The Simple Ones.

“Why do we die?”

It’s the second week of school. It’s the first couple of weeks where you get all the orientations, all the introductions, and all the premonitions of future stress. [Yes, I can already see it coming. At least we can say that we were warned.]

In these first weeks, we get the “simple” questions.

“Why do diseases kill humans?”

Simple in construction, but perhaps not so simple in their answers.

I was struck, on the one hand, that this is what academia allows you to do – allows you to simply ask these questions, and take the time and resources to search for and understand the answers. Which is amazing. We aren’t pressed for time, worried about the next deliverable. Or rather, this is on our way to that next deliverable, even if we don’t know what that is yet. Academia allows you to ponder the world and its constructions and its tragedies and its physical wonders. It gives you the mind space.

And then on the other hand, me: THIS IS WHAT ACADEMIA ALLOWS YOU TO DO, in the alarmed, incredulous sense. Directly, there is no rationale for practicality. None. This is solely for my benefit, my luxury of thought. It’s a thought exercise. While many in the world can hardly make eight hours of sleep, while many are just trying to keep it together, while most just ain’t got time for that. We’re here asking each other,

“Why do we die?”

Success: Are you unremarkable? (Pt 1)

“Excuse moi mesdames. Je vous pose une question: c’est quoi la réussite?”

It was 1:30am. We were in a post-Biryani state, having served as taste testers for a spontaneous feast. Sash and I looked at each other, then back at the man, shaking our heads in unison.

Nope.

Having the conversation on “What is Success?” with a stranger, at 1:30am, on deserted streets wasn’t really in our plans.

But dear stranger, to make it up to you, I’ll attempt to entertain your question over my next few posts.

This conversation comes up often. At various points in our lives, we all ask ourselves…

What am I doing? What’s it contributing to? Am I supposed to be contributing to something?

How can I be successful in a mash-up of 7 billion people with dreams and struggles of their own?

How do I stand out? Where is my uniqueness?

In my pre-Biryani state that same day, one of my dearest friends was having a similar moment to the stranger on the street. She texted,

I don’t wish for an unremarkable life.

Not exactly your average Wednesday text. But hey, not exactly an average friendship.

Below is what followed:

mermaidAfter this, we obviously spent some time reassuring each other that we were indeed remarkable.

And then I got more curious. Where does this need come from? I have it too. Most of us do. I’ve spent most of the summer trying to understand my own interpretations of success and the paths I want to take to get there.

Some days, success means “remarkable.” Some days, it means “awake and outside the house.” Other days, it’s a flattering email. And on really good days, it’s just knowing you were a part of something useful. And that’s enough. We would all benefit from learning early on that the latter is a goal worth aspiring to.

Millennials are often accused of being the “participation trophy” generation.  In principle, why is it so horrible that participation is celebrated? The real problem arises when you’re not simultaneously taught to think about what participation really means. The participation trophy is a missed opportunity in understanding that nothing happens unless a collective either decides or is convinced that it should, and then engages with the process and the outcome. Even if that’s just a local race. Instead, we’re given mixed messages. We’re supposed to be unique individuals (this is obviously culture-dependent), special snowflakes with startups and billion dollar ideas. And we compete. A lot. For jobs. For graduate posts because there are no jobs. For life partners who have jobs. And thanks to technology, the pool of competitors is bottomless.

This need to be remarkable is therefore cultivated. And it’s distracting. But it’s not new. Nor is it necessarily just a narcissistic pursuit of recognition. Rather, it’s a compulsion to share pieces of yourself, almost as an affirmation of existing. To contribute, but to contribute in a way that is uniquely yours. To sign your art, whatever that art may be and to be remembered, revered, replicated. It’s become a biosocial instinct. Similar needs continue to convince our species to keep reproducing.

So in an effort to understand what it is that we all want to share so badly, I asked my friend…

What part of you do you want to share most?  The most widely that is.

 

Stay tuned for her answer in Part 2.

Writer’s note: I’m hiding in the mountains for a long weekend. Two parts hiking, one part grappling with how the way I choose to define “Success” will affect the decisions I make in the upcoming year. This is therefore the first in a set of 2-3 mountain posts. If posts appear nonsensical, blame it on the altitude.

