Author Archives: Mirjam van Olst

Expand your world, read a book!

I love reading, always have done. As a kid I used to devour books. If I was reading a book I liked, it would go with me everywhere. I’d be walking through the house, up and down stairs while reading, lay the table while reading and if my mum would have let me, I would have still been reading while we had dinner.

I was smart, shy and skinny, which meant I wasn’t one of the cool kids. I was dreaming about being naughty and audacious, but in reality, I was very disciplined and well behaved. When I was reading a book, I would feel completely immersed in the story. I would put myself in the shoes of one of the characters in the book and through them I would experience and do things that I wouldn’t think of doing in real life.
I can honestly say that reading these very diverse books made my childhood more fun. It allowed me to go on all sorts of adventures, understand what it might have been like to live in a different time or place and to see life through the eyes of someone else.

By experiencing life through the eyes of different people, reading also helped me to build empathy. I learned how different people (or characters) felt in different situations and how they all reacted differently to those situations. It helped me to realize how I would like to be treated and how I would like to try and treat others.
In the film “You’ve got mail” there is a beautiful quote about the impact that reading as a child might have.
“I started helping my mother after school here when I was six years old. And I used to watch her. And it wasn’t that she was just selling books, it was that she was helping people become whoever it was that they were going to turn out to be. Because when you read a book as a child it becomes part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.”

I feel that as an adult, it’s still important to read regularly. Reading allows you to learn things about the world that we live in. It will also allow you to escape from it from time to time to experience a different type of life. It might make you forget about sorrows or humble you if you feel that you’re on top of the world. It allows you to expand your world and look beyond what is right in front of you. Reading will help you to continue to learn about anything that you are interested in and it will help you to grow as a person.

Like many “professionals”, I haven’t taken the time to read a lot over the last few years. Most of what I have been reading has been articles related to work. Since a few months now though I have made an effort to read (a lot) more. I’ve been reading fiction, as well as the newspaper and several books about different ways to manage my days and my time, and about approaches to leadership and different world views. I feel that all of this is contributing to me being a more informed and more balanced person and that it’s allowing me to learn and grow. On top of that, and perhaps most importantly, it is a lot of fun. I still love to read. I can highly recommend it.

Carl Sagan2

Loud is becoming normal, let’s be reasonable and kind instead

Tim Minchin’s lyrics in the song “Loud ” from Matilda the Musical are scarily relevant in our day to day lives at the moment.

People don’t like smarty-pants
What go round claiming
that they know stuff
we don’t know.

Now, here’s a tip:
What you know matters less
Than the volume with which
What you don’t know’s expressed!

Content, has never been less important.
So you have got to be…
Loud!

The context of the theatrical narrative is missing of course. In the musical this is sung by Matilda’s mother, who’s one of the baddies. However, I’m sure many of you can reconcile this with your recent experiences!

In many situations and environments today, if you want to convince someone, it’s often more efficient to be loud, than it is to be right. Make a big spectacle and if you can, pick one small aspect of the other person’s argument and make it sound ridiculous or offensive. You can do this online, in a newspaper, but also in a face to face conversations. It works best when there are multiple people following the conversation, as it is an incredibly effective strategy to grab a lot of attention and to get people to think that they agree with you.

Being loud takes on different forms in different situations. In a face to face discussion someone can increase the volume at which they deliver their arguments. In a real-life conversation, especially when multiple people are involved, it’s also often quite hard to find the right moment to start making your argument without interrupting someone and feeling like you’re being rude. I’m often amazed that some people seem to be able to talk forever without having to take a breath. If it wasn’t so frustrating you’d almost admire them and advise them to take up free diving!

On the Internet loudness takes on slightly different forms. It can include personally attacking the person you are supposed to be having a discussion with. The attack doesn’t have to be related to the arguments that they are using, it is also quite common to attack part of someone’s personality and/or intelligence. Taking valid arguments completely out of context and stripping them of all nuances can be very effective as well and this can be very hard to defend yourself against. After all, you did use the argument. There was a lot more to it than what you’re being attacked over, but seeing as you’re trying to reason your way out of this, instead of countering by also being loud you won’t be able to grab the same amount of attention. Taking the time to consider the nuances and dig into facts and logic is harder and not “cool”. Which makes it less popular with the masses.

