What’s a dream job?

The life of a business traveler

Yesterday one of my favourite blogs, Broadside, published a question that’s on my mind almost as constantly as Alfie’s train of thought (see Self-Forgiveness and a Thanksgiving Vacation):  she asked, “what’s your dream job?”

She cites a recently published survey by LinkedIn, which asked its users that very question and found vast differences between men and women (though I wonder what surprising differences they’d find if they sliced the data differently). The differences are interesting, and I suggest having a look, but what’s more interesting to me is the question itself: “what’s your dream job?”

We talk often about finding our dream jobs or our dream man/woman… maybe a dream vacation… but how often do we think about our dream life holistically? Or is that it: work, partner, holidays – is that all we’re meant to dream about?

I don’t believe that for a second. I do believe that life is a scarier question.

For the last year or so, I’ve been making an honest attempt at asking myself that question once a month. I look at what I’ve written down as some tangible goals – how close I am to being a writer; how close I am to being truly financially secure; how well my relationships are going; how happy I am at work; how healthy I feel; etc. I plot it on a radar chart and see what that shows me.

Of course it shows me that whenever I make progress in one, something else slips: it’s a constant balancing act.

And sometimes it feels really tiring, this pursuit of constant progress – I’m seriously considering adding an axis that has something to do with relaxation or general enjoyment of life so I get points for some time doing nothing – but, likewise, it’s given me a lot to think about.

On vacation this summer, I found myself thinking about how difficult and frustrating my life is because my job is so demanding: it affords me little time and mental space to write during the week. One of those classic spirals of negative self-talk that’s more common with me than I’ll admit. But the good thing about these moments of reflection – especially if I write them down – is that they force me to admit that rather than solving the problem, I’m just whining. And that kind of behaviour never leads us to our dream lives (or job or spouse or car or holiday)… instead, it just gives us a litany of excuses we can share with our enablers over a bottle of red wine…

I ended up doing some maths (to sit aside my radar chart of life):

I am awake about 16 hours per day… that’s 112 hours per week

I am contracted to spend 37.5 of those at work – let’s be pragmatic and round that up to 40

That’s only 36% of my life.

I have 72 hours left.

72 hours left. Work need only be a little over a third of my life.

I don’t know about you, but that thought was so freeing for me. I’m someone who thought a lot about ‘my dream job’ and saw the workplace as the bulk of life. I still struggle with this, but since then I’ve tried to work 40 hour weeks, tried to take a lunch break to read blogs or write – it’s made me happier at work. I’m happier at home. I’ve learned to switch off and it’s made me more productive. I’ve realised that the 10% of my life I give away by working until 7pm is a valuable 10%.

Questions like ‘what’s your dream job’ force us to view our lives through the context of work. Similarly, ‘who’s your dream man’ encourages us to view our dream lives through the context of another. Is that really how we want to view the world?

I’d much prefer to ask the questions: what do you want to do with your life?

How does the 36% of your life you spend at work contribute to your purpose?

And what do you do with the remaining 64%…..

Self-Forgiveness and a Thanksgiving Vacation

In my inbox this morning was a blog post from The Write Practice called ‘Why You Should Take a Day Off from Writing’ and I need to say thanks to its author, Melissa Tydell.


Del’s luggage can be viewed as a metaphor for novel-writing

Because I’ve been tying myself up in knots lately. I can’t seem to sit down and write and the more I recognise that I’m not making enough time, not making enough progress, the more difficult it gets. I start to question whether I’ve really got it in me:

“Writers write,” people tell us…

“Just show up,” the wonderful Elizabeth Gilbert puts it in her inspiring Ted Talk on creativity.

And so it is repeated in just about every book on writing that there is: the guilt is piled on and we come to believe that real writers write every single day; they too suffer procrastination and block, but they turn up every day to wrestle with those demons. Even on Thanksgiving.

Let’s get this clear: I write. I’ve written and re-written a full-length novel and have a home that’s filled with an arguably creepy number of notebooks. My living room floor was carpeted with notecards for four months of this year, until I decided to buy a couch and invite my boyfriend over for dinner.

Sometimes, when I find myself staring at people on the train and consumed by some narrative problem, I suddenly realise that the people around me don’t have these anxieties: they’re on their way to a party where they’ll laugh and gossip and talk about television or boys. It sounds to me so free, sometimes, when I realise that I’ve been struggling with an endless string of story or writing puzzles, consistently, for about fifteen years. Not everyone will be sipping mulled wine at their work Christmas party, pretending to interact as they try to work out exactly what a fictional man called Alfie should be thinking about as he sits through a long church service.

That’s exactly what I’ve been thinking about for the last week. Every meeting I’ve had about energy bills has been slightly clouded by Alfie’s church presence.  Every conversation I have with friends at my Thanksgiving party will be weighed down by this question. What the hell would he be thinking??

