Windows of opportunity

Windows of opportunity

Photo by Nathan Fertig on Unsplash

There’s a school of thought that says your opportunities narrow as you get older. This might be true in terms of career advancement, but I’m not so sure about that. In Lucy Kellaway’s new book Re-educated: How I changed my job, my home, my husband & my hair,* she tells the story of reaching 57 and deciding that she should make the most of what time she has left.

Her life-changing decisions weren’t the result of a cancer scare (as is often the case), or the death of a loved one, but were prompted by finding a house that she really, really loved. As a columnist for the Financial Times, she had the chance to purchase her dream house, and this was the beginning of an amazing new life. Finding the cash to buy the house involved leaving her husband, with whom she had a cordial but not especially close relationship. He had already moved into the basement of their Georgian house and they had and grown-up children.

I was fascinated by the idea of falling in love with a house and was amazed to find that you can actually see her iconic house on a design website, complete with the long orange bench top she describes in the book.

After buying The Frame House she leaves her job at the Financial Times to train as a secondary school teacher. This is a hard slog and there are many times that she wonders what on earth she has done! There’s a lot in the book about how the education system works and how hard teachers work.

The book made me feel a bit like an under-achiever although on the upside; I have a penchant for books in which people (mainly women) reinvent themselves, so I enjoyed it immensely.

It made me think about all the things in my life that I’ve put on the back-burner until I have time to do them. Time is something I have plenty of at the moment and luckily I don’t dream of becoming an astronaut, but I still have aspirations to be fitter and healthier, make really awesome sponge cakes, write a book, and maybe start a small business. All these things are possible and not very costly, so it’s not money holding me back but a lack of focus and low self-confidence, both of which I could overcome with a bit more determination and some more self-love.

One of my friends has just started learning Spanish and I know better than to ask her why. I know she is doing it because she wants to. She told me she lived in Spain many years ago and spent most of her time drinking in bars and dancing until the wee small hours. These are excellent things to do in your twenties, but now she’s in her sixties and she wants to travel around the countryside, talk to people and eat the beautiful food. Priorities change. I hope she’ll get back there one day, but even if she doesn’t, she’s enjoying coming first in her Spanish class.

So without wanting to sound like a motivational speaker, if you have some dreams in your bottom drawer, get them out and dust them off because there’s never a better time to do something interesting.

*This book is only available as an ebook. The hard copy will be published on September 21, 2021.

One thing leads to another

One thing leads to another

Many years ago I started volunteering at a local counselling service. My children were quite small and I remember some people in my family being puzzled about why I would give up my time to volunteer at a not-for-profit welfare agency.

To be honest, I mainly wanted to get out of the house, but I was also interested in learning new skills. They offered an excellent training course with some top notch professionals and it was an offer too good to refuse. On top of that I could choose how many hours I worked and days that suited me. I could also take my toddler with me and she loved playing with the toys and being the centre of attention. All the staff loved her and I thrived in that environment.

One day I saw an ad for a diploma course at the local technical college. I briefly considered enrolling in the course until I realised that since I was already three quarters of the way through a degree in sociology, I was probably qualified enough to teach on the course. I’m still not sure if I was delusional, but I went home and sent off a letter (yes a letter, it was the olden days remember) telling the head teacher that I was available to teach a class at any time! How bold of me!

I heard nothing for six months. Then the head of studies rang and asked me if I could teach a class in social theory starting on the next Tuesday.

Could I? Not sure really, but I said I could. I was probably wildly over-confident and my first lessons were less than fantastic.

That was the start of my teaching career which lasted for ten years. I enjoyed it immensely and when it stopped being fun I left and started a new job. I missed my colleagues who were awesome but it was time for me to explore new territory. More things to learn, more opportunities to expand my horizons.

I often wonder what path my life would have taken if I hadn’t signed up for that volunteer role. I’m pretty certain that I would have missed out on quite a few wonderful opportunities and many great friendships.

So you’re wondering if you should volunteer, just do it. It may lead to something else, or just be a way to give back to the community or meet new people. All of these are good reasons. You won’t regret it.