As a reaction to the bleak picture painted above it can be tempting to unleash your frustration about not being able to get your point across for reasons that feel unfair onto someone who’s loud. Letting yourself go when it’s normally not your style won’t make your feel good though. In fact, in most cases it will make you feel worse.
This might be a reference that only resonates with a specific audience, but I’m going to use it anyway. Meg Ryan’s character in the film, “You’ve Got Mail”, is frustrated about her mind going blank and not being able to come up with snide remarks when she’s being provoked. But when she is finally able to come up with zingers during a conversation the way she’s always dreamt of, she feels terrible afterwards.
When you reply to a loud person by being loud you become the very thing you dislike. By resorting to ignoring the nuance of someone’s arguments, or by trying to offend someone you lower your standards.

Wouldn’t it be inspiring if people that are able to construct arguments based on reason and who are normally calm, collected and polite, would in fact remain calm, collected and polite? Most people who are currently being loud won’t care about any eloquent and fact-based arguments. But wouldn’t you feel more hopeful about the future, if in heated face to face conversations more people would stay calm and polite, even when provoked? If in derailed social media discussions, you would find some classy and factual replies amidst all the loudness?

More importantly, wouldn’t you feel better about yourself if you were able to stay polite and just show an appropriate amount of emotion. Expressing some emotion is good, because it shows that you care. I’m not advocating that we should start acting as robots. On the contrary even. I would like us to put more emphasis on the fact that we are engaged and caring human beings.
I think I would feel good about myself if I would be able to be reasonable and kind, so I’m going to try to put this into practice. Perhaps the only difference I can make is to lift my own spirits. But there is always a chance that my attitude and intentions inspire someone else and together we can make a bigger difference.

Don't raise your voice, improve your argument

5 ways to get a grip on your work day

I love my job. It’s great to work with our smart and dedicated people, I enjoy the challenge and there is enough variety to make sure it’s never boring. The one thing that I dread sometimes is having days with more than five hours of meetings. I don’t believe this can be useful or productive for anyone. On top of that it freaks me out.

I don’t mind working hard at all, but I like to have some control over my life (even on a day to day basis :-)). Having full days of meetings makes me feel like I have none, which in turn generates stress. Another challenge with these back to back meetings is that with every one of them I’ll have less energy and it becomes harder to concentrate. As an introvert I need quiet time to recharge. An hour in between meetings to do some work and listen to some music does wonders, but quite often I’ll be lucky to have 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the afternoon without meetings. Just enough to take a bathroom break and get a tea.

Two months ago, I started to try and change this pattern by critically reviewing my calendar and the meetings in it. When I see that a day is filling up I block time to ensure there will at least be some time to recharge a bit during the day. Below are 5 tips that I have found to work so far and that have greatly improved my productivity and the quality of my work days. Both from my perspective and judged by the output I’m able to generate. If you feel like your calendar is running your life, you might find some of them useful.

1. Evaluate all recurring meetings that you have
Do you have an active role in these meetings, or are you there to listen in? If it’s the latter, what value does listening in add? Does it help you to do your job better, or are you there to make someone else feel good about the fact that you are in the meeting? Or are you only there, because the meeting was in your calendar?If the meeting doesn’t add value to your life or work, remove it from your calendar. Don’t just remove the next instance, but remove the series. If there is an instance of the meeting where it would be valuable for you to be there someone can send you the invite for that particular instance of the meeting. And if they don’t you’ll have some more time to do work.

2. Every meeting needs an agenda
When someone plans a meeting without a clear agenda ask them to create an agenda before you accept the meeting. Based on the agenda you can determine whether that meeting will indeed be your highest priority at that particular time. Consider if the topic of the meeting can maybe be handled over email instead of by dragging people into a meeting. If the timing is inconvenient don’t feel bad about proposing a different time for the meeting. Whenever you feel the meeting is too long or too short, propose to change the amount of time scheduled for the meeting. If people that you feel are critical to the meeting are not invited, make sure they get the invite. In case you are not the right person to discuss the topic with point the organizer to the right person or people and decline the meeting. Don’t spend 30 minutes discussing who should be discussing the topic at hand. You have better things to do, even if it’s just taking a bio break.

