Author Archives: Mirjam van Olst

A successful team

Do we have success backwards?

When we think about a successful person, we often think about someone who is very busy, works very long hours and often weekends. I used to think like this and I used to work all the time because I felt that’s what you’re supposed to do to have a successful career.
If we’re honest though, does living like that sound appealing? Do you want to work all the time? Unable to unwind, because you’re always checking your emails?

Last year, after reading Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Busy: How to thrive in a world of too much by Tony Crabbe, I’ve made changes to the way I work. I’ve turned all email notifications off, on all my devices, including my main laptop. If I want to see my emails I have to consciously open up Outlook. This allows me to concentrate on a task, rather than getting distracted by every incoming email.

Blocking time in my calendar allows me to deal with anything that does need urgent attention (which usually means it’s about people, not things). I’ve also put aside time to work on important projects that are not urgent, to make sure that I’m not just solving today’s crisis every day. These changes have allowed me to cut down the number of hours that I work. Yes, I do occasionally do a bit of work in the evening, or on the weekend, but it’s an exception now, rather than the rule that it used to be. At the same time, I feel like I accomplish more. And my mailbox hasn’t turned into one of these black holes that some of my colleagues seem to be dealing with. Or trying to anyway.

If people see you as a leader there’s another problem with working all the time and not responding to emails. People who work for you will mimic your behavior. They will work all the time and feel that it’s ok to not reply to emails. Because that is the example that you are setting. Even if you tell them they shouldn’t, they will do as you do, not as you say.

After reading Multipliers by Liz Wiseman the idea that working a lot of hours isn’t necessarily a good thing took even stronger root for me. Multipliers are genius makers. They bring out the intelligence in others. They get the most out of their teams and makes them feel trusted and valued. The opposite of a multiplier is a diminisher. Diminishers, who almost always mean well, get less than half of the intelligence and energy out of their teams. They leave their teams underutilized.

Diminishers feel that intelligence is scarce and fixed and that they if they want something to get done, they have to get personally involved. With a mindset like that, you can understand why someone might be very busy.
Multipliers look for what people are naturally good at (their native genius) and try to stretch and grow those skills even further. They create space for others and allow them to fail, within a reasonably save boundary. They do however also demand that people take ownership and they won’t shy away from asking hard questions.

I’ve been trying to act as a multiplier for several months now, but I find it hard to tell how well I’m doing. The accidentally diminishing behavior that I’m most likely to exhibit is called “Pace Setter”. Being a Pace Setter means you are so on top of things, working so quickly, or focused, or at such a high quality that no one else gets a chance to step in and take responsibility. While working for a leader like that might sound ideal, it often means that other people don’t get a chance to use their skills and intelligence. If you do this for too long, they will give up, because you will take care of things anyway.

A clear sign of multiplying is delegating significant amounts of work to your team, in a way that allows them to be successful. I’m working with the best teams that I can possibly wish for and seeing people grow and be successful is the most rewarding part of my job.
The added benefit of delegating is of course that you don’t have to do all the work yourself. Thus allowing you time to work on projects that are challenging you and that allow you to grow too. And to spend your evening writing a blog post.
Today was my first day back at work after a two-week break and I was lucky enough to be part of a brilliantly led meeting that was not only a lot of fun, but that also achieved a result that I did not expect at the start.
If anyone is looking for me I’m over here trying to create more space for my team and being very proud.

A fresh perspective

The value of a fresh perspective

You know that feeling when a single word, or a seemingly insignificant event, makes all the pieces of a puzzle that you have been working on for a while fall into place?

During the annual week-before-Christmas dinner and drinks marathon, after one of the dinners, I was talking to a colleague. He commented on the “people program” that I’m working on. The light bulb that went on above my head could have lit the entire street.

I’ve been working on a dozen initiatives that are aimed at making working for our company even more fun and engaging than it already was for our existing teams. I’ve also been working on trying to communicate how much fun it is to work for us to the outside world.

