kitchen and cooking a variety of meals like never before. It has meant walks in my nearby forest, which have become so important to me. It has meant activities with my teens. And for the past couple of days it has meant sewing a whole bunch of face masks for family members who need them.* It has meant doing things I have never done before, and it has meant doing them in a way I have never done before. All of a sudden, I’m at home and I have time on my hands because I have nowhere to be. It means that I allow things to take the time they take. I do them slowly and perhaps not surprisingly, doing things slowly makes the process both more enjoyable and more meaningful.

As I sit here, and wait this situation out, I’m not dreaming of all the things I could be doing instead. I’m just here, and I create, create, create. I create so much that I have little creativity and energy left to paint. But that’s okay. My upcoming exhibition has been postponed, so I’ll have all the time in the world to do that once my book is written.

The point is, we all create, and whether you have been defined as a creative person or not has nothing to do with it. So, in that spirit, remember: create, create, create! And while you’re doing so, stay safe and well!

 

*If you want to make a face mask of your own, you will find a free pattern here: https://www.craftpassion.com/face-mask-sewing-pattern/

 

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!

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!