Back-to-School

It’s September. Meg Ryan is smelling bouquets of sharpened pencils in You’ve Got Mail, grade-schoolers are buying 25 duo-tangs and 12 glue-sticks, Ikea is rife with cute pillows for your dorm room, Kylie Jenner’s about to come out with pumpkin spiced latte lip kits (ok, I don’t know if that’s true but it would be unsurprising), and teachers are lying awake at night wondering what will be thrown their way this year.

Dig into most global problems and eventually you’ll get to a cause or solution rooted in “education.”

Gender inequity? Educate girls. 

Donald Trump as president? Turn back time and educate America.

War? Educate the vulnerable and marginalized.

Climate change? Educate kids in environmental stewardship. 

Education is the tarnished silver bullet. And the teaching profession is left holding the smoking gun.

Teachers are rarely given the support or recognition needed as first responders in the global fight against ignorance. Instead, they’re left with oversized classrooms and a sea of expectations. Expectations from parents, from administrators, and from arbitrary standardized tests. To cope, the superficially ambitious collect workshop credits and degrees to bump up their pay grade and their chance at administrative roles, while the more introverted quietly burn-out in a bon fire of inefficient collaboration and perceived inability to address the educational and social needs of the less “typical” students in their classrooms.

As in other sectors, administrators in education have a solution for these challenges: collaboration. Poorly-defined, daunting for most, and often terribly executed, collaboration is among the most misused trends for quality improvement. Classrooms are not boardrooms, students are not products, and test scores are not bottom lines. The recipe for effective collaboration in schools needs a lot more attention and resources than simply pairing teachers up and introducing poorly thought-out projects that do not necessarily address the needs of students nor teachers.

Collaborative overload, as coined by the Harvard Business Review, is a symptom of growing pains that come with change. Change being the ridiculous 50 PERCENT INCREASE in time spent on collaborative activities by managers and employees over the past two decades. This needs to be examined carefully and course-corrected so that better collaborative practices can be realized.  Left alone, collaboration can veer off track and leave some overburdened as others coast along.

Up to a third of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees.

In a classroom context, that means that an already over-burdened teacher is now spending more time a) sitting in meetings, and b) doing extra work in the name of collaboration on behalf of a colleague. For certain personality types, specifically the more introverted, this spells disillusionment and burnout. Mmm my favourite dynamic duo. Good teachers are leaving the profession because of this, and it’s hurting students, other teachers, and society overall.

Good leadership in schools is required to effectively distribute collaboration, to monitor it, and to recognize where it’s helping and where it’s hurting. A one size-fits-all approach to collaborative education simply doesn’t work. It undermines the privilege inherent in being tasked with impressing young minds and the nuanced attention to detail required to inspire, motivate, and protect the 30 or so little people staring up at you.

But while we sit here with bated breath for good leadership to appear out of thin air, let me take a moment to thank you. Here’s to you. The one lying awake at night wondering how to help every one of the 30 little brains. Here’s to you, going above and beyond to create value in otherwise empty attempts at collaborative projects. Here’s to you, teaching a new batch of little people not only how to count, but also to recognize what counts.

Happy new scholastic year!

Do or Dye: Blondes have more… leadership?

Ever heard of the Glass Cliff? You know, the one that Cinderella comes tumbling down after her if-the-shoe-fits approach to matrimony fails in a blur of play dates and Teflon.

Just kidding.

The Glass Cliff is a theory that picks up where the Glass Ceiling left off. It stipulates that women tend to be put in “leadership positions that are associated with an increased risk of criticism and failure,” that they are often allowed to rise to leadership roles during crisis, downturn or interim shifts.

Hi Theresa May, how’s the view from the cliff? Need some windex? I’ll get Hillary to bring it up in November.

The term came about after Professors Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam of the University of Exeter set out to disprove the notion that women leaders cause financial collapse or failure in FTSE 100 companies. They found that, in fact, women were appointed to leadership positions as companies were already headed for failure while men rose to cushy positions in periods of stability and growth.

This obviously has a few implications:

1) To a lazy observer, it would look like women leaders are underperforming. It’s the equivalent of having to race against Michael Phelps while wearing 50 pound weights. Or, you know, racing against Michael Phelps period.

2) As other, especially younger, women watch their mentors slip n’ slide off the glass cliff, the resulting demotivation hinders social progress and belief in equitable systems.

3) It maintains the status quo — women in precarious leadership positions are seen as less threatening and easier targets of criticism and blame, especially with regard to their femaleness.