3. Align on the purpose of the meeting
Make sure that everyone knows what the purpose of the meeting is and that there is an agreement on what the desired result of the meeting is. That way you know for sure that the people in the meeting are all working towards the same goal. If someone disagrees with the purpose, or the desired result, they can indicate this upfront, so that it can be tackled before or at the beginning of the meeting. To avoid what Tim Minchin describes as “being like two tennis players trying to win a match by hitting beautifully executed shots from either end of separate tennis courts” (http://www.timminchin.com/2013/09/25/occasional-address/).

4. Preparation is key
Send out homework before the meeting, or if it’s not your meeting ask the organizer how the participants can prepare for the meeting. By making sure everyone in the meeting is prepared it can be a lot shorter and the outcome will most likely be more valuable. If it’s not possible to explain how people can prepare for the meeting rethink the purpose of the meeting and whether a meeting is the right format to tackle the issue or task. Maybe more thinking needs to be done before it makes sense to have a meeting? Are there still prerequisites unclear that mean that it’s too early to call for a meeting? Then postpone the meeting.

5. Meeting or email?
If you are running a completely virtual meeting, make sure you only invite the people who really need to be there. Then during the meeting make sure everyone can play an active role. If you are a participant in a virtual meeting decide whether you will join the meeting, or work on your email. By combining the meeting and your email you won’t be paying attention to the conversation in the meeting, you’ll get tired from hearing it anyway and you will be less efficient answering email. Avoid the old “could you repeat the question, you were breaking up” excuses. Isn’t it amazing, how there’s always static on the line just when that one question is being asked?

Be hard on yourself and others before organizing or accepting a meeting. Quite often we are in meetings that could have been a lot shorter, or that could have been handled through a simple email exchange. Of course, having face to face time with people is valuable, but make sure that it’s a useful way of everybody’s time. Over the last years we have gone a bit “meeting crazy”. Having all these meetings is not only tiring and inefficient, it quite often also means that real work that has real deadlines cannot be done during the day. This work then moves to the evening, which should be your time to relax and do other things instead of work. By not having downtime we become tired, less efficient and less productive and eventually unhappy. Claim back some of your time and help others to do the same. It will be worth the effort!

Dilbert-4-hour-meeting

Be bold – set an example

I’m a “woman in technology” (apparently). You could argue that I have been since I was 15, when I started working as a light engineer. Thankfully I didn’t become aware that this was a thing until much later, when I was asked to do an interview about being one of the first in the world to achieve a particularly hard to obtain certification. It turned out that the interview was all about “what is it like as a woman in IT”. I was 29 at the time. It was the first time I felt just how much some other people looked at me as being “different”.
Recently I’ve been thinking about why I not only didn’t hesitate to get into technology, but why the fact that I would be one of few women was never an issue. Of course, this is all with the benefit of hindsight.

Growing up I was never a girly girl. I wasn’t interested in dolls, princesses, dressing up or make-up. My favorite things to do were building Lego villages (including an extensive train track), reading and playing sports. The one Barbie doll that I owned was always dressed in jogging pants and spent most of her time watching me read.

I was bullied in school between the ages of 10 and 14, because I was tall and skinny, too smart and unwilling to compromise on that, and very shy. When I started as a light engineer in school my confidence grew. I felt very much at home and I got a lot of support from the teachers who worked with the technical team. Being a light engineer at plays and concerts was a lot of fun and it turned out I was pretty decent at it.
Because I wanted to be a professional light engineer I went on to study Electrotechnical Engineering. I was the only woman in a group of 75 students, but I never really cared about that and as far as I could tell neither did my classmates. The ratio was about the same in physics in my year, but a lot better in the studies that focused more on business and a little less on technology. Of course, it’s hard to determine whether this is because girls don’t like hardcore technology, or whether they prefer to be around other girls.

During my studies, I changed my mind and instead of becoming a light engineer I started my own software company. At first with a group of fellow students. We taught ourselves to build websites that slowly got more sophisticated. After a while I moved on to building more complex applications and working on my own. When I got tired of my own solutions and company I took a job at local Microsoft partner, became an expert in a product called SharePoint, started to become involved in the community by co-running a user group, speaking at events, writing articles, a book and publishing a magazine. More recently I moved away from technology a bit and I’m now the Operations and Capability Lead of Avanade Netherlands, the company that I’ve worked for the last seven years. In this role my main responsibility is to ensure that our people are able to keep their skills up to date and that they continue to develop the skills that our customers are asking for (or that our customers need, but that’s a different conversation altogether). The best part about the role is that I get to play a role in helping our people grow.

