Archive | February 2014

Shrinking World

My world is shrinking. On oh so many levels.

Let’s take the fact that online news is micro-targeted.Whatever I klicked on in the past will be determining the future news feeds I will receive. Gone are the days where I searched through newspapers, reading all headlines, and browsing my local bookstore. I do not have time for that. So I think.

Like many others I am relying on online news feeds to provide me with updates. Yes, I have a Facebook account. Yes, I have other blog sites where I am finding my daily reads. Yes, I buy books at Amazon. So, I am confronted often with recommendations based on my previously selected material. Essentially, leading my knowledge building scope limited to what I am already intrigued by or interested in.

Learning something new thus requires me to purposefully get out of my way. It requires me to talk to the people around me. It requires me to actively seek out the unknown. It requires me to actively be aware of my comfort zone and work every day to move out of it just for a little bit to learn something a little different. To broaden my horizon. To avoid getting too comfortable with myself and my opinion.

Because as soon as opinion settles in and you get too comfortable with it, it will become a dogma. Something not easily overcome. If you read just to reconfirm an opinion you already have, you will not learn how to build new knowledge. You will not challenge yourself to rethink situations. You may even repeat mistakes.

My world is shrinking in other means, too. 

When I was young. I was a dedicated gymnast. And I brought gymnastics into every small aspect of my life. I would walk on my hands down the driveway when I got home after school. Or I would walk on my hands down the 3m diving board to do a head jump in. This usually got me a lot of recognition from my peers. I could climb trees reasonably fast, and often was the first one trying new climbing tricks on how to get from one tree to the other.  I was a little daring, a risk taker, and I usually was not too afraid.  

When I turned 17, I noticed that I no longer dared to walk on my hands on the diving board. The fear of what could happen kept me on my feet.

There was this one embarrassing moment when I just had turned 17 and my swim teacher asked: “Who can do a dive from the 3m board?” And of course I raised my hand. Climbed up the ladder… walked to the edge of the board and slowly climbed back down.

Last week I was on vacation.

Skiing.

Mind you I am not an avid skiier. This was just the second time in my life I ever even tried. I grew up poor, did not have any mountains near by, and just never could afford or find the time to ski. So, a few years ago the opportunity came up, and I skied.

Last week, I did not dare to go on the lift by myself, because I could not remember what to do to get off. This was not a particularly easy lift, but nevertheless, for someone who dared to jump from one tree to the other without preparation when she was 12 a small panic attack because of a “ski lift unknown” is pretty embarrassing.

My world and experience level is shrinking because of fear of height and speed. I am overthinking potential issues and accidents and I am holding myself back because of it. People fall victim to their own comfortableness all the time. They get too comfortable with who they are, what they think, what they know and how they do things. They forget to learn something new or to challenge themselves.  They forget to progress.

This made me realize one thing: I for sure do not want to stagnate and get comfortable. I want to be challenged and challenge myself.

From now on I will actively pursue the unknown and dare myself to do something I do not find comfortable or easy. I will challenge myself to something new as often as I can.

I refuse to let the world and opportunities shrink.

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Life of a Contrarian

There are not a lot of people out there who are willing to take risks. They are sitting quietly in their backoffice and are waiting for the cool opportunity to stop by. They are waiting to be noticed and change to happen to them.

I myself believed for the longest time that doing a good job and being intelligent enought to master skills is all you need to succeed. But like many things in this world success is not easily defined and often the perception on what success is depends on the person seeking it.

I for myself have definitions of success that vary depending on the job.

  1. There is the success that happens when you actually finish a project. The feeling of pride when you go from concept to finished product is amazing. You spend hours on it, developing ideas, removing roadblocks, concquering plans and timelines, and finally after a lot of reconcilation, alignment and presentation, the product is launched. And it works…
  2. There is the other success that happens when people recognize what you have done. Either the appreciative nod “Good Job!” or monetary incentive or even a promotion. This is a success that can be easily valued as the value comes with the reward.
  3. And then the third one: finding success when you actually changed something. A behavior, a perception, a means of operation. I love this success the most as it is the hardest to come by. True change comes from being able to take risks, to be courageous, and to be candid. It requires you to temporarily sacrifice popularity in order to change something for the better long term.