How amazing would I be at my job if that was not the case? How much deeper my relationships?

I’m a writer. I’m a writer because I write even when I don’t have a pen in my hand or a laptop on my knees. I’m a writer because I need to be.

I think a lot of people feel the guilt that I feel and I say we let it go. I say we allow ourselves a vacation – how much better will our writing be when we come back refreshed and renewed? When we’ve been fully open to the world and all its people?

What do you think? Am I lazy or am I right? Is it something in between?

Happy Thanksgiving Vacation!

Beyond a Boys Club

This post began as a review of the book ;”>Beyond the Boys Club by Dr. Suzanne Doyle-Morris, but it quickly moved on and became something else…

It feels very topical to be writing about women in the boardroom at the moment:

  • McKinsey just published an article on ‘The global gender agenda’ to review the progress of women worldwide
  • BBC 2 aired ‘Women at the Top’ not long ago, examining governmental and organisational policies that might stimulate the kind of change that could bring women into UK boardrooms
  • Marissa Mayer’s appointment as one of the US’s handfull of female CEOs has stimulated a fair amount of online debate
  • Helena Morrissey and her “30% club” are gaining traction in getting companies to sign up to the 30% target for female board membership (and they host a very interesting list of research relating to board diversity on their site)

…and it feels topical to me, personally, as a woman and a middle manager in a male-dominated industry. My company has taken steps to inspire and empower women, in the form of a board-sponsored network and quality targeted training programmes, but its statistics remain as disheartening as those of our wider society: women seem to be almost equally represented at my level and below, but one step up in the hierarchy and it drops off. Significantly. In fact, “significantly” does not quite convey the extent of my perception of the numbers when you get to ‘senior’ roles. I come from a generation and a background that has grown up with an assumption of equality. This issue was brought home to me the for the first time in my life when I had a meeting as, not only the only woman in the room, but as the only female direct report of any of the much more senior men in that room. Although a few more women (well, 2-ish?) have appeared in these reporting lines in the months following, that was an eye-opening moment for me: since then, I’ve remained much more open to discourse on this subject. Especially because I am convinced that the imbalance at my organisation is wholly unintended and a very big frustration of senior leadership.

Given that organisations want to achieve more equal representation, why does it remain such a problem? Why did women represent only 12.5% of FTSE 100 board members in 2010? What’s holding them – women, organisations – back?

The insight and accompanying solutions and/or public conversations seem to fall into three major interrelated categories:

The Ambition Gap

Women are less likely to have a clear plan for their careers and more likely to experience self-doubt that, critically, prevents them from making & taking opportunities (Institute of Leadership and Management).

What are people and orgainsations doing about this one? Organisations, like mine, are setting up networks that seek to inspire women, open their eyes to this issue, and give them the encouragement that they (apparently) need. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg did a great TED talk focusing primarily on this issue – “don’t leave until you leave,” having since become something of a mantra.

However, Sandberg’s talk is not without its critics. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s fantastic article in The Atlantic suggests that the ambition gap doesn’t explain the numbers on its own and, though the advice is valid, it may be simplistic – harmful, even – to point the finger at allegedly unambitious women when there are organisational, societal, cultural issues to address.

Keeping women in the workplace

We women are more likely – statistically – to a) have the choice and b) take the choice to opt-out of the workforce. And even when women choose to remain engaged in their careers, they are often the primary caregiver, the assumed primary caregiver, or simply less willing than men, Slaughter attests, to make the level of compromise needed to reach the upper echelons.

Her article, which I strongly recommend, challenges the need for such a compromise for either men or women in our connected world. It points to the need to really think strategically about the structure of our organisations and our very society if we want to solve this problem.

These mundane issues – the need to travel constantly to succeed, the conflicts between school schedules and work schedules, the insistence that work be done in the office – cannot be solved by exhortions to solve the ambition gap. I would hope to see commencement speeches that finger America’s social and business policies, rather than women’s level of ambition … changing these policies requires much more than speeches. It means fighting the mundane battles – every day, every year – in individual workplaces, in legislature, and in the media.

Techniques to succeed in ‘The Boys Club’

For those women who are ambitious and who don’t yet experience the challenges inherent in building a family – i.e. women like me – what’s on offer is advice on how to succeed within the common organisational paradigm. The ;”>book I was given called that paradigm “The Boys Club” and was aimed, in particular, at women in male-dominated industries. It began by imploring us to play the game, “the smartest women in male-dominated industries know that you can’t win the game if you are not willing to play.”

What’s the game? I love games…

The game, Dr. Doyle-Morris rightly imparts, is to get noticed, get promoted. And the key to all the rules of that game is to understand that merit and performance alone won’t get you noticed – everybody’s too worried thinking about their own careers to stop and think about yours. This advice, useful to both men and women, may be more pertinent to women, she suggests, because women disproportionately disengage from ‘politics’, keep their head down in order to deliver results, embrace perfectionism, get more qualifications, etc. The more quiet stuff that doesn’t get you noticed.