None of the choices that I made were particularly logical and they definitely didn’t follow any stereotypical patterns. When I started creating websites, I was learning the technology as I went. When I took up my role as Operations and Capability Lead I didn’t know what it would entail exactly. With every step that I took it was fairly certain that I would be part of a female minority. Yet I’ve always had the confidence that I would be able to make things work out.

One of the things that gives me the confidence to follow my own path and make my own choices are the examples of the people in general and more specifically, women that I saw around me growing up.
When I was born my mum worked as a developer for IBM. At that time, it was even more unusual for a woman to work in technology than it is today. For us it was just her work though. My dad owned an insurance brokerage firm and worked a lot, so my mum took care of most things around the house. She also played several sports and coached my sports teams. Apart from lifting heavy things on her own, I’ve never heard her say that she needed my dad, or another man to get something done. She would take on whatever she needed to get things done. The same is true for several other women that I spend time with while I was a girl, like some of the babysitters we had, the volleyball and tennis coaches and trainers, and my math and economic teachers in high school.

Of course, I’ve been incredibly lucky to be born into a very supportive and relatively wealthy family and to have inherited some of the positive traits and intelligence from both my parents. This is not something I can take credit for. All I had to do was to grab the opportunities that were presented to me and to work hard to make the best of them.

Another important piece of the puzzle is that no one put any focus on the fact that my choices weren’t exactly mainstream choices for a girl until I was grown up. My parents never suggested that I should maybe play with dolls more. The teachers in high school never suggested that I might be better off with more alpha subjects, rather than the beta direction I had taken by choosing mathematics, physics and chemistry.

I feel that to make girls feel confident enough to follow their own path, we need to show them that they are empowered. That they can at the very least try anything they set their mind to. They need to see other women try things they have not done before, take a risk every now and then and be bold. As a woman you can choose to play any sport you like. Women can coach their kids’ sports team and they can be a referee if one is needed. They can paint a wall, drill a hole in a wall to put a painting up and put the trash out. Everyone in their lives should tell girls this. But as women we should also show it to them. Set an example. Don’t just tell them that they are empowered, but also show them that we feel empowered ourselves. I’m calling on all mums, aunts, grandma’s, big sisters, nanny’s and teachers to step out of your comfort zone if you have to and show your little girls that being a woman is not a limitation. That you are confident enough to try something new, that you can be friends with anyone you want to be friends with and being a girl means that you have a lot of opportunities.

I’m not suggesting that all of this will mean every girl will go into technology. All that I’m hoping is that it will make more girls feel empowered and less subconscious about choosing a direction that might not be the most common or logical one. For some this might mean going into technology, some might become a writer, or a musician and others might feel very strongly about becoming a teacher, a nurse, or a lawyer. It’s all good, as long as they feel free to make choices based on what they like and love, rather than based on what others might be expecting of them, or what’s the “safe” option that most girls are choosing.

Children learn more from what you are than what you teach

Find your inner child

Children find joy in small things like a smooth pebble they find on the beach, eating ice cream, jumping in puddles or a cuddle. They might tell you that “today was the best day ever” after going to the zoo, or having a birthday party with friends. When we grow up we learn that we should be more subdued and that showing positive emotions is not cool. As a result, we almost feel ashamed when we are excited about something. We downplay our joy and happiness. In some cases, we decide not to do the things we like, because we feel ashamed of our inner child.

This is a real shame. In today’s world we see so much negativity, around us, on the news and on social media. What would be better than to see adults express joy and pleasure over the little things in life? Be uninhibited! Set an example and allow yourself to feel and express happiness!

I try to live by this and not let my decisions be guided by what is expected of a thirtysomething woman with a fulltime job. A good example of this is the swing that I have in my garden. I didn’t have that put in for my kids (I don’t have any), or for kids that are visiting. It’s for me. I’ve always loved swings, but have always felt too awkward to get on a swing in a playground. After all, playgrounds and the swings in them are for kids, not for adults.