Until last week I thought about this as a bunch of initiatives. But when my colleague called it “a program” everything fell into place. There was more structure around the things that I’d been working on and it became easier to communicate about it. Seeing it through the lens of a program made it look impressive even to me!

This served as a good reminder that sharing and discussing your ideas with others allows you to improve on them and it can give you new insights. Even if you are an expert on a topic, there is value in discussing your ideas and thoughts with others. Trying to explain what you are working on to someone else sometimes helps you to realize gaps or unclarities. A fresh pair of eyes can help to uncover blind spots and a bit more distance can offer a refreshing perspective.

Reading a lot of books on a topic and studying the results others have achieved will allow you to learn a lot. It can also inspire you. Putting the things you learned into practice will give you real-life experience and feedback. Based on this you can further refine your ideas.

Keeping an open mind and discussing your ideas with others will give you input from different perspectives. Small suggestions can make your plans exponentially better. Or as in my case, allow you to communicate about them in a more impactful way.

Loving my more balanced evenings and nights

About 2 months ago I wrote here that I was going to try to read more books and watch less TV in the evenings and that I hoped that change would help me to go to bed at a reasonable time a bit more often.
This experiment has been a huge success. I haven’t watched any TV during the work week since I wrote that post.

Making the change hasn’t been hard at all. Even the Criminal Minds episodes that I know are waiting to be watched aren’t enough to tempt me into turning the TV on.
I love the extra reading time that I have. The time that I spend reading feels more valuable than the time that I spend watching TV. It makes me feel like I had a fulfilling evening, which in turn makes it easier to go to bed at a semi-decent time. When I’m tired, reading will often also make me fall asleep, giving off a pretty clear signal that it might be time to go to bed.

I will continue this new routine, I’m loving it. And I continue to come across new books that I would like to read quicker than that I can read them, so there is no risk of running out anytime soon!

Since the last post I have read the following books:

  • I finished reading Hamlet and I enjoyed reading it a lot. I’m diving into more Hamlet through the DVD version by the RSC with David Tennant as Hamlet. I also got the Audiobook, because I feel there is more to discover in the story than I was able to get out of it the first time. My ultimate plan is to watch Hamlet at Shakespeare’s globe in London at some point. That will have to be when I’m in London during the spring or summertime. Otherwise, I’m afraid I will lose some limbs to the cold. Admittedly that would go nicely with the carnage on stage, but I’d prefer to leave the theatre in one piece.
  • I’m now properly hooked on the Liz Carlyle series by Stella Rimington. I’ve read the second and the third book of the series; Secret Asset and Illegal Action. Both were gripping and very enjoyable and finished in a matter of days. I’ve never realized how different it is to read about a woman written by a woman. The joy is in the little things, like thoughts that she has, or everyday challenges that she faces.
  • I’ve also been getting into a Neil Gaiman reading spree. I started by reading Coraline and Fortunately, the Milk, which are both children’s books. Coraline is a great story and again made me realize that the inside of Neil Gaiman’s head must be quite something. I’m not convinced I’d want to live there, but reading the output is very entertaining.
  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane is also from Neil Gaiman and another gripping story with fantastic characters and brave kids as the protagonists.
  • Bad science by Ben Goldacre talks about how the media manipulate health care related statistics to allow scaremongering journalists to write articles that have a long-lasting impact. In some cases even with deathly consequences.
  • Because of Tim Minchin’s insistence that Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut is his favorite book ever I reread it. I felt that if Tim thinks this is the best thing ever written I might have missed something the first time I read it. While I can see that Vonnegut’s writing is brilliant it will never be my favorite book. It’s pretty much like Lisa Cron explains in Story Genius. I want to understand what’s driving the protagonist and I don’t think Billy Pilgrim is really driven by anything. Perhaps that’s the whole point and we should just admire that idea, but it means that I’m not sucked into the story.
  • I feel the same about Andrew Sean Greer’s Less. Greer won the Pulitzer Prize for this book and the writing is beautiful. It’s an enjoyable read for that reason alone, but for me, it’s not a gripping story.
  • The final book on this list is Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. I wrote about this book in my last post as well. This was a very interesting read, with some (for me) mind-blowing ideas. I see these ideas pop up everywhere now, most notably in an essay from someone I really admire, Dutch writer Bas Heijne. I’m increasingly happy that I read it, even though it wasn’t an easy read. His next book, Homo Deus, is definitely on my reading list too.