I used to rely heavily on the first two success areas. Being able to demonstrate my intelligence through successful product development and being recognized for that was all I truly cared about. Over the last two years this has changed drastically. I noticed that my duty is not so much in going with the flow and doing a good job in what I was assigned to do. But to make a difference and initiate change that will lead to a more sustainable and improved environment. Be it at work or at home. What is inefficient or unfair here? Why is it this way? Who said it cannot change?

Often we are trapped in our own self created myths and perceptions of what is truth. Personal or societal dogmas that noone challenges. Why does noone challenge these? Generally, the answer is not easy. There might be the fact that challenging the perceived norm leads to punishment as it is so often the case with opposing religious view points. Or there is the idea that the dogma is indeed a rule that must be followed as it is based on the undeniable fact that this has always been done this way. Or we just have heard the theme so much that we actually do not question it or even reconsider the time and context of when the rule was created.  Unknowingly ignoring the fact that time and context indeed might have changed making this rule void and unimportant.

Examples are so easy to find. I am just thinking of the fact that in school I was taught that distilled water if drunk would kill you. Or I was taught that Pluto is a planet. Facts that are no longer valid. There are also other myths that have long been revoked: We know the Earth is not flat. We know that women can be good leaders. And we might know that high cholesterol is not causing heart disease. I by now know that the historical context of marriage has not been about love. All facts that have changed due to new scientific or historical evidence.

Success to me these days means to be able to spot these dogmas and work towards solving them. Making sure that an organization learns from past mistakes, learns to adapt to a new context, generally remains flexible to demands, and ensures that business practices are leading to a sustained business success.

Often this requires me to speak out and point out corporate myths. Many times I have to take a deep breath in meetings and carefully ask the why question: why do you think we need to do the same thing  we have always done? What would be needed to change? What are the key enablers?

My own personal pet peeve is when people tell my why “this or that” cannot work. And I always have to pause, refocus, and say: “I understand, but could you tell me what would make it work?”

Here is the one thing I learned during my time of being a contrarian. It is about putting a posivite spin on negative remarks. Approaching all desired projects and topics with a “Can do!” and “What does it take?” instead of trying to argue the reasons and issues why it cannot.

Arguing negative feedback leads to nothing. It is a perception, a feeling, and often based on historical experience and evidence. Arguing against evidence will only lead to failure. In order to change you have to accept those as given, and need to spin the opponents point of view from negative to opportunistic. Here is what the change will do for you and it will be great !

And then you have initiated yourself as a leader someone that can manage change by creating opportunities for yourself and partnering with others. While you can point out dogmas by yourself, you need others to succeed in eliminating those.

Alignment

Alignment — How much I hate this word as it now haunts me during my daily work life on an hourly basis.

What does it mean?

Well, generally it means that everyone understand and follows the same goal to achieve the same purpose. A good thing, mind you.

In my job this word has become my personal objective and my performance measure. My performance measurement. If people, teams, or functions are not aligned, I cannot develop and roll out processes. Instant launch failure.

I am in process development. I am leading a central group to develop Finance processes in a pretty large organization. And this job is fun. I love it. I have challenges, am always fairly busy, get visibility and recognition. And the best of it: I get to initiate change and make a difference in one significant global company. A great job.

If it was not about those people I would be trying to align.

“I was not involved in the initial decision.”

“I have not been involved in the roll out.”

“I have not been trained.”

“This will never work. I tried it before.”

“Why do we need to change again?”

Keeping a large organization moving in the same direction is a busy job. It is a 24h job considering that all people are located all over the world. I have regular meetings with Australia, China, Brazil, and Germany.

There is no secret to making process development work. It is simply very hard work. You need to seek feedback, you need to align, you need to ensure that everyone you work with can and will utilize the processes you develop. There is nothing more frustrating than the best process work failing at point of deployment. And it happens so often.