At Lowlands Festival a couple of years ago WannaPlayground had an installation with swings. As visitors of the festival are mostly adults I felt comfortable enough to try them and I absolutely loved it. I immediately decided that one day I would get myself a swing. I did just that and I still love it. And so do many other grown-ups when they come and visit.

Something else that we can learn from children is to show genuine affection and appreciation for the people around us. Show your friends and family that you care for them. Tell them that you do, or give them a hug. Take the time to have a real conversation, instead of quickly exchanging some clichés while thinking about everything else you feel you must do that day. Make sure to really listen. Not just to reply, but to understand. And look them in the eye.

If you feel that you are having the same shallow conversation over and over again, if you are unable to get passed the small talk, say something disruptive. Kids can come up with statements that you don’t expect that automatically mean that you will have an interesting and more in-depth conversation. You can do this too.

The first step is to make sure you ask open-ended questions. An open-ended question is a question that you can’t just answer with “yes” or “no”. A trick is to start your question with words like “who”, “why”, “where” and “how”. Doing this will give the other person the opportunity to share a story.

If they still give a short and basic answer you can either try to challenge them to reveal a bit more, or you can share something more elaborate yourself to show the other person that you trust them. This is an open invitation for the other person to also open up to you. Make sure you don’t come across as judgmental and that you don’t give your conversation partner the impression that you already know what their answer will be. If you want to have an interesting conversation the surest route is to be genuinely interested in the person that you are talking to.

So use this holiday season to find joy in small things and to really connect with your friends and family. Sing and dance in the shower, smile even if no one is watching, take a walk outside and look for a playground with a swing! Allow yourself to be surprised and express the joy that you feel. But also take some time to nurture your soul by spending some time relaxing or reading on your own. This is your chance to not having to be “switched on” all the time.

When you are together with your loved ones make sure to spend some time focusing on them. Put your phone down for a few hours and try to really connect. Make an effort to have an open and interesting conversation and share some special moments together.

When I grow up

When I grow up from Matilda The Musical

Choosing you

Theoretically almost everyone will agree that it’s important to take care of yourself. Which makes you wonder why it’s so hard in day to day life to choose yourself.
The most important reason for this is choosing yourself generally means saying “no” to someone else, either directly or indirectly. I’ll use some of the situations that I ran into in the last few weeks as examples.

  • Shall I accept the 3rd and 4rd goodbye-dinner invite this week? Even though I’m tired and my irritable bowels have been irritated for a couple of weeks already. Because I feel honored to be invited and I want to show that by accepting the invitation.
  • Do I agree to work three, instead of two days next week, thereby shortening my much-needed holiday and the time available to buy Christmas presents for my family? After all people have planned some things that they really need (want) me to be present at and that are understandably difficult to reschedule.
  • If I agree to the above, do I then take this Friday off, to compensate.
  • I feel flattered that many people want to discuss their business goals with me. However, with a potential group of 300 people to discuss goals with, an already busy agenda and a limited amount of introvert energy available for meetings, where do I draw the line?

Accepting dinner invites, meetings and additional work all means that you can make other people happy. If you are lucky they will show their appreciation and that in turn will make you feel good. Saying “yes” is the easy choice, resulting in the instant gratification of gratefulness of others.

Declining invites and kindly refusing more work, or properly compensating for it is hard work. I like the people that are inviting me. I really do feel honored and flattered and want to help whenever possible, especially if it means I can support someone’s growth and development. This is one of the most enjoyable and rewarding sides of my job.
Saying “no” means I’ll disappoint people. If I accept all invitations and requests though, I will feel terrible because my bowels will get into a worse state with each dinner and my energy levels will plummet due to too many meetings and not enough quiet time.

While it seems like just going with the flow, accepting invitations and requests is the easiest option, you should factor the consequences into your decision. In my case it would mean that I would be in pain, stressed out and because of that probably quite fiery.

  • While being at the dinners, I would worry about what to eat and how much longer I would have to sit at the table dressed nicely, instead of being able to lay down in jogging pants.
  • Even though I would meet with everyone that asked me to discuss their goals, I would be tired and stressed. Which in turn would mean I would be unable to focus and listen carefully to what they have to say, see things through their eyes and tap into my creative energy to come up with ideas that can help them.
  • I would spend an additional day in the office as requested, but I would be stressed out and annoyed, because of my inability to manage my time off and my agenda. And because I would be annoyed at myself for being a pushover.