Learn new skills for next to nothing

English: Writer Emily Gould at the 2009 Brookl...
English: Writer Emily Gould at the 2009 Brooklyn Book Festival. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are many places to find inspiration and learn new things that are either free or very inexpensive. If you are interested in digital design, writing, illustration or crafty things, you can sign up for a three month trial at Skillshare for about $2. If you decide that you like it and can afford it, you can sign up for a monthly fee of about $10 US which seems pretty reasonable to me. You get unlimited access to all the courses for the monthly fee so if you have lots of time (which I don’t) you could entertain yourself and learn heaps for a relatively small amount of money. A pretty good deal I think. If only I had more spare time!

Because I’m interested in writing, I’ve enrolled in course about writing personal essays that I’m really enjoying. The classes consist of a series of short videos which are nicely presented and not too didactic. In other words, I don’t feel like I’m back at school. The course leader is Emily Gould and she just sort of chats about different ways to approach writing personal essays, but she also gives some good concrete examples which is helpful. She’s pretty famous apparently but I haven’t been able to track down a copy of her book of personal essays in my local library as yet. I know that I’m a cheapskate, but they do have a copy of her latest book on order which is called Friendship, so I’m looking forward to reading that when it comes in. I’ll let you know what I think when I’ve finished it. Apart from discussing her own approach, she also recommends other writers and in particular another essay called ‘the last photograph of cat‘ which I have every intention of reading, except that it sounds incredibly sad. I’ve got that one on hold for now but I’m hoping to be brave enough to read it soon. Perhaps you could read it for me and let me know what you think? In the meantime I had better start writing my own personal essay and stop putting it off.

What’s on your bucket list?

I have been invited to speak at a local forum about the impact of technology on society. I am very excited about this because speaking at a conference has been on my bucket list for quite some time. I was asked to speak at a social media conference earlier this year and I demurred, not because I was afraid (alright, I was a little bit afraid) but mainly because I didn’t feel that my organisation had evolved to the point where I would be able to talk about our success.

The invitation to speak at a local forum came about through one of my dear friends who is very active in the community and to be honest, I was thrilled to be asked to speak. When we discussed what I would talk about, I was surprised to find that she expected me to talk about the negative effects of technology on social relationships, literacy and the mental health. I am only too aware that being over-connected to a screen can interrupt relationships and lead to social isolation, but equally, technology can let you connect with your children, your grandchildren and people who share your interests. It can be a wonderful or terrible thing, depending how you approach it.

So I’m about to do something a little bit scary and I wondered what was on your bucket list? Is there something you would really like to do and just need a little push? It would be lovely if you wanted to share your thoughts.

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Learning by doing

I received an email from a chap who wanted to let me know that I had made quite a few typographic errors on this site, especially in my post on being creative . He said that the text ran awkwardly into the photo caption and he was right, it did look ugly. I’ve fixed it now, but in future I’ll be a lot more careful to check how the blog entries look on different browsers.

He made it pretty clear that I should not be giving people advice about graphic design when my blog contains so many obvious errors. As you can imagine I was a bit flattened by this and it took me a couple of days and some kind words from my husband before I cheered up again.

It did make me have a long hard look at what I am trying to do on this blog, so I thought I would share some of my thoughts with you…

As I have mentioned before, I started this blog primarily to practise my writing. It can be hard to find something to write about, so I decided to write about things that I’m interested in, these being design, visual communication and writing. I come from a family of grammar pedants and general nitpickers, so I really can’t help being interested in these things. Travel along a highway with any member of my family and you will hear a running commentary on why the roadside signs are unclear or confusing and how they could be improved.

So although I was criticised for being a student giving graphic design advice, I actually write about a whole range of topics and don’t consider myself an expert in the area of graphic design.

Graphic design is only one aspect of clear communication and is no more or less important than knowing what it is that you want to say, and being able to express that as clearly as possible. 

It’s true that I am enrolled in a graphic design course, but this is merely out of interest and not because I have any aspirations to become a graphic designer. I simply don’t have the talent. This doesn’t bother me.

Learning about graphic design helps me do my job better, as does reading about how we absorb information and make sense of the world.