I want to zone in on that third point for a second. There seems to be a bit of fine print associated with the ability of women to break glass ceilings and rise to the top, at least in name. The secret ingredient is apparently relatively simple: be as non-threatening as possible. How, you ask?

Well, an article I stumbled across today has the perfect answer. And you can buy it in aisle 3 of your local grocery store. Revel in Revlon and watch your status rise. (Revlon should put me on its marketing team).

I’m just going to paste the last paragraph of the article here because I want you to experience the incredulous joy too:

Why you need to dye your very own hair.

Should really we all be battling in opposition to stereotypes like these? Of program we need to. But if they at any time go away it certainly will never be in the close to long run. And which is why wise ladies who want to be revered as leaders so typically switch into blondes, Berdahl says. “If ladies are selecting to dye their hair blonde, you will find anything strategic about the option,” she explained to HuffPo. “If the offer is female, disarming and childlike, you can get away with more assertive, impartial and masculine actions.”

So go ahead–make that appointment with your hairdresser. We may well want to adjust the entire world. But initial we have to achieve the positions that will enable us do it.

Hi again. Still here? You didn’t throw your device at the wall? Just me? Ok, good. I have some numbers for you:

5.5% of S&P 500 companies (Standard and Poor 500 index) are women.

Of these, about half are blonde. The aforementioned Brexit cleaner-upper? Blonde. Ms Clinton? Blonde.

Research out of UBC’s Sauder School of Business is investigating this phenomenon of overrepresentation of blonde women in positions of leadership as compared to more pigmented women. They’ve identified four types of bias that may explain what’s happening:

1) Racial Bias. This one’s obvious. A blonde mane is not only useful in getting through airport security faster, but it’s also an extra little booster of whiteness for your next promotion.

2) Attractiveness Bias. There is an actual century of evidence on blondes being the better looking, more fun, more accessibly sexy counterparts. Betty & Veronica, I’m looking at you.

3) Preference for warmth in women. Apparently blonde women are seen as “kindler and gentler.” Given the vitriol I’m spitting on this very post, I’ll just go ahead and take their word for it. I’m decidedly not blonde.

4) Youth bias. You look younger I guess? Embedded in this point is the fact that women cover up their grey religiously because if they don’t, it’s a sign of having “let themselves go” or being tired and haggard (the horror!). Greying men instead merely look like silver foxes with well-padded wallets and a youth bias of their own.

Preliminary results in this work are also showing that blonde hair can prove disarming and alleviate perceived threats that non-blonde women may pose, such as being bitchy or bossy rather than simply authoritative. From the words of the researchers themselves, blonde women are “judged to be less independent minded and less willing take a stand than other women and than men.” So obviously, they are “allowed” to lead more often.

So yes, here we are, in 2016, walking on eggshells, touching up our roots, trying to be as non-threatening as possible in order to be afforded the right to demonstrate competence and the capacity to lead. Cool.

My super threatening brunette locks* and I are annoyed.

*Admittedly, if you’re my shower drain, I completely understand the threat.

Three o’clock walls: a take-down

It happens every day. Sometime halfway between picking at the salad bar and fleeing the premises. Three pm. I have a not-quite-midlife crisis. Everything I’d ever hoped to accomplish comes flooding through my senses, reminding me that I desperately want to be anywhere else.

Some days, anywhere else is a cafe, sipping a flat white and bringing antagonistic protagonists to life with perfectly manicured nails and an effortless casual chic. Other days, anywhere else is a hut in Mwanza interviewing a little old lady about her health-seeking behavior. On Tuesdays, anywhere else is generally bed. Wednesdays, a gym… with a trainer. Thursdays, a concert hall… and not in the audience, but front and centre.

I know I’m not alone in feeling stuck at a 9–5, but that doesn’t stop the daily restlessness from invading my veins, screaming at me to stand up and walk away from my less-than-ergonomic prison. Sometimes I listen. I grab a coffee. I convince myself that bean water is the answer. At the coffee machine, I have robotic conversation in interchangeable languages with equal banality.

“How are things?”

“Busy. Thank god for coffee.”

“It’s almost Friday.”

“Yea, I can’t wait.”

The math is all wrong. We do realize that Monday through Friday are 3 whole days more than Saturday and Sunday right? Monkey barring from weekend to weekend is clearly detrimental to quality of life.