Even though it seems like accepting everyone’s request is the nicest thing to do, nobody will get the best version of me. They’ll get me in a tired and grumpy mood, low on energy and in pain. None of them will be able to see that clearly, because you are the only one who can determine how you feel exactly. Other people can’t feel what you feel and because of that they can’t make decisions for you. You have to listen to your body. Not just quickly for a few minutes when something is hurting, or before you go to bed, but really paying attention to how you are feeling. Are your eyes burning, your bowels feeling uncomfortable, or your arms stiff? Are you short tempered or unable to concentrate? Based on what you feel you can make the best decisions. For yourself and for the people around you.
Make sure you make the choices that mean you can be the best version of you.

I don’t want to leave you with a cliffhanger, so here’s what I decided to do:

  • I went to two goodbye-dinners and one goodbye-drinks for just two hours. I respectfully declined one dinner invitation.
  • By asking several people for a bit more information on what type of information they were looking for from me related to their goals, I was able to at least give them a partial answer, or a referral over email, thus limiting the number of meetings.
  • I agreed to work three days next week, but took this Friday off. I did feel guilty about that until lunchtime, which of course is a bit daft and a less than optimal way to spend my day off.

I decided to take care of myself before pleasing others several times. It’s not easy, but I know that I have to stay in touch with what my body is trying to tell me and act upon it. Both for myself and for everyone around me.

Listen to your body. It's smarter than you.

How do you speak your mind?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately. You could argue that I always do a lot of thinking, but during these last few weeks it’s been even busier in my head than normal.
Because I have been considering critical thinking, I am listening and reading with a different perspective.
My opinions haven’t suddenly changed, I’m simply paying a little more attention and I’m a touch sharper than I was before. This also made me want to speak out more often, but as I don’t like confrontations I want to formulate my responses and arguments in a clear and compassionate way.

In order to voice your opinion in a calm and clear manner, it is important that you pay attention to exactly what the other person is stating and that you figure out what point you want to get across. After all, if you misinterpret the message that you want to respond to there is very little chance that the person making the statement, or people watching or reading from the periphery are able to use your statement as valuable input to their thinking.

To be able to interpret a statement you should take a couple of things into account:

  • Who made the statement? What is this person’s background, what might be their biases
  • Can you determine the context in which the statement was made? It makes a big difference if a statement was made as part of a news article, an argument in a bar after a few beers, or while trying to explain something to a young child.
  • What makes the statement trigger a response from you? A good start is to determine if the statement is factually correct. If it’s not, do you think that the person delivering the statement is aware of this? Do you disagree with the entire statement, or just with part of it, or perhaps just with the way the statement was worded?
    It’s also interesting to verify your own biases. Do you for instance dislike the source of the statement (a person, newspaper or website)?

Once you have found answers to these questions you can start to consider your response. You can start by collecting a set of objective statements of your own, that together will support the argument that you want to put forward. To do this properly it’s important to not let your emotions get the best of you.
Depending on my state of mind and how much sleep I got, this can be quite tricky. If you feel very strongly about a topic it’s often hard to objectively consider it. To have any chance of convincing someone of your point of view it’s important to stay calm and base your argument on reason, not emotion.

You can also decide that you don’t want to respond to the content of the statement, but that you want to share the emotion that it triggered in you.
That is a valid decision, however it should not be used to convince someone else of your opinion. It can of course be used if you want others to show they feel sympathy, or commiseration for you.

To create a clear argument, you can collect statements that consist of a conclusion and a set of suppositions or assumptions to support the conclusion. If you want to convince someone using reason, make sure you keep your arguments objective and fact based. Once you have done all of this you are ready to communicate.

Even if you have been able to clearly and objectively phrase your argument this doesn’t mean that you will be able to convince the person it was directed at. How your argument is received and whether it will change someone’s opinion is up to the receiver to decide.
Remember to stay friendly and polite, regardless of the response that you get. If we would all try to phrase our arguments this way consuming news or social media would become a lot more bearable!

Conflicts content and delivery