Typecast?

I’ve been wanting to write about personality tests for quite some time but I’ve been a little hesitant in case people thought I was a bit flakey.

It all started with me doing a Myers Briggs personality test at work as part of a team development exercise. This test helps you decide if you are an introvert (I) or an extrovert (E), whether you are drawn to facts (S) or intuition (N), whether you are more concerned with thinking (T) or feeling (F), and whether you prefer structure (J) or like to go with the flow (P).

I have done this test quite a few times (actually they don’t like you to call it a test as there are no right or wrong answers, it’s really called a type indicator quiz) but this time around I was very unhappy with the results. Apparently I’m tactless and not a team player. Alternatively I could have interpreted the results as ‘honest to a fault’ and ‘makes a great leader’ but I chose to think the worst of myself. Why is that? Is that a personality thing?

Then my sister wrote to say that she was doing a course called ‘understanding yourself and others’ and that she was finding it helpful in explaining why she and her partner disagreed about a range of tiny (but important) issues. The course helped her to make sense of their differences and gave her some insight into understanding herself and her husband. It also gave her valuable tips on how to improve their communication which can’t be a bad thing. You can take the test here if you are interested.

Like many people, I secretly love personality tests. I love the moment when you read the “results” that tell you that you are just who you thought you were. The detailed profile that confirms that you are sensitive/creative/practical or whatever it is that you want to be. It very much appeals to our vanity by proclaiming that yes, we are capable of writing that great novel or making some kind of difference in the world.

But in her new book “Reading People”, Anne Bogel says that the trouble with doing personality quizzes is that we always answer the questions based on who we want to be, rather than answering them as who we really are. When we describe our traits we are aspirational, rather than realistic. This leads to us make wild claims about our capacity to be organised and efficient when in reality we spend a lot of time dithering about or worrying if people are going to be upset or hurt by our actions. (By the way, I don’t think of myself as cold and distant. In fact I’ve often think that I’m over-sensitive to other people’s moods.)

So is there value in knowing more about yourself and your significant others, and what makes them tick?

Yes, I think so. If you know that as an introvert you really need some time alone after a big day talking to people, then you can share this with your partner so that they are less likely to be offended when you go to your room to recover by reading 100 pages of your book in peaceful silence. Hopefully they’ll understand that it’s not that you don’t want to spend time with them, it’s just that you need time alone to rest and recover your good humour. More than anything else, introverts need some peace and quiet every day.

Your strategy might be walking or listening to music, but for me the ultimate respite from overstimulation (usually caused by too many people and too much noise) is swimming. I find it relieves stress and tension better than any other activity. It doesn’t stop me from thinking (quite the opposite) but there’s something about being in the water that just works for me.

What about you? Do you like doing personality quizzes and have they helped improve your relationships or have you got a tip for recovering your equanimity without offending people. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

Read Harder 2016

If any of you readers are up for more of a challenge, here are some excellent ways to expand your reading habits. It’s not always good to stick to the same kind of book, that’s why book groups are such an excellent idea. They force you to read different genres and styles.

Books Can Save A Life

Have you heard about Bookriot’sRead HarderChallenge?

I thought it would be interesting to see which books I’ve read in these categories, since Ann Patchett just wrote about her own progress in making her way through the list.

I’d love to hear what you’ve been reading, too, so let us know in the comments. Book suggestions are appreciated and welcome, especially for those categories I’ve left blank.

commonwealthBy the way, Ann just released her new novel, Commonwealth. Many of you know she’s one of my favorite novelists, so I’ll be sure to get my hands on it as soon as I can.

True story, when Ann was a girl, one morning she woke up to find kids she didn’t know in the kitchen. Turned out, her mother had gotten remarried, and these were her new half siblings.

Ann has translated some of that strange family experience into a novel…

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Who can you trust to recommend a good book?

I’m an avid reader and I’m always keen to talk about books and swap recommendations. After you’ve read a few books that someone recommends, you get a pretty good idea of whether or not you have the same tastes. It can be quite tricky when a friend tells you that a certain book is fabulous and you hate it.