This kind of advice seems to be quite common among women – and rightly so: you do care about your career more than anybody else and solid relationships across the business do get you noticed and do ensure you hear about opportunities at the right time. However, this advice is often tinged with an element of something I find a little more sinister and, for me, calls into question whether the issue of female board membership is wholly the right question in the first place.

The sentence that did it for me was this:

This is not to say that you must wear make-up to get ahead in a male-dominated workplace; it is, rather, to be aware that when it is mainly men who are awarding promotions, you will find it valuable to play at least this part of their game

The book does not go beyond a so-called boys’ club: it outlines the entry criteria. Somehow, this particular advice from a woman to women catalysed flashbacks of all the times in a previous organisation where certain key men held their palms up to stop me from speaking; where I was told to ‘pipe down’ and ‘stop nagging’. At that organisation, I wasn’t the only woman in that room, but I did represent a different perspective.

And that, I find, is a bigger challenge than my sex.

My particular specialism ensures I often am an ‘other’ perspective in a room and that experience across 4 blue-chip companies in 4 different industries has allowed me to observe (and participate in) some fascinating decision-making that seems to be driven solely by a desire to soften the experience of conducting day-to-day business. We invent business jargon so that we speak the same language and dull any… unpleasantness – we don’t disagree with each other, for instance, we just aren’t “aligned.”

Dr. Doyle-Morris tells us, “if you put people first, business will flow,” but she’s talking about colleagues, not customers; she’s talking about senior management and shareholders, not society. In big businesses, where poor decisions have real, but almost always unintended, negative consequences on the public and on the economy, can we really afford for everyone to be jostling to be the most noticeably, commendably “aligned?”

Should the question of board membership not be one of diversity of perspective rather than gender? For whom else do the rules of ‘the game’ mean exclusion from the upper echelons?

Do the rules of ‘the game’ tend to exclude those of concrete purpose and ethical standards – those more likely to question a group – from climbing the ranks?

What do you think?

Writing is Re-Writing

I thought I knew what Michael Crichton meant when he said “writing is re-writing.” Then I finished my second draft. A quarter of the way through editing a third draft, the message has finally crystallised: turns out writing is re-writing.

This post is about where I’ve been since June.

I started this blog when I finished my second draft and I was determined to A) send my novel to an agent by the end of August and B) post at least once per week. It wasn’t until I started really editing  that I realised how much I learned through the development of my second draft – how much growing I’d done as a writer, as a person.

My second draft started in late 2010 after an abnormally fast first draft (2-3 months) and a few months of writer’s block while I wrestled the conflicting feelings of loving my story but hating my style. It wasn’t until I found the potential in a secondary – tertiary, even – character that I found my stride again and started weaving her in while re-writing what I’d done. That took a long time: a little more than a year and a half. In June, when I finished and looked back at the start, I found a story I love… and an almost schizophrenic style: the beginning and the end sound like they’ve been written by completely different people.

I’ve been working on that and, as you’ve gathered, it has taken a lot longer than I thought. I realised my problem when I got about three pages in… then I went through a brief period of avoidance. Considered a career as a baker. I even considered pursuing my current career even further. But then, after a long struggle that involved hacking apart the same stale words and sticking them back together with an old piece of bubblegum, I wrote something different. I wrote a wholly new scene: one that blended the deeper understanding of my characters with the higher level of skill I’d gained over two years. I wrote something good.

In this process I have failed to achieve my artificial deadlines many times – self-forgiveness is paramount in this profession (Lesson 1) – so I’m not too upset about that. Especially because I’ve learned how important and exciting this stage of the journey can be: I’m reading  every page of my novel to ensure a consistent voice, a consistent point-of-view, a consistent silent force that leads each character toward their ultimate decision. The task is enormous, but it’s the chance to empower the characters and the novel to speak for themselves. This really feels like writing.

If you want some more specific advice about editing, I’ve found a nice, succinct post by Joanna Penn, whose blog often reminds me that I’m part of a great big community of people who sit, alone, in their quiet writing spaces as they go about tackling the exact same problems. I definitely relate to her description of finishing her first draft and many of her key points for editing.

See you in a week or less – my commitment to this blog has now been re-affirmed.

How to Change the World

This is a review of  How to Change the World: The School of Life by Jean-Paul Flintoff

There’s a guy on my Facebook friends list to whom I haven’t spoken in years. He was the kind of person who really knew how to make things happen. For every single act of service I did in the community, this guy would start a movement. And not just any movement: he triggered severalnational students’ networks that spanned universities up and down the US east coast and well into the west. He had contacts with politicians – the  ones who were “kind of a big deal.” As I understand it, it was his network that brought the late Ted Kennedy to our campus following a small student protest about the rights of workers in our local student centre. This guy was a legend. Let’s call him Steve.

