Are we surrounded by idiots or is the joke on us?

I’m sure you’ve heard of the book, Surrounded by Idiots: The Four Types of Human Behavior and How to Effectively Communicate with Each in Business by Thomas Erikson. I mean who hasn’t. It’s been an international sensation and people everywhere have been taking the test in droves to find out which color they are. Or to figure out what colors the people around them are.

I understand the appeal of taking personality tests like Erikson’s. It can be fun to define oneself and recognize one’s personality traits and behavior in typologies and descriptions. It somehow makes us feel normal and understood yet special and seen all at the same time. And entertained too, when a test seems to hit the nail smack on its head. I used to like taking tests like this as much as the next person, that is until I started doing research and realized just how problematic they can be.

One problem is defining people and putting them into boxes. When I researched women who opt out, I was struck by how people have often tried to define especially women to explain why they do or do not work and/or have a career. You know, a woman might be a career type of person, or a family first person. Depending on her behavior she can be put in a range of different boxes or categories to explain why exactly she makes the choices she does and/or why she doesn’t seem to want to do what it takes to have that successful career feminist have fought for her to be able to have.

Only that she can’t. She can’t actually be defined by her behavior because there are so many things other than her preferences that shape what she does. So just because she doesn’t prioritize her career at a given time, doesn’t mean she isn’t a career type of person. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to have a career, and it doesn’t mean she doesn’t have what it takes. It just means that at that particular time in her life she may have other responsibilities and priorities and it might not even be a question of choice. Or she may be continuously discriminated and sidestepped at work. Or she may have a spouse who is never around and if she doesn’t take care of her children (or her ailing parents or her sick sibling or friend…), who will?

It might be that she cannot put her career first at that particular time, but it might also be that in five years she will.

The problem with typologies is that they define us as a certain type, while in reality this changes over the life course depending on where we are and what is going on in our life at any particular time. Another problem is that if we get defined by typologies, we tend to be stuck in a box by others, which it then can be difficult to get out of. After five years, the woman in the example above might not even get an opportunity to show what she can do because she has been defined and put in the ‘family first’ box.

And so it is with colors as well. When we get defined according to a certain color or set of colors, either by ourselves or others, we get simplified to the point that it can really be problematic.

When we define someone according to a color, we do it based on what we know about the person, or what we think we know about the person, and not on who the person really is in all his or her complexity. We may unconsciously condition ourselves to only notice behavior that confirms that color and as a result not even notice or acknowledge behavior that contradicts it. This is human, we tend to observe what supports our beliefs (even if they aren’t accurate). It doesn’t matter what a person says or does, we will only see what we want to see. A person might, for example, be trying to reach a common understanding with us, but if we think of the person as red and very competitive, we might misconstrue this behavior and not appreciate what that person is really trying to say or do.

So, if worst come to worst, it might even become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead of just being ourselves, and rising to our full potential, we get pushed back again and again into the box that others have defined for us. It just ends up holding us back.

But still we like typologies. They have a way of making the complexity of the world more manageable, and we use them all the time in organizational settings to determine who we are and how we can work more efficiently as teams.

However, the problem is, that defining people doesn’t actually predict their behavior. Research has shown that just because you are defined as a certain ‘type’, it doesn’t mean that you will act like that ‘type’ is expected to act. Behavior isn’t determined so much by personality, but rather by situation. What this means is that the way team members act and react in different situations, rather depends on the organizational culture, the behavioral norms in that organization, do we feel psychologically safe, the task at hand… to name a few. Defining someone as red or green or yellow or blue, really doesn’t say very much about how that person is going to act in any given situation.

But the thing that really takes the cake, is that as far as I understand, there is no research that actually supports these color typologies. They aren’t actually new, they are just colorful versions of existing typologies, for which there actually is no empirical support. What this means is that this test is neither accurate nor reliable, and no academic I know of would actually use or recommend it.

But then Erikson doesn’t have any formal training in this area, so who knows if he is even aware of this. Or if he is, maybe he just doesn’t care.

If you want to read more about this, here is an excellent article for those of you who understand Swedish:


Tell yourself you can and you will

One of the things that my own opting out and in journey has brought me is a whole bunch of firsts. When I opted out of my career in consulting to work on my PhD, I was flung out of my comfort zone as I navigated new worlds and ways of doing things, and it has continued ever since. One reason is of course that whenever you embark on a new profession or way of life, you are bound to do many things for the first time. But another reason is that once you get in the habit of doing new things, the threshold to saying yes to new ideas and opportunities becomes lower. You simply become more open to trying things you never dreamed you would do.