In my book group we don’t always agree on the books we read, and we certainly have different tastes, but since we’ve been meeting for about 20 years we have a very good understanding of the sort of books that each member enjoys reading. One of my friends is a huge fan of Louise Penny and Nordic noir, and another really likes historical fiction and British murder mysteries. We often recommend books to one another, rather than suggesting that the whole group read them.

I tend to like books that move along quickly, but are well written. I often read contemporary fiction, for example Paula Hawkins’ book The Girl on the Trainbut to be honest these type of books don’t really stay with me after I’ve read them and I often can’t really remember the plot line or what happened in the end. I don’t particularly like books with long descriptive passages and I tend to like books with likable (but flawed) characters. I like books that make me feel and think.

I was overjoyed when I discovered the podcast What Should I Read Next? Each week the host (Anne Bogel) talks to a different guest about what books they like (and dislike) and then recommends what they should read next. If your reading tastes align with the guest, then its worthwhile tracking down their recommendations and giving these a whirl.

On top of this Anne Bogel has an online book group and every year she releases a list of recommended reading for summer. She also releases a list of her top five books and I’ve come to really trust her judgement. One book that she recommended during the year was The Mothers by Brit Bennett. I really enjoyed this book which is set in a contemporary black community in Southern California. Brit is currently in Sydney appearing at the Sydney Writer’s Festival which is on this week, so I’ll be looking out for a chance to hear her interviewed around the town.

I’m planning to read all of her top five books over the next six months. I’m already reading The Dry, by Jane Harper and I’m looking forward to reading the next one on the list. If you borrow most of your books from the local library, you might like to work your way through last year’s shortlist as these are likely to have hit the shelves of you library.

So do let me know if you have read any good books lately. I’m always keen to swap ideas.

Designing for humans

I’ve just finished a course in human centred design which was really interesting. If you’ve never heard of this before, it involves designing solutions to problems in an entirely new way, or at least that’s how it’s promoted. Even if it’s not a new idea, it’s a very different approach to the one we normally use in most organisations. The course was designed by IDEO who are a global design company with a strong interest in creating social change through design.

The normal process

What we usually do is identify a problem that we think needs fixing and then go about fixing it in the best way we know how. We rarely think about whether the solution meets the needs of the target group or the end user. Our solutions seem to be more about meeting our organisational needs, rather than meeting the needs of customers. We often design quite complex and expensive solutions that may or may not work for a variety of reasons. Sometimes we develop solutions that are so expensive that even when it becomes apparent that they don’t work very well, we have to keep on rolling out the program because it cost a lot of money to put it into action and as a result, it’s virtually unstoppable. We may make minor adjustments along the way, but we tend to work on the principle of “you’ve made your bed now lie in it”. We have to see it through to the bitter end even if it’s clearly not working.

The new approach – develop empathy

Human centred design is different because the needs of the people impacted by the problem are considered at every step of the design process. This means walking in the shoes of other people and finding out what the real problem is. This might involve watching people go about their daily lives and noting what they do, or talking to people about their lives, or standing in the queue or waiting on the telephone speak to a real person. It’s about gaining a very real appreciation of what it’s really like to be in the shoes of a customer or a client. Human centred design considers what people experience as well as how they experience it.

Define the problem

Once you’ve spent time really considering the problem from the point of view of the people experiencing the problem, then its time to define the real issue so that you can come up with an innovative solution. This may not sound like a particularly new approach, but in my experience we do jump to solutions rather quickly.

Ideate

The next step in the process involves having millions of ideas. Well maybe not millions, but lots of ideas without worrying too much about whether they are good ideas, or if they are feasible or too expensive. People often don’t voice their ideas because they make judgements about whether they are sensible or realistic before they even leave their mouths. Many good ideas are lost this way.

Prototype

My favourite stage was developing cheap and cheerful prototypes of solutions. A prototype is nothing more than a mock-up of your solution. You can make a prototype with cardboard and test it to see if the idea will work, and best of all, it’s super cheap. We had an idea about developing an app to help people communicate more effectively with customers who don’t speak or understand English very well and when we tested our prototype with potential users, it was fine to just use a simple drawing of what we had in mind.