It’s only after creating this list that I realize I’ve read a lot more than I would “normally” have read. It didn’t feel like a lot while reading, most likely because I’ve been enjoying it all.

How our collective imagination rules the world

I’m reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari at the moment. The book, that describes our extraordinary journey from insignificant apes to rulers of the world. At the same time, the book is the best antidote to insomnia (which I don’t suffer from) that I’ve ever come across. I just can’t seem to stay awake for more than ten pages at a time.

I’m about 50% through the book now and so far the most interesting part, as well as the most shocking revelation, to me has been how the most impactful and powerful concepts in the world today are fiction or myths.
Let me track back a little bit. Around 70.000 years ago, we were still hunters and gatherers we lived in small tribes. Language wasn’t very far evolved yet, and the things we had to communicate about were all physical. It was very useful to be able to tell someone they should cross the river near the big tree, or to watch out for the tiger that was looking at a member of the tribe from a little distance. Around 70.000 years ago though, the cognitive revolution started and fictive language emerged.

A group of up to around 150 people can live or work together and function through intimate relationships. When the group gets bigger though it no longer works like that. The way in which humans resolved this, was through the introduction of fiction. Our language evolved and we became capable of communicating about things that weren’t physical. It turns out that large groups of people, strangers even, can cooperate successfully if they believe in a common myth. And so the first stories about ghosts, spirits, and deities emerged.

Religions have been very important and powerful myths that have brought people together, but that have also been used to create false dichotomies and drive polarization. Religions have had a huge impact on the history of humankind. And they are still powerful today.
Religious myths aren’t the only powerful fictional constructs that we’ve invented. Present day states are common national myths. A state is not a physical thing like a tree or a river. It’s a construct that humans agreed would be valid and because of that it can exist and hold (a lot of) power.
In today’s society, we have powerful and modern institutions that are based on the tales told by business people and lawyers.

Two lawyers who have never met can work together to defend a stranger, because they believe in the same laws, in the concept of justice and in human rights. Yet all of these things, laws, justice, human rights, only exist in the stories and common imagination of human beings.
The last striking example that stayed with me is that of modern-day companies and corporations. Let’s take Apple as an example. If all iPhones and iPads that exist in the world today would disappear, Apple would still exist. If all of Apple’s offices would be wiped off the face of the earth, Apple would still exist. If everyone that works for Apple would quit today, Apple would still exist. However if a judge would order the dissolution of the company, Apple would cease to exist. Despite all the people, the offices and the devices still being there. A corporation is a figment of our collective imagination.

Like a lot of people, I was very well aware of the myths and stories about ghosts, spirits, and deities. However, I have never stopped to think that the most powerful institutions in today’s world only exist in our own collective stories too. It’s very easy to chuckle at the myths and stories of other people, but we all take our own myths seriously. So seriously that people are being killed and wars are being fought to force our stories onto others.

I’m not delusive enough to think that the people fighting to defend their stories will stop doing that. I can make sure though that I continue to examine “my” stories and that I look at other people’s stories with empathy and compassion.
It’s easy to be hard on someone else’s opinions, but a lot harder to be just as hard on your own.

A plan for nicer evenings and longer nights

I went back to work on Thursday after two and a half weeks of holiday. A week and a half into the holiday, after being inspired by the book Multipliers, by Liz Wiseman. I felt motivated to get started again. When the time came to actually put my finger out and do something though I found it a lot harder than I anticipated. Part of that feeling is that let’s face it, it’s nice to be able to do exactly what you want all day. I like my job, but I like being on holiday even better.

