Author Archives: Mirjam van Olst

Inner voices

Inner Voices

This blog is starting to turn into a collection of interesting ideas that I take away from the books I’ve read that I want to explore a bit more. I must admit that I’m quite happy with that for the moment. As I’m on holiday and thus have significantly more time to read than I normally do, the number of ideas for potential posts is also souring.

The first book I read this holiday was Robin Ince’s “I’m a joke and so are you”. This book is described as: “The popular comedian and science presenter Robin Ince blends memoir, wit, and popular science to examine the human condition. Informed by personal insights from Robin as well as interviews with some of the world’s top comedians, neuroscientists and psychologists, this is a hilarious and often moving primer to the mind.”

I found the book interesting and mostly entertaining, although I also feel that parts of it are especially relevant if you are a comedian, or if you are particularly interested in comedy and comedians. I’m very interested in a particular comedian, but I’m not necessarily a connoisseur of the genre.

One topic discussed in the book that I wanted to explore a little more is on inner voices. Lots of people have inner voices that take on many different shapes and forms. Some comedians use their inner voice to come up with jokes, while for others their inner voice almost becomes the joke.

Robin explains that humans are the only species who understand that they have inner voices (as far as we know). Even our brains only just developed far enough to be able to understand that our inner voices are in fact internal. Until around 3,000 years ago our predecessors thought that their inner voices were other people talking to them in a mystical or magical way. Oftentimes they felt it was a god who was speaking to them.

An observation that Robin makes that I found quite interesting, but that I understand is an acquired taste is that this might be why God seems to give the protagonists in the Bible’s old testament a hard time. Most people’s inner voice isn’t very kind and friendly, so if you mistake your inner voice for God’s voice, he might come across quite harsh and critical.

Robin describes his inner voices as a very active panel of critics. Most of us will be able to relate to this in some way. You’ve met someone you like and afterward, you wonder if you might have said something silly. Robin’s inner voices won’t ever allow him to let go completely. When he’s enjoying a concert “waving his arms like he just doesn’t care” his inner voices will tell him he looks silly and he’ll stop.

I’m happy to say that my inner voice is a bit less critical, or more free-spirited. I think that enjoyable experiences often happen when I’m not self-conscious or when I can allow myself to be open to a sort of childlike wonderment. The most fun concerts (not necessarily the best) are the ones when I have no problem letting go and I’m not worried about looking silly. I have to admit that these often happen at Lowlands musical festival. Being in a parallel universe for three days does help to forget about the real world and its rules about how adults should behave.

Another great Lowlands experience was when they had huge swings set up. I would stand in line to go on the swings every day. In all the pictures that my friends took while I was on them, I have a silly big grin on my face. It made me realize how much I love swings and I decided that if and when I would have a garden I’d get a swing. I’m proud to say that I kept that promise to myself and the swing in my back garden is one of my happy places.

The swing in my back garden

I think life is more enjoyable when we as adults are able to appreciate the little things. Worrying about what other people might think serves very little purpose. Because your world naturally has you at the center of it, it feels like other people will notice and care about everything that you do that might not fit a certain mold. In reality though, most people are too busy worrying about themselves to spend more than a few brain cycles on what you are up to.

My inner voice doesn’t always allow me to have this much fun. Like most people, I do have a tendency to worry about how I could have handled certain situations better. This is often because I feel that I should have been more patient. My impatience is probably my most pronounced character flaw. It’s definitely the one that gets me in trouble with my critical inner voice most often. I’m getting better at restraining my impatience, even if I still feel it. The unpleasant conversations that I’ll have with myself if I don’t can last for days and are a big part of the motivation to do better.

I’m also regularly bothered by what’s called “l’esprit d’escalier”, or coming up with the perfect reply a few hours or even days too late. I can replay situations in which I feel I should have given a smarter or funnier response many times in my head. In this capacity, my inner voice is not helpful at all. After all, what happened is in the past, so there is no point worrying about it and reliving over and over again. It would be much more practical to decide if I want to follow up on the event in one way or another. If so, follow up, if not, stop thinking about it.
If only it was that easy to mute my inner voice!

The third manifestation of my inner voice is me having conversations with other people, in my head. This can be people I actually know and talk to in real life, but it can also be people I wish I’d know. Sometimes this might be practicing a conversation that could actually happen. Other times it can be testing an idea to see if I can explain it and to try and determine how the person I’m testing the idea on might react to it. The other person never explicitly responds, it’s just me talking to my projection of someone else. Written down it looks a bit crazy, but it can help me to make judgment calls (like “should I publish this post?”) or to prepare for situations that I’m nervous about. In some cases, there is no noble goal or pay-off and it’s pure fantasizing about a conversation I wish would happen.

In a way writing these blog posts is similar. The difference is that the conversation isn’t happening in my head. They are monologues on paper and eventually in OneNote (my writing tool of choice) and on this site. When writing posts I try to let the tone of voice be as close to that of my inner voice as possible. If I edit it too much it loses most of the risk, but also most of the excitement.

What does your inner voice sound like?

Art Matters

Art Matters and life is not linear

I read Art Matters by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell this week. The book is written by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell illustrated every single page. It’s a lovely little book about the importance of making art, libraries, reading and allowing ideas to exist and spread.

One of the things that Neil says in the book, is that he doesn’t have a career because he doesn’t have a career plan. He writes that if you start a career in the arts that you have no idea what you are doing, where you might be going and how you should get there. Neil suggests that chaos and happily working on one thing after another until it looks like you’re doing something eerily similar to building a career is something that is only for artists. That people with “regular” jobs have these fantastic plans when they finish school and start working. That we know how to get from one role or level to the next and that we know what the next step or even the end game will be.