Iterate

When we tested the idea we found that it was full of holes and needed a lot of refinement, but gosh it was cheap! It was just drawn on butchers paper so it was really easy to make a new version and test that with a different group of users. So much better than rolling out a whole program that didn’t quite work. The mantra of human centred design is to fail as early as possible. Failure is excellent because it helps you to improve quickly. The more you test and refine your ideas, the better. It’s so much better than refining your ideas almost to the point of perfection before you test it. You really can’t tell if something is going to work until you test it. You need to adopt an attitude that embraces failure. There’s a famous quote from Edison who said “I haven’t failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”.

Implement

Although we didn’t intend to take our idea to market, the implementation phase of the course involved developing a “pitch” for our idea. This was extraordinarily difficult as it meant getting down to the nitty gritty of what the real problem was and how we thought that our solution would solve the problem. Writing a pitch for any idea that you have is a really worthwhile activity. I recommend it. It can really help you clarify what the main issues are.

And finally…

I did this course with three of my workmates and working collaboratively with them was awesome. We were all different and able to bring together a range of ideas and viewpoints. If you are going to embark on a human centred design project or you are interested in doing the course (which is free) I highly recommend getting together with a diverse group of people. It really works much better when you don’t all think the same way.

Finding work you love

In a recent post I talked about contemplating my future and a few people have asked me what the outcome was. Did I get the job I was after or otherwise find a way to reinvent myself?

It’s really gratifying that people care enough to ask, however the answer is no on both counts. I didn’t get chosen for the new role I was after, and I haven’t quite gotten around to reinventing myself, but I have begun to think that I’m pretty fortunate to have a choice about what I do for work.

It’s occurred to me that expecting to do something you love when you’re at work is a very middle class preoccupation. It’s very strange that we think that work should be fulfilling when in some countries it’s enough to come home from work safe and unharmed. So many people work are forced to do jobs that are physically dangerous, or so stressful that they live in a state of constant fear. I’m thinking about people who work in hot or cold environments and people who are bullied on a daily basis.

Then there are people who have to stack shelves or work on production lines; not to mention people who have to put up with angry or disgruntled customers. How appalling to have to face that every day. By contrast, my job is heaven.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s foolish to think about doing meaningful work, after all most people would like to live a meaningful life. I was not really surprised to find that a short course run by the School of Life called ‘finding work you love’ is fully booked, so clearly I’m not the only person pondering this. This video from the Book of Life also confirms that many people are interested in doing something worthwhile and interesting with their lives.

Options and advice

Given those caveats, I do enjoy reading books about finding out what you were ‘born to do’. One piece of advice is to write down everything you’ve ever enjoyed doing and then see if you can think of a way to make a living out of one or more of those activities. In my case those activities would be reading, writing, cooking, eating, talking and watching movies. Clearly, there are some opportunities here if I was willing to consider cooking on a large scale, becoming a movie critic, or writing that elusive book. Actually, there’s nothing stopping me from doing any of those things. Oh  and I forgot swimming, but I can’t quite see myself as an Olympic swimmer. It’s a tiny bit late for that.

Another piece of advice I quite like is to work out what sort of things you like doing (and with whom) and try to incorporate that into the job you already have. I’ve been doing this lately in my job and it’s working quite well. I like working with like-minded people so I’ve been putting up my hand to work on projects that interest me with people I like.

The best advice I’ve read is to keep your day job and be open to new opportunities and trying new things. It’s a good idea to spend more time doing the activities you really like doing and less time doing things that don’t bring you any joy.

Working out what you enjoy doing is easy. They’re the things that you do without resentment and you choose to do first. They’re the projects that you start doing and lose track of time. They’re the projects that you take the time to polish and get just right. They’re the things that make you feel strangely proud when you’ve finished. Where you know that you put in the extra effort but it doesn’t matter if anyone else knows or cares.