Essentially, a good process developer has to forget about her ego and just let things roll. You have to be aware that your daily job is 80% alignment work and 20% actually developing something new. It means a lot of repetition and a lot of questions to be answered. Sometimes the same questions over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over… you get the point.

Process development is not about developing your own intelligence and it is not about showing your smartness. It is about developing something that people want to use. And it is independent from whether they asked for the change or if you just introduced something different. People need to use the tools you develop and they will only do so voluntarily if it is beneficial to them. Sometimes you can achieve temporary top down alignment: You do this or your performance review is not favorable. But if this is your only means of alignment, you eventually will end up with a bunch of horribly demotivated employees and business partners.

Process development is about being a great business partner and a good service organization. It is about aligning on strategy and driving the organization forward. I love this job.

 If it was not for the people I am trying to align my job would be meaningless. Change is hard. Change is difficult. And not always is the final solution my choice. I am sometimes sufficiently happy if the final solution is at least based on my recommendation. 

And the only thing that sometimes keeps me working through the day is the fact that I have the opportunity to really make a difference and that at the end of the day there is a glass of wine waiting for me. Just for me. And I need to align with noone to drink it or not. 😉

My choice.

Now that my Role Models are Gone

My role models all died within the last few years. This might be the destiny of someone turning 40 fairly soon… To realize that life is not forever and that everyone is faced with the unavoidable consequence: death. Since I was very young I always dreamed about becoming famous or leaving footprints for the people after me to see.  I wanted to make a difference in this world, to help others, to invent something great, or just say something extremely clever. I wanted to be quoted and recited. I always wanted to be a writer. But I never really had the courage to do just that. I hid behind good grades in school and college, I hid behind the busy-ness of a job, and I hid behind myself and the other things I was doing. And then I had this excuse when I moved from Germany to the US of losing my language and … “no way will I be able to write in English”.

Now that my role models are gone, I feel it is time to actually act. It is time to become someone else’s role model and not just a person that was too scared to follow a dream.

I love Doris Lessing’s writing about Africa. Her childhood stories and her descriptions of home. She had an inexplicit ability to descibe home as a place that is not tied to a location, but to a feeling. Home needs to say “welcome” every time you get there. When Doris Lessing died last fall, it was the first time I actually accepted that my home is no longer Radbruch in Germany, but that my new home is where I live now. I looked upon the last ten years of my life and realized that I have a great job, good friends, and a family here. I am not on a temporary assignment or in a limbo position. I am home.

I always admired Nelson Mandela. Maybe I feel so close to his calling because I lived in South Africa, maybe I just heard so many positive things about him when I grew up. I admired his courage to do what was right for South Africa. I admired that he never compromised his ideals and values, and that he stood up against opponents utilizing intellect and wit. When he died last fall I felt it was my time to be couragous. There was more to improve in this world. Opportunities to help and progress and to design the living space in accordance with your ideals. That there is always an opportunity to speak up and take a stand. I will take a stand.

Lou Reed wrote one of my favorite songs “Small Town”. It is the perfect description of my childhood and how I always felt like I needed to leave. When he died last fall, I recalled myself the last time I was brushing teeth next to my brother in my parent’s bathroom. The last day of highschool and me moving to a different town that fall. Jefferson Starship was playing “We Built This City” and Kai and I were somewhat dancing in front of the sinks. Lou Reed was able to get the feeling into this un-song “Small Town” perfectly. And all I was thinking that morning was “I am gettig out of here”. And that is a promise to myself: never be too scared to leave things behind.