Let me tell you about one of my firsts. A couple of years ago, my son, who has been following my research and the attention it has received from the sidelines, asked me if I could write a book about my research that he could actually understand. My research was just kind of hard to grasp for a ten-year old.

At first, I was just mostly flattered that he was interested in what I do. But I come from a long line of readers and I’ve read more books to my kids than I can count, so the idea of writing something that a ten-year old could read actually felt quite intriguing. It tickled my imagination and I started getting ideas regarding characters and plots, and what I would want the message to be, that is what main thing about my research I would want to convey.

I didn’t get a chance to write any of this down because, of course, like many other things, there just wasn’t time for anything else than what I was already working on. But he kept asking. Every once in a while, he would ask me if I was working on it yet. He was very persistent, so finally I told him yes, I would do it. I mean how do you say no to something like that anyway?

But still I couldn’t seem to find the time and still he kept asking.

So finally, last summer, during my summer holiday on the island, I started working on it. For two weeks I sat at the kitchen table in the sweltering heat as my family went on about their lives around me, and I wrote. I experienced flow like I have never experienced before and I was having so much fun.

After two weeks, I had a story about a girl and a boy dealing with questions of gender, identity, diversity, and the need to do things on terms that work for them. That meant that when I returned to work, I had most of a first draft done. I put in some extra effort; I finished it and edited it with the help of my daughter (for which I am so grateful), and then I let it sit. As with all creative endeavors, this was also one filled with self-doubt, but I tried to ignore that and focus on how much I enjoyed writing it instead, and how attached I had become to these two characters I had created.

Now, during my Christmas break, I finally got it out again, reread it and did some final edits. Although it was scary to say the least, I decided to quickly send it to a publisher before I changed my mind because a fundamental truth is that a text that is never sent never gets published either. Besides, I needed an expert’s opinion. Was I any good?

So that’s what I did. I sent it last week and get this, I got a response after just a few days, which in itself felt like a major accomplishment.

Now I know what you’re thinking. By now you’re thinking it was accepted and that I will soon be the author of a children’s book. I mean I’ve been building the suspense for the last 700 words and why else would I share this with the world? But that isn’t what happened. It was rejected, but since I have made it my mission to share not only my ups but also my downs to give a more accurate picture of what success, or hard work rather, really looks like, I decided to write about it.

Yes, it was rejected and I’m not going to lie, I was disappointed. But it was also a very nice rejection. I got many positive comments, constructive criticism, and encouragement to keep writing. And I was also told I’m welcome to submit a new manuscript in the future.

I’m not sure yet what I’m going to do about the manuscript. I suspect I will keep working on it, although not right now. Unfortunately (or fortunately) I have another book that needs to be written, so maybe next summer when I’m on the island again?

In the meantime, I’m going to read it to my son (who is older now but the story was originally for him so he will just have to deal with it). But also, by writing about this I’m taking this rejection (a nice rejection but nevertheless) and actively choosing how I make it a part of my narrative. Now it’s not just a rejection, it’s a part of the story of how I continue to develop as a writer.

Because we should never underestimate the power of what we tell ourselves. If we tell ourselves that we failed, we will feel like failures; but if we tell ourselves that we can do it, we will. And I can do it, I just need a little bit of practice first.

Michelle opted out too

I’m reading Becoming by Michelle Obama. It was a Christmas gift and I really love the book. I love her story and her storytelling. And she writes in a way that is so accessible that I feel like she’s writing to me. I feel like I know her, or rather wish that I did.

What I realize though, now that I am about half way through the book, is that Michelle Obama is a fellow opter outer! She doesn’t call it opting out though. Besides, she did it before the term was even coined (in 2003 by New York Times columnist Lisa Belkin). She calls it swerving; swerving from your path. But nevertheless, opting out (and in) is what she did. She was on a straight path towards becoming a partner in a law firm when she realized that she just didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore. She just didn’t want to continue doing what she had been trying so hard to achieve for years of education, training and hard work. It wasn’t an easy process, as opting out processes rarely (if ever) are, but she felt that her job and lifestyle didn’t provided her with meaning, nor did they allow her any time for anything else. Her work schedule meant she wasn’t able to be there for people who were important to her when they needed her. It didn’t feel right and it didn’t feel worth it.

Everywhere I turn, there are stories of opting out and in. Everywhere I go, I’m met with people who long to do it themselves, in case they haven’t already. It happens when I go to the doctor, to the bank, to meetings. People ask me what I do and when I tell them about my research, they, in turn, tell me about their journeys, what their terms have been (my doctor) or stories of how they long for change and are thinking about what their next step should be (the bank).

People sometimes wonder if it doesn’t worry me that someone like my doctor who is supposed to be taking care of my health longs to opt out, but it doesn’t. The reason is that I know that it is human to want and need a coherent life story and I know how hard doctors work. And just because you long to opt out, or you maybe already have on some level, it doesn’t make you any worse at what you do or any less professional.