I am very much a learner sharing my learning journey with the world. I’m a staunch advocate of learning by doing, so this naturally means that I’ll be making plenty of mistakes along the way.

I also love to teach and this means that I want to share ideas, insights and information with people like you. My hope is that you will find the content useful and interesting (at least some of the time).

I appreciate that publishing my ideas and opinions leaves me open to criticism and that’s okay. Receiving feedback is just part of the learning process and I really do welcome any comments or questions you have, good or bad.

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Learning from your mistakes

Yesterday I reblogged an article from a content strategist about how setting your goals too high can lead you to feeling a bit like an under achiever. I think that we all put ourselves under a lot of pressure to be really on our game all the time, to be successful and wonderful and pretty much perfect most of the time. I thought this was an interesting article and that it would be a good thing to share with you all, but I hadn’t looked at the video clip that was embedded in the item. To be honest, I had tried to, but the clip wouldn’t play on my iPad. (What’s that all about???)
Anyway, I had a look at the clip today and was horrified to find it contained the most appalling language. I’m truly sorry if anyone was offended and I’ve removed the post now.
A good lesson learnt on my part though. It won’t happen again.

Moving on

Lots of people say that learning from your mistakes is the best way to learn and I guess this is true, but it’s painful. I wondered if you had any advice about how to recover from those embarassing moments? You know the ones I’m talking about… You’re up on the podium and you completely forget what you are talking about. You’re in a meeting and you’ve been daydreaming and someone asks you a question and you don’t know what on earth they are talking about. You’re due to give a presentation at another location and you go to the wrong place. Need I go on? I’m sure you have your own examples. Any tips for making a fast recovery and moving on?

The truth about learning styles

Let me say straight up that I’m not a big fan of learning styles. You know, that’s where we do a little test to see if we are kinaesthetic, visual or auditory learners. I think that unless you have a disability and are limited in the use of one of your senses, then you are highly likely to learn using all of your senses. I have never met anyone who didn’t gain value from putting a set of ideas into practice (kinaesthetic learning) even if this is just by way of a scenario or a case study. It’s obviously not a good idea to practice your brain surgery skills on a real live person!

I think it’s more realistic to say that we all have preferences in the way we absorb information and this relates more to quantity and timing, rather than to learning styles. Some people really like lots of detail early on in the piece and other people (like me) much prefer to get an understanding of the big picture before they get into the nitty gritty details. I like to see the long term prospects of an idea and find details boring if they are provided to early in the piece. Other people like to know the ‘how, why and where’ right up front and can find it frustrating when people like me talk in broad generalities about why something is a good idea.

Not only can these two types of people drive one another crazy, it can lead to differences in opinion about the level of detail required in a document or a presentation. Have you ever written something lovely and detailed, only to have it come back with a request to cut half of the content? One of the main reasons that people put too much information on their slides is that they are ‘detail people’ and they think that everyone else wants to know every little detail about the project/plan/product. This doesn’t mean that big picture people are shallow or that detail people are pernickety fuss pots. It just means that we have to strike a balance without cluttering up the slides or ending up with a 40 page document when a 10 page document will do the job.

How can you work around this?

As a whole picture person, I am inclined to develop minimalist slides covering broad concepts. I have to constantly remind myself that some people like details but I really hate cluttering up my slides with text. On the flip side I know that everyone benefits from examples, so what I try to do is support my claim with evidence. This is known in presentation world as the ‘assertion- evidence’ method.

It works like this:

1. Make your claim in a clear simple statement. This can be in a complete sentence, for example “people are more likely to live longer if they get adequate amounts of sleep”.

2. You can support this claim in a number of ways. You don’t have to use statistics, although this is definitely one way of doing it. Other types of support can be images, anecdotes, charts and info-graphics. Remember that supporting the emotion behind an idea can help people absorb the message, so this counts as a type of support even though it’s not really evidence in the traditional sense.

Here’s an example of using an image to support an idea.

Assertion evidence method

Another suggestion is to let your audience know where they can find additional information. This includes providing links to websites, research reports and other supporting documents. Some people like to know the details and you have to satisfy their needs. What you shouldn’t do is clutter up your document or presentation with extraneous information. Remember simple is smart, you can do it!