The other thing that frustrated me was that I felt I was wasting the spare time I did have available to me in the evenings. I wasn’t doing anything useful, I wasn’t doing anything that made me feel good and I still went to bed later than I wanted to. As this is something that should be within my span of control I tried to determine what I would like my evenings to look like.

Living alone I often turn on the tv as background noise. When it’s on, it won’t just provide noise though, it will also distract me. Even if I don’t care at all about what’s on, I will read less and go to bed later when I turn on the tv. I have decided to try and keep the tv off and spend more time reading. I tried this on Thursday evening and it worked very well. I admit that the results of one evening aren’t exactly meaningful or consistent, but I’m carefully optimistic and will continue the experiment.

The other goal is to get to bed a bit earlier. By earlier I mean that I would prefer to be in bed around midnight. I’m a night owl. I don’t like mornings and people advocating that getting up really early will make you feel better and benefit your career have clearly never tried to talk to me before 8:30 AM.

I love evenings. Even when I’ve been tired all day, I will perk up around 10 PM. This means that at 11:30 PM when my Fitbit starts buzzing to tell me that it’s time to get up and go to bed I feel like the best part of the day has only just started. I ignore the buzzing. The more tired I’ve felt during the day, the harder it is to get up and get to bed at a reasonable time. It’s a downward spiral.

As humans, we have a certain amount of discipline and restraint that we can use each day. There is more if we are well rested, but the supply is limited. So by the end of the day, I will have used most if not all of my “making smart decisions that don’t have an immediate reward” ability for that day. I guess this might explain why or how I can be so very disciplined in almost every other area, but I’m still incapable of managing my own bedtime.

My current working theory is this: Reading will make me feel better than watching television. If I can manage to read for one or two hours in the evening that should be an enjoyable way to spend the evening and make me feel like I accomplished something. Hopefully, this feeling of accomplishment will make it easier to go to bed on time. If it works, it will mean that I’m better rested, which will make it easier to make smart decisions. If only I can keep this going long enough to make it a habit (which I think means I have to be consistent for around 60 days), I might finally have found a solution for this 38-year struggle.
Fingers crossed!

The end and a list

It’s the evening of the last day of our holiday and I just started packing. Usually, I’d have gone over every detail of today and tomorrow in my head for a couple of days. Partially to ensure that there would be a solid plan for the journey, but mostly because I’d be longing to go home.
I’m not sure why this year is different. I’m still looking forward to going home. To my beautiful house, my comfortable bed and my perfect shower (with a view) and, even though A and I enjoy each other’s company very much, also to being alone.
And yet we are strangely unprepared. We don’t even know at what time we had to check out in the morning. While discussing it we landed on “probably a bit earlier than we are ready on most days”. Which is a fair assumption, as we would otherwise certainly miss our flight.

This holiday feels like it’s somehow not “done” yet. I can’t exactly pinpoint why that is. Perhaps because the influence from hurricane Leslie has meant that the weather hasn’t been as good as we’d have hoped. The weather was after all one of the main reasons why we chose to come here. We still had a great holiday though with some fun day trips and a couple of beach days, some tennis and a bit of running.

Perhaps the feeling is caused by my memories of the brilliant holiday that we had last year. To be fair, A had to remind me that I was actually sick for the first few days of that holiday, my memory had put that minor detail conveniently aside. But other than that, we had a great apartment (our first Airbnb experience). We were surprised by the stunning beaches and coastline of Crete, which we explored in the best possible (rental) car (an Alfa Romeo Giulietta). It also where and when I rediscovered my love for reading books. Two of the books that I read last year, Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Busy by Tony Crabbe changed the way I work. After reading those books I blocked one day per week without meetings and on the other days, I also try to have three hours without meetings. I use this time to work on longer-term and more strategic projects. This approach means that I can look beyond today’s problem and the never-ending stream of email. It makes me happier and more productive. I also regularly feel like I’m in control of my days. Which is a big improvement.