If anything, I feel honored that they feel comfortable sharing their stories with me and pleased that I seem to be on to something. And also somewhat amused that it happened again, that I yet again met a person with whom my research resonates.

Those who doubt that opting out is something we will see more of in the future, simply don’t understand what it is really about. It’s not about dropping out. It’s not about not wanting to work. It’s not about not wanting or being able to ‘lean in’ as Sheryl Sandberg argued in her book. It’s about doing it on your own terms in a sustainable way that is meaningful. I think in the case of Michelle Obama it becomes quite clear, don’t you? She opted out and just look at her now!

What to do when you’re stuck

Anyone who has sat in front of a computer, staring at a blank document, knows what it feels like to be stuck. It can be quite paralyzing, and the longer you sit there knowing that you have to get whatever it is you’re doing done, the harder it is to even get started. Why does it have to be so hard? I don’t actually know, although I’m sure there is research on that, but what I have learned is how to deal with it.

Here is what I do when I realize that I just can’t seem to get what I’m supposed to do done. I stop trying to force it. I simply do something else. Some people might call this procrastination, but for some tasks – especially creative ones like writing or other forms of creation – forcing doesn’t necessarily work. But activity does.

Activity leads to more activity, and if you get going with something – anything really – then moving on to the task at hand becomes more doable. Sometimes taking your mind off it will even lead you to think about it again and consequently actually inspire you to get started.

Let’s not underestimate the power of the wandering mind. Also, your mind keeps at it even if you don’t, sometimes it just needs time to digest things. Besides, procrastination can be good for creativity as well as for reflection.

The fabulous Finnish artist, Fanny Tavastila, who I’ve written about before, once told me that when she comes to her studio and finds it difficult to start painting, she simply does something else first, like stretching canvases. She does this to activate herself and working with canvases doesn’t feel so hard. And once she’s activated it’s easier to start painting.

That’s exactly what it’s like for me. I start by doing something else that doesn’t feel as hard and then it’s easier to move on to actually writing and producing texts. One thing that always works for me is reading and being inspired by others’ ideas. But I also have to make sure to leave time and space for thinking, so often a walk will work too. When I walk I think and I might even formulate sentences in my head, which I then just write down when I get back to my computer.

When I’m walking it might look like I’m procrastinating or not working, but working is actually exactly what my mind is doing. I find that I’m much more productive if I actually walk away from my computer and do something else rather than force myself to sit there and stare at the screen and get nothing done.

This is one of the reasons I like working in the privacy of my home. No one questions my commitment or methods when it looks like I’m not working.

But today is Friday and soon it will be Christmas for those of us who celebrate that. I will be taking some days off and a break from thoughts about efficiency and productivity. Let’s all be a little less productive for a change during the holiday season. We’re worth it! Happy Holidays!

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?

Four years as a blogger

It’s November, one of the darkest months where I live; the days are short and it tends to rain a lot.  The light seems to get sucked right out of the air down into the wet, black asphalt of the streets and sidewalks, and the lack of light can sometimes really get to me.

But November is also a bright month for me in many ways. It is the birthday month of a person who is very special to me, and it marks the anniversary of my blog. It was in November four years ago that I posted my very first blog post. Can you believe it? This is The Opting Out Blog’s fourth anniversary! Time sure flies, whether or not you’re having fun.

I really feel like I’ve come a long way in four years. When I started blogging, I had just received my PhD, and like now I thought, wow, I really have come a long way. I had learned so much while working on my PhD. Whole new worlds had opened up to me, which, I might add, doesn’t make life easier or less complicated, but it sure makes life interesting. Realizing that issues and situations that have seemed black and white and pretty much straight forward before, in reality are much more complex and problematic with no easy answers, can be troubling. It means that you can no longer shrug your shoulders and comfort yourself by saying that’s just the way things are, because it isn’t that simple. A friend and colleague of mine once likened it to swallowing the red pill, and I have to say, that’s exactly how it feels sometimes.

That’s the thing with knowledge, the more you know, the more you realize that you don’t know. The more you know, the harder it is to find easy answers. Not a comforting thought, I might add, in these times of global upheaval and destructive politics that we’re seeing in many places.