December 15th, 2011 was a very sad day in my life. I drank three glasses of wine that night when Christopher Hitchens died. I discovered him two years earlier when I read the book “God… is not great”. And I was so impressed with his writing style, the words he used, the intellect, and general way he structured his thoughts. Since then I read a lot more books and articles he wrote. And I watched him appear on shows and my admiration has increased ever since. He taught me that dogmas are dangerous and that we need think in every situation. There is just no excuse not to think. He taught me that every truth we assume we know should force us to pause and re-think. After all it is those long standing truths that hold us back in innovation and progress.  He also taught me that it is ok to come to different conclusions than others, he taught me that it is absolutely a duty and a responsibility in a sociecty to be a contrarian when necessary. I learned that going with the flow is not a virtue. He essentially made me believe in intelligence and intellect again. And that I truly need to use mine in this world.

I do not agree with Christopher Hitchens on everything (he was not a feminist), but that is ok. I am my own person after all. And he put it pretty well: it is not about what we think, but how we think.

Now that my role models are gone I am somewhat on my own. I might find new ones. I might not. The key is that the lessons learned will remain with me. And that I finally have to actively pursue my goals.

Sultans of Swing

Memory is a funny thing. It is your gateway to your past, you can use it to unlock history and past emotions, you can use it as a database, and as a conversation starter. Everyone has a memory and everyone relies on one.

And then it comes as a surprise when you look at the hidden inconvenient truth behind what we call memory:  The memory in itself is completely unreliable. Just test it with your friends, ask them what they remember from a certain day or event. It is sometimes amazing how little overlap there is between the recited stories. A misaligned memory usually causes disputes and accusations, fights and disappointments. However you turn it, memories are only good for the person they belong to. Others could not care less.

When I was a young kid I used to believe that knowledge increases with age. That there was a clean correlation between what you learned and what truth you owned. It was all gradual after all. You see, hear, learn, store, and would eventually end up with a perfect database of knowledge in your head.

This how I approached the world.

This is how I assumed the world worked until I learned otherwise.

I learned that I was somewhat different.

I recall my class schedule since second grade. Know phone numbers and birthdays, and know probably every single report card I have ever gotten. Plus the grades of all my friends. Whether they were in my class or not.

I used to get frustrated when I was able to remember entire conversations, and yet noone else did. I used to be the kid that got insanely frustrated with peers and teachers often thinking and sometimes screaming:”But this is not what happened !”

And people responded: “How do you know? Maybe you forgot? Maybe you do not recall correctly?”

And I got angry. Because I recalled, and I recalled correctly.

I sometimes felt like a broken tape recorder; able to record, but not to replay: A perfect conversations in my head. And noone was able to hear the recording. Stories others told only remotely retold what I had witnessed.

So I had to learn how to cope with my memory like it was a disability. Pretending I remember vaguely when in fact I could recite entire conversations, including the date, time and place the conversation happened plus what music was playing in the background.

Sometimes I fooled myself. Thinking I was just like the others. That my memory was imperfect and more a product of my desire of things I wanted to have happened.

Other times I felt gifted. Who else could get perfect scores in tests without studying as I remembered entire class lectures on topics? I got through highschool without ever really opening a text book before a test. I was also the child who would read all her textbooks during the summer vacation before school started and instantly had no reading homework for the rest of the year left.

A few times my memory tried to be funny: I remember one test where I knew exactly what page and what paragrapth the answer was to be found. But for the life of me I could not remember what was written there. I did not get any points for the answer and felt bad.

Now that I am older I learned to cope. I learned that most people do not like to be confronted with someone who has mental advantages. Instead of directly pointing out the holes and their gaps in their memory, I started asking questions. I let things slide. I often pretend I do not remember and need to re-read. I sometimes even humor them by letting them win the initial argument. Just to come back with firm written proof that I “had to research” after a discussion.

A memory is a weird thing. In my childhood every Sunday the local radio station played “Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits. This song has become like a warm blanket. Whenever I am insecure I can play it and immediately regain some of the curiosity and energy of my childhood getting me ready to face any challenge. This song came out in 1977 and since then it has become one of my favorite songs of all times.

I fear nothing more than to lose my memory skill. It saves me so much time and makes things so connected and accessible. Where others see a puzzle with many separate pieces, I usually see the picture of my life. Independent of all the coping when working with others, I still like seeing a big picture. A network of interconnected events and incidents. It is awesome.

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