This year I’ve read the amazing number of seven books during my holiday. Although I don’t think any of them will have as big an impact as Flow and Busy did, I did enjoy reading them and I got something out of all of them. For those curious, I’ll do a list.

  • I wanted to read I’m a joke and so are you by comedian Robin Ince because I found out that the book contained insights from an interview with Tim Minchin. The book is an examination of the human condition. I wrote a post about the inner voices that Robin describes in the book.
  • Leigh Sales is an Australian writer, journalist and news anchor. Leigh had been very lucky in life (by her own account) for many years and suddenly had to deal with several of life’s unexpected blows. In order to deal with her own anxiety, she decided to find out how people deal with sometimes unimaginable loss. I learned about Any Ordinary Day through the podcast “Chat 10 Looks 3” that Leigh creates together with Annabel Crabb in which they discuss theatre, television, and books. Leigh is a great journalist, but she also had a lot of empathy and compassion and she is acutely aware of her own biases. The book provides some very interesting insights into how people who have experienced incredible losses dealt with that. On top of that, it includes a lot of research on the way we deal with grief and fear. I’d recommend both the podcast and the book.
  • During an impromptu Twitter Q&A, brought about by a delayed flight, Tim Minchin (anyone who knows me well won’t be surprised by this recurring theme) shared that he was reading Gould’s book of fish by Richard Flanagan. I figured that what’s good enough for Tim is good enough for me. At the start, this turned out to be slightly optimistic, as I found it quite hard to read as a non-native English speaker. Luckily it either got easier as the book progressed, or I got used to it. The story is unusual, but interesting and the end is surprising and beautifully written.
  • Feminists don’t wear pink (and other lies) was supposed to be promoted in Top Shop in London, but the owner of Top Shop shut down the promotion at the last minute, causing quite some outrage on Twitter. This was how I found out about the book, which is a collection of essays by women on what feminism means to them. I expected this to be very moving, but I must admit that I was slightly disappointed by it. It’s a great initiative of course and I did learn from several of the stories, but it wasn’t as impactful as I hoped it would be.
  • Stella Rimington’s At Risk had been recommended by someone who knows me well several years ago, but it took me this long to try it. He was right though, I really enjoyed it. Stella is a former director of MI5 and At Risk is the first in a series about MI5 officer Liz Carlyle. It’s tense, but not too tense and Liz is a great character. I’ll definitely read the rest of the series as well.
  • The ideas behind Multipliers by Liz Wiseman were used in a training that I attended, but I never took the time to read the entire book until now. It describes how leaders either multiply how much they use of what the people around them have to offer, or how they (accidentally) diminish it. Like the training, the book really inspired me. I will definitely try to apply more multiplier behavior in my work. I normally read books on an e-reader, but I also ordered both the English and the Dutch paperbacks of this book. The English one because a physical book is more convenient to look things up and the Dutch one for people who are interested in reading it too.
  • For months now there has been a buzz on Twitter about the book and theatre show This is going to hurt by Adam Kay. Adam is a former NHS doctor and in this book, he shares his experiences. This book made me laugh out loud a lot (sorry A!), but it also made me cry. I absolutely recommend this because it’s funny, but it also gives some very valuable insight into the lives of junior doctors. Spoiler alert: they are not in it for the money!
  • Bonus: While in London on a city trip in May, A and I visited Shakespeare’s globe theatre. I had wanted to do that for years and finally made it a priority. It didn’t disappoint. I’ve been fascinated by Shakespeare for a long time and some of this was revived by Matt Haig’s How to stop time, which I read earlier this year. I was always worried that reading Shakespeare might be difficult, but after doing the tour of the theatre I bought Hamlet. I’ve now started reading it and I’m enjoying both the story and the fact that I’m finally reading it.

Phew! Summarizing the holiday and my reading was exactly the closure that I needed. I’m ready to go home tomorrow!