But just like four years ago, I again feel that I have come a long way. I remember the first time I posted a post on my blog. Being quite a private person, the thought of writing a text and making it visible to the world was literally terrifying. I wrote a draft of my first post, showed to my husband, and we both agreed that it needed rewriting. I rewrote it and showed it to him again and this time he liked it so with minor edits I posted it. I almost hyperventilated as I pressed the ‘publish’ button, but it got a lot of positive responses, especially from my own network of friends, colleagues and acquaintances, for which I am forever grateful. The following week I wrote the next post and showed it to my husband again. He read it and liked it but carefully said that if I was going to start blogging a lot I needed to be able to write posts without him checking everything first. The following week I posted my third post without anyone checking it and although I broke out in a sweat again, I didn’t die and I started to trust my judgement. What I did though in the very beginning, was imagine my sister – who is no nonsense and whose opinion I really value – reading it and if she (in my mind) bought it I would post it.

So there I was, blogging every week. The response I got was tremendous, but I was no blogger. I just couldn’t identify. Blogging for me was something completely different and what I was doing was rather publishing a weekly column on topics related to my research. I think it must have taken about a year before I finally looked myself in the mirror and admitted that yes, I was a blogger. I think by now I’ve even added it to my Twitter profile, so you can see, I have really come a long way!

Four years later, whether or not I’m a blogger doesn’t take up a lot of mental space anymore. What I do think about, however, is what I want to do with my blog. I’m not a believer in changing things just for the sake of it. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, right? But I’ve had ups and downs with my blog and have noticed that as I’ve evolved and grown into the person I am today; my blog has evolved with me. For a while I posted less frequently. It coincided with a time when I was trying to figure out what I really wanted, where my opting out and in journey would take me next. Now I’m posting more regularly again, and I’ve noticed that my writing has taken a more personal turn – something that would have terrified and horrified me four years ago!

But I’m just going to go with it and see where it takes me. I don’t want to overanalyze my writing and let this blog continue being an outlet for me where I can write on my own terms and not take into account editors, reviewers, journals or publishers. Also, writing blog posts often helps me figure out where I stand regarding both my own life and happenings on a larger scale.

What I’m trying to say is thank you for being there for me during these past four years. I value all the comments and responses I get – more that you know!


Make no mistake

Last week I got to visit the painting studio of a very talented Finnish artist, Fanny Tavastila (check her out on Instagram, I really love her paintings: @fannytavastila). Seeing her space and hearing her talk about her creative process was both interesting and inspirational, but it also gave me food for thought.

One of the things she talked about was how she deals with mistakes. Like when she adds something to a painting and changes her mind, but can’t conceal it completely. Or if something happens and leaves a mark, which can’t be corrected.

What she does is simply let it be a part of the painting. The reason is that any mistakes are part of the creative process and the painting simply wouldn’t be what it is without that process. So she doesn’t worry about it too much. After all, it’s also part of what makes that particular painting unique. It’s part of the story.

This really resonated with me, because isn’t this also true for people? I have made plenty of mistakes in my life – we all have. But when asked what I would do differently if I could do it over again, I’m not sure that I would do anything differently. Even though there are situations I really wouldn’t have minded doing without, without those mistakes I wouldn’t be who I am today. I mean to be honest, the bigger the mistake, the more I learned about me and the world around me.

Besides, I didn’t plan on making mistakes. I was just acting to the best of my knowledge and ability, because that was who I was at the time. Now, luckily, thanks to my mistakes I know better.

But this is actually a problem in society and in many organizational settings today. We aren’t very forgiving of ourselves or of others, and we tend to strive for perfection. We worry about making mistakes at work, even though we are bound to make them if we take risks or develop something new. And we cannot learn new things if we don’t try.

So on the one hand we talk about the learning organization, and on the other hand we don’t really have a lot of patience for mistakes. Although risk taking is seen as a strength, mistakes are seen as a weakness. That, if anything, is a contradiction.

Another thing people often see as a weakness, is asking for help or admitting that they don’t know something. The other night, my husband and I were having another one of our kitchen table discussions, and he was telling me about an article he had read about corporate leaders who struggle when they don’t have all the answers. They often feel alone because they don’t have anyone they can ask for help.

My spontaneous reaction was, well what about their team? That’s why experts are recruited, to solve problems and provide answers to difficult questions so that ‘we’ as an organization can figure out what the way forward is. No one should even expect the leader to have all the answers, but still, apparently, they often don’t feel comfortable asking for help and admitting that they don’t.

Think about it. If you can’t support each other as a team, should it really be called a work community? I mean, to me it doesn’t really sound like a community at all, it sounds more like a random group of people.

But the same goes for others too. It is not only leaders who have trouble admitting they don’t know in the fear of being perceived as weak, or dumb, or just unprepared. What I have found though, is that if you’re wondering about something you should just ask, even if you’re worried it’s a stupid question. If it isn’t clear to you, it probably isn’t clear to others either. And no matter what others may think, the one who actually asks finds out, while the one who doesn’t just continues not to know.