These are the things that you should spend more time doing. Pretty simple really.

 

Getting cosy

img_0606I’ve recently come across the Danish concept of hygge. In English it roughly translates as ‘getting cosy’ or more accurately the art of being convivial and relaxed. The Danes claim to have invented hygge (pronounced hoo-gah or maybe hue-gah) and it’s currently a very trendy thing.  There are nine new books available on the topic in the bookstores for Christmas.

Many of the books on how to do hyyge involve scented candles, open fires, chocolate, red wine and cake (all of which sound great to me) but on a more serious level, getting cosy is more about being kind and comforting to oneself. So whilst hygge is the trendy new thing and will result in many candles being purchased this Christmas, I must admit that I’m more than attracted to the idea of self care.

Self care is about being nice to yourself. Why wouldn’t you? It seems strange that we need to be reminded, but perhaps we do.

One of the nine books has been written by Charlotte Abrahams (definitely not a Dane) who writes…

“Hygge is about taking pleasure in the small things in life: having a cup of coffee; walking in the sunshine or spending time with loved ones. Hygge is about enjoying the moment and feeling content in that moment.”

It sounds very much like a rebranding of mindfulness, but it doesn’t sound like a bad idea.

Abrahams writes that hygge appeals to her because it’s not about denial, it’s about being generous with yourself as well as others. Of course being generous doesn’t mean overdoing the wine, the chocolate, or the cake, but it does mean treating yourself to a walk before work, or spending time with family and friends and generally easing up on yourself.

Hygge makes people nicer and happier. It’s about paying attention to what makes us feel open and alive and I can’t see how this could be a bad thing.

Here’s some more ideas on how to be more Danish.

It’s not about the money

After a long and difficult year I seem to have entered a deeply philosophical phase where I spend a great deal of time contemplating the circles of life, and of course, death.

I’ve just reached the place where I could find the strength to read ‘When breath becomes air”  – the story of Paul Kalanithi, a brilliant neurosurgeon whose life and career are ended prematurely by lung cancer in a cruel and wicked turn of fate.

It’s a disturbing read not only because it’s sad, but also because it makes you question why you are here, whether you’ve lived a good and meaningful life, and what you should do next, if you are lucky enough to be able to contemplate ‘next’.

In my case I’ve arrived at another turning point in my career, although in reality, that sounds too grand. It’s more like arriving at a bus station really. Just another decision point in a career that has changed direction many times but has ultimately been interesting and rewarding. I’ve been lucky to work with some very inspiring people over the years and I think I’ve made some useful contributions to various projects.

Now it’s time to contemplate a new direction. One which challenges and interests me, but doesn’t consume all of my energy and attention and doesn’t keep me awake at night worrying about what I should be doing to ensure that everyone in my team is feeling valued and engaged.

Ultimately the next step isn’t up to me, it’s up to the decision makers. People with the power to pick and choose who they want and what skills and experience they value. All I know is that for me, career choices are not about the money. They’re about what kind of contribution you can make and what you bring to the role. I like to think that I can spend the next few years doing something useful, but if I don’t get chosen for this particular role, then I’ll just create my own future.

Life is, after all, about choices. We can choose who we want to be, where we want to live, and what we want to spend time on.

when breath becomes air

Writing well

I’m currently managing a real live communications team. It’s been a great experience to work with people who care about communicating and in particular, care about writing.

For many people, writing well is not important. Most people don’t view the ability to write well as critical to their career path. They regard writing as something that everyone can do. If you can speak, you can write – right? I don’t think this is true. Good writing is required in every profession.

I come across some very poor writing every day and sometimes my own writing is less than perfect, especially if I’m tired or stressed or in a hurry. Sometimes it can be difficult to find the right words and put them in the right order. I would never claim that writing is easy, but I am grateful that for me, writing isn’t scary. I know this isn’t true for other people. For them the blank page can be terrifying and being asked to write a report can be overwhelming.