How can we fight for facts?

I’m in the south of Portugal at the moment and it’s chucking it down. Being stuck inside I’ve resorted to reading the news and that does nothing to lighten my mood.
I continue to be surprised and saddened by politicians who lie and cheat and by how many people are railing against science, facts, and evidence. My parents taught me from a very young age that it was ok to be naughty every now and then, but that lying was off limits.

I like to be liked and I don’t have a rebellious nature. I cannot comprehend how someone can be so bold to tell easy to debunk lies in public and indeed in the press. Let alone then accuse others of lying when they debunk the original lie. It frustrates me to see this happen and to have no idea what do to about it. A lie is still a lie, and not just a “different perspective” and we all know it.

If these lies would have small or insignificant consequences I might be able to ignore it, but the impact is huge. The fact that we don’t take climate change serious could mean that a lot of places where people have built lives today will become uninhabitable because of drought or flooding. Brexit will have a serious economic impact on people living in the UK as well as many in the EU and on UK nationals living in the EU and EU nationals currently living in the UK. Refugees fleeing warzones trying to get to safety have to live in degrading conditions because politicians in rich countries are using scaremongering tactics to explain why these refugees cannot be offered asylum and children are getting sick or even dying because parents don’t vaccinate their kids.

The brilliant and thought-provoking Dutch TV series “Onbehagen” (Discomfort) created by Bas Heijne discusses that civilizations rise and fall on the basis of their cultural ideas. What are people willing to fight for? Are we willing to fight and struggle and be uncomfortable for the values that brought us our safe and comfortable lives? After having defeated fascism and communism it seems like we have become complacent and assume things will work out for the best eventually, even if historical evidence suggests that defending a peaceful and inclusive society from the influences of racism, hate and other threads requires action.
I would like to know how to do this. What action can we take that will have an impact?

Of course, the first step is always to look in the mirror. Being aware of how your brain works and how your emotions can influence your ideas about what is true helps to weaponize yourself against outside influences trying to trick you into believing their sometimes appealing lies. This means we need to be open to learning and that we need to be aware that we are probably not infallible. For people who are used to being in a position of power and getting things their way in life this is already quite a big leap.

The next step is even more difficult and to be frank, I have no idea how to go about this.
How could we convince people who currently believe otherwise that climate change is a real problem, that refugees are not after their jobs and that vaccines do work as intended and save lives? We have to remember that people who believe the conspiracy theories stating the opposite genuinely believe them. There’s a good reason why the quote “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled” has gained popularity over the last few years. A quote which ironically is often attributed to Mark Twain without any evidence that the quote was indeed uttered or written by him. He did express something that supports the general idea behind the quote though.

Conspiracy theories have been around for a long time, but they are thriving in a world that rejects established knowledge on a large scale. These theories, nowadays often spread or reinforced via social media platforms, erode people’s trust in science, expert’s opinions and authority. This, in turn, creates a fertile environment for more conspiracy theories to emerge.

If there is no credible source of news and facts that everyone can agree on, then how can we even start to have a discussion about what’s the truth and what’s a lie, let alone about what would be best for the world, our countries and most of the people living in them? How can we prevent going further down this rabbit hole where things that were previously commonly accepted as truth or fact are up for debate and discussion?

Based on what little evidence I have found it seems that rationally and calmly arguing one theory at a time is the best way to debunk conspiracy theories and lies. It takes a lot of patience to stay kind and calm while doing this and will not guarantee that you can convince the person you are interacting with. Another challenge is that most “common” people (people who aren’t artists, journalists or politicians) only have a very small audience, who, because of the echo chambers that we all live in, mostly will already hold similar opinions to our own.

So how can we make a difference and have a positive and noticeable impact on the world around us? How can we defend our culture and fight to protect the values that our grandparents fought a war for? How can we make sure we don’t let it get that far again?

I don’t have any answers to these questions. I honestly don’t know. But I’d love to hear your suggestions.