I don’t have a job I hate. I just hate the number of hours I have to spend doing it when I’m not being effective. Honestly, my efficiency would be higher if the monotony of a work day could be broken up with feeding other facets of my personality. Give me flex time. Make skill development in an area other than my primary area of work mandatory. Offer design courses (it would have the added benefit of making our products less esoteric and more usable by the world). Subsidize gym sessions (it’ll lower your eventual health insurance payments). Understand “Innovation” rather than just paste it into mission statements. Be Google. Or better.

The 9–5 is on its way out. We all know this. The rate of change of businesses is indicative of it. Disruptive technologies are winning the economic battle. Businesses are offering shorter work weeks. Complex problem solving, creativity and critical thinking are projected to rank as top 3 on the list of skills workers need at the cusp of the “fourth industrial revolution.” * (Revolution counting guide below because when did we get to 4??). These are generally skills that are stifled by the restrictions of the traditional 9–5. Employers need to create better enabling environments for fostering the very skills that are going to eventually determine their survival, relevance and success.

But I’m in the social sector. And the shift just isn’t happening fast enough. I feel like all the multiple dimensions I spent my childhood building are being stripped away as I slip into adulthood survival mode, sponsored by the subterfuge of a Merlot lullaby. Complex problem solving, creativity and critical thinking? They’re gasping for air in the foamy playground of my burnt cappuccino.

Final note: It’s currently 3:15pm. Let me out of this concrete box. I promise you it would save my brain, and in turn, benefit the organization.

*Guide to the industrial revolutions: 1) water & steam power, 2) electric power/mass production, 3) information technology & automation, and 4) rather undefined fusion of technology, biology and everything in between.

Decisions, decisions.

Anyone remotely within earshot (text-shot?) of me these past two – six?? – months has had to experience the agony of me agonizing over “my future.” That is, the next five years of my future. You could argue that’s not very long, and in the grand scheme of the universe, I concede that it isn’t. But in my mind, right now, a youth in her mid-20s, it’s very much my future, the one, the only. As my stress mounts and the deadline for final decisions approaches, I find myself soothing my tension headaches with the idea that all of my decisions are ultimately arbitrary. I will be similarly happy and unhappy with any decision that I do choose. I will be similarly excited and apprehensive about which path I do take. I would rationally argue that so much of our lives are built by chance encounters, split second actions, and opportunities explained largely by luck. (I mean, can we consider conception for a second here? [Thanks, D].) When it comes to decisions, choices, or paths, I just have to take one.

Arguably, choosing haphazardly and reaping similar benefits and losses with each choice does not apply in every situation. For example, I’d hope that we don’t think about choosing a life partner this way. (I may be young, but I’d hope I’ve gotten that far.) However, I’d say that in my current situation, this is what I’m facing. Every person I’ve consulted on the matter of my future has ended with the final thought: “It’s a good problem to have. You’ll do great with any that you choose.”

Thank you for that. I do appreciate it. I really do. But it doesn’t help. It doesn’t help my predicament, which comes down to making a choice and basing that choice off of something hopefully tangible. Something that I can point to and say, “See, that’s why I made this decision. That’s why I am dealing with these challenges and frustrations that I mightn’t have faced in these other options. Because of this. And this is a good reason.”

I’m coming closer to the conclusion that having that thing won’t be possible. It would probably morph into an excuse rather than a reason rooted in passion or desire. It will be a justification for my inevitable complaints, which will be followed up by, “You shouldn’t be complaining at all. You’re one of the lucky ones, remember?” By now, I run the circles in my head over and over again with a particular deftness.

So I come back to this idea that these decisions are ultimately arbitrary. However, my attempts to accept such an idea bring an overwhelming feeling of resignation. If all decisions are arbitrary, what’s the point? And this is where the road gets dangerous. This is where I teeter on a cliff edge that I’ve worked so hard to avoid in the past year. This is where the motivation stops, and so does the eating, and the sleeping. It’d been so long I thought I’d forgotten where the cliff was. Or that it was gone forever. But it’s been there, in the same familiar place. Luckily, it’s a predictable cycle.

It’s followed by rejection. I have to reject the idea and, in my recesses of my brain, I have to call attention to things that “actually matter” in life. Even if for a time I believe such perception to be an illusion, I also remember that the illusion is still better than the teetering – for now.

So where does this leave me with my decision? I suppose the idea is that once it’s made, there’s no use in going back to the what-ifs. So I just have to take one.

And the cycle starts again.