One piece of advice that I always give people is that you should write with the expectation that you will need to revise. Don’t ever expect that your first draft will be perfect. Good writers are good editors. They change, polish and review their work. They know that getting the words down on the page is the hard part, editing and revising is easy once you’ve made a start.

Another tip is to stop thinking that your ideas have to be fully formed before you put them down on paper. Writing is a process of thinking and learning and you don’t need to know exactly what you are trying to say when you write your first draft. You can be ruthless later. And make sure you are, because no-one wants to read your waffle.

The saddest part about managing a team of good writers is that their skills aren’t necessarily recognised by other people in the business. We are frequently asked to publish material that is poorly written or confusing. It’s very frustrating to go back to clients with an offer to improve what they’ve written and be told that they don’t want it changed. They think that we merely want things to be shorter, when we really want them to be clearer.

Good writing isn’t necessarily simple (or simplistic). Good writing is concise, lucid, nuanced and compelling.

 

A fresh start

There have been a lot of changes at my workplace recently. We’re having a re-structure and this means that people are being moved into new reporting lines. This can have a profound impact on their sense of wellbeing.

It’s funny how reporting to a new boss can make people feel insecure even though their livelihood isn’t necessarily at risk. They still come to work every day, they still get paid, and they might even be doing the same work, but nevertheless they feel threatened. It’s that loss of the familiar that rocks people even though they might have been complaining bitterly about their situation. The old boss understand their quirks and foibles. They don’t have to explain their complicated family arrangements or the fact that they are more productive in the morning than in the afternoon. Communication styles are established across the team and everyone knows that certain people like to receive their instructions by email, rather than in person. They know that some people are best avoided until they’ve consumed at least one cup of coffee.

It’s true that people don’t like change. I don’t like change even though I pretend that I do. Change requires more concentration and makes me feel less secure about what I’m doing. I have to think more, and that’s tiring.

The upside is that I have the chance to start over and re-invent myself. If I’ve been in a bit of a slump it’s a chance to pull up my socks and show the world what I’m capable of. It’s a fresh start for me and for everyone in my team. We all get the chance to do things a little bit differently and a little bit better, and that’s a good thing.

What is lorem ipsum?

Lorem IpsumLorem ipsum is dummy text that is used in the publishing and graphic design industry to show where the text is going to be placed in a document, advertisement, or web page. It’s used to give people a feel for the layout of a page when the actual words (also called body copy) have yet to be written.

Lorem ipsum has been used since the invention of publishing in about 1500 and as you can imagine it both looks and sounds like genuine Latin. Contrary to popular opinion, lorem ipsum is not actually meaningless babble, but is a mixture of Latin words taken from a passage by Cicero (according to Richard Mc Clintock, a Latin professor from the University of Virginia).

Where do you get it?

The best place to get dummy text is from a dummy text generator. My favourite is Blind Text Generator. Not only does it generate lorem ipsum, it can also generate dummy text in a few other varieties such as far far away, which kind of sounds a bit like a passage from the Hobbit.

Here’s an example of far far away:

Far far away, behind the word mountains, far from the countries Vokalia and Consonantia, there live the blind texts. Separated they live in Bookmarksgrove right at the coast of the Semantics, a large language ocean.

It’s nonsense, but it’s funny.

Why is it useful?

A blind text generator is useful because you can specify the number of words or characters you need, as well as the number of paragraphs. You may not know exactly what it is you are going to say, but it can help you work out how many words you actually need. If you are constrained by space (and you often are), you can pop a few of these sentences and paragraphs into your layout and it will give you a pretty good idea of what you have room for and what will look good. By looking good, I mean you will end up with text that is big enough for your audience to read and doesn’t look squashed or uncomfortable. If someone else is writing the copy, you can let them know that you only need three or four sentences, for example.

Do you always have to go online to generate dummy text?

Some software programs have built-in text generators. In PowerPoint for example, you can generate text by typing =lorem(p,s) into a text box and pressing enter. The ‘p’ stands for the number of paragraphs and the ‘s’ is for the number of sentences you want. Here are some detailed instructions.

Try it, it’s fun.