I don’t think we liked each other very much.

That’s because every time I spoke to him, I was consumed by feelings of inferiority that took the form of pointless pedantry and inarticulate debate. Not a pretty picture of myself.

I just finished reading How to Change the World over my lunch break today. It’s a brief read and part of a series publication called ‘The School of Life’ that includes other titles that promise readers a bite-sized piece of thoughtfulness. In my experience, this book went rather well with a cup of coffee and offered me a lot more energy than would, say, a Mars bar.

When I opened the book, I was sceptical: how is a book really honestly going to empower me to have a greater impact on the world? All the usual scripts were running about how I work 9-5, how I’m using my free time to write a novel, how I have no real capital or time to contribute at scale. But I also thought of Steve. I’ve looked at his Facebook page recently and he’s still up to his old tricks – travelling the world and making change. Even finds time to take beautiful photographs – from Tahrir Square to Bob & Suzy McGorgeousson’s wedding. What does he know that I don’t?

How to Change the World does not have the answer to that question, I can tell you now.  What it does have, though, is perspective in abundance… seasoned with ideas from great philosophers, thinkers, and world changers.  It starts by stripping away those defeatist thoughts and the feelings of inferiority that come by judging someone else’s actions more worthy than your own. Then it rolls through strategies and practical examples from the profound to the day-to-day: community-minded goodness we can add into the world. Like taking home-grown tomatoes to the neighbours – inspiring them to do it too.

And this book reminds us, too, that events proved profound by history took lots of small steps by average people… who probably felt pretty average while they took them. I wonder if Steve ever feels average… I wonder how many tiny daily steps he’s taken through the years…

“As Nietzsche said, ‘not every end is a goal. The melody is not a goal.’ Which is to say – we don’t go to a concert and say we wish the music would hurry up and finish so we could enjoy it. We enjoy it as it goes along. So instead of imagining your mission as a painting, think of it as a piece of music… Ask yourself ‘what can I do in the next 24 hours? Because if you don’t do anything in 24 hours, what makes you think you ever will?” – from How to Change the World

No, the book couldn’t tell me what he knows that I don’t: and that’s because, other than how to speak Arabic, I’m not sure Steve does know something new. He just has a different state of mind. Well, I’ll be damned…isn’t that always how it goes?

If interested, you can get  How to Change the World: The School of Life by Jean-Paul Flintoff on Amazon.

In Medias Res: so I’ve finished a novel…

It took me two years and I’ve done it: I’ve finished writing a novel.

And now that it’s done, I thought I’d feel the subtle, sublime sense of an ending, something cathartic, something to celebrate. I can’t say that it didn’t feel amazing: it left me breathless… but it definitely feels much more like a middle.

That’s because, immediately upon finishing, all the thoughts of what comes next came rushing to my mind:

  • Edit
  • Write a 1-line hook that compels everyone to read it
  • Edit
  • Build an ‘author platform’
  • Find an agent
  • Edit x3
  • Find a publisher
  • Create a marketing & publicity plan (I suppose that requires me to have said ‘platform’ to ‘leverage’)
  • Edit a little (or a lot) more…

Granted, I now have more time to think about these things: these new and exciting things, like this blog – something I’ve wanted to do for a long, long time. But I feel the same impatience with myself now that I’ve felt since that New Year’s Eve over 2 years ago that I first picked up my pen.

The story dominated my life for two years and, throughout, I would think ‘once I’ve finished my novel, I’ll…’

INSERT: quit smoking for good this time / focus on a new job / let someone read my work / volunteer / play more sport / start that blog I’m always thinking about / let someone new into my life

But human nature has caught up with me again, it seems. It doesn’t matter how often we learn this lesson, it seems we always fall for those arbitrary, artificial moments that are meant to mark an end-point and change our lives for good. Truth is, they don’t. Or if they do, it’s not in the way that we foresee. Happiness and meaning – fulfillment –  don’t seep in suddenly on the day you graduate from high school or college or the day you quit your job. It doesn’t suddenly appear on the day you finish your novel. Not if you don’t let it.

When I spot this immediate stress and impatience in myself, I often sigh and recollect popular wisdom that says if there’s nothing left to strive for then we’ve lost our purpose, the very foundation of our happiness. Ah, the paradox of the human condition. But I think it’s time I let that go. I think it’s time we all let that go.

I think it’s time I put my worries and to-do’s away, call my mom & dad, go out for a pizza with a lovely young man and a nice glass of wine – pat myself on the back and say, “damn, girl, you wrote a BOOK”

Let’s do this for each other too.