That is of course not how it works. At least not for most people. Most of us just do the best we can and work as hard as we can on whatever is currently in front of us. When you do that, in a lot of cases the next opportunity will present itself after a while. It might not be what you expected. It might even take you in a completely different direction from where you thought you would be going. If you are excited about the opportunity and there are no insurmountable practical reasons not to, by all means, jump at the opportunity.

When I left high school I wanted to be a lighting technician (working on the setup and operation of lights for theatre and concerts). Before properly starting on that career path I changed my mind and became a web developer. Even that decision was driven by circumstances. I found out that being a female lighting technician comes with some specific challenges and that I didn’t want to have to deal with those challenges for the rest of my life. At the same time, for a school project, I learned to build websites with a group of fellow students. I liked the combination of logic and creativity that was involved in building the websites. Through family and friends, we found quite a few customers and that was how my web development career started. Through similar coincidences, I subsequently became an expert in a Microsoft platform, a presenter, a writer, a project manager, an account lead and now a COO. I could never have imagined either the direction or the timing of any of these steps and it’s one of the things that I like most about my career. I don’t know where this path will take me next, but I’m sure that I will recognize the next opportunity when it presents itself.

Artists and people who do not make art for a living are more similar than we are different. None of us know how our lives and careers will unfold. We all need a bit of luck. All that we all can do is to do the best we can.

I highly recommend reading Art Matters, regardless of how you make a living. If you are interested in hearing Neil and Chris talk about it you can watch Art Matters Live. Both the book and the video are sources of joy and inspiration.

Make good art

How we connect to a story

For a while now I have wondered what it is that makes me like a book or a story. This surfaced again recently while I was reading “The Note” by Zoë Folbigg. The description of the story seemed to be similar to the stories in Jill Mansell books, which I love. The Note has also received critical acclaim. Yet while reading it I couldn’t get into it and I didn’t understand why.

What I was able to distill based on earlier experiences is that I need to be able to identify with the protagonist to feel that I can get into the story. This doesn’t mean that she has to be a 38-year-old white woman who works for an IT company. I have been able to connect with protagonists that were different in many different ways. Even protagonists that weren’t human. But what does allow me to identify with a protagonist? Why do I feel like I’m living the story while reading some books and feel detached from others?

The book that I’m currently reading has helped me resolve this mystery. The book is called “Story Genius” and the author is Lisa Cron. Story Genius is one of many books that claim to explain how you can become a better writer. Its angle is different from most others in its genre though. The book explains the science behind what your brain needs to get pulled into a story.

For us to connect with a protagonist we need to understand what drives this person. We need to understand who the protagonist is before the story starts. Unless the protagonist is a baby and the story starts on the day of her birth, she will have a back story. She will have experienced things that have shaped her believes and her feelings. Understanding these experiences, the things she learned and how she has been hurt and celebrated in the past will help us to see inside our protagonist.

Throughout the story, the protagonist will try to learn something or gain something. The misbeliefs that she picked up throughout her life might get in the way of getting what she wants. By understanding what drives our protagonist from the inside, we can connect to her. We are experiencing the story as if we are part of it. Even if our own lives are very different and if we would take different decisions in similar situations. We all have the same basic needs. We want to be loved, accepted, appreciated, recognized for our efforts and be part of something. If we feel that our basic needs are at risk we experience one of four basic emotions; happiness, sadness, anger or fear. Because the basics are very similar for all of us, it’s easy to understand a protagonist’s reaction when their core beliefs are at stake.

With the help of an MRI scientists have been able to prove that when you read a story that allows you to connect with a protagonist, your brain reacts in the same way it would when you experience the situation yourself. That is why it’s so hard to put a good book down and why you feel sad when you finish it. You become part of the narrative and it feels like everything that is happening to the protagonist is actually happening to you. When the story ends it feels like having to say goodbye to close friends.

I tested the theory against a couple of books that I like and so far it is holding up. As long as I can understand what drives the protagonist and why he or she makes certain choices I can connect to him or her. These books are also the ones that are very hard to put down.
In the books that I can’t quite get into, the backstory of the protagonist is missing, or the decisions that he or she makes do not make sense based on what I know about their past experiences.

If I ever feel brave enough to try my hand at writing fiction I know where to start. I should start by creating the past and the beliefs and misconceptions of my protagonist.
Don’t hold your breath though. It could be a while…

Confirmation bias and the difference between men and women

I just finished reading Inferior by Angela Saini. I started reading it because I thought it would be about whether men are naturally smarter, or better at STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) than women. As a woman who studied electrotechnical engineering and who works in STEM, this is a topic that I’m interested in. I believe that at least part of the problem of the underrepresentation of women in STEM has to do with the lack of (visible) role models for girls. Yet I’m also interested in learning if there are biological differences between men and women that might have an impact on the number of women interested in, or naturally good at STEM subjects.

Most of the book is not about whether men are wired in a way that benefits succeeding in these fields though. It talks about men and women’s position in society, both today and throughout history. There is a lot of focus on who brings home most of the food, who is the most aggressive, who takes care of the offspring and about sex drive and promiscuity.

The book isn’t about new research, but it investigates previous research into the positions of men and women in societies. It becomes obvious that it’s not straightforward. The outcome of most research mentioned is at the very least hotly debated and often even controversial.

One of the main challenges is, that when researching the differences between men and women, everybody is biased in one way or another. I find this a scary thought. If we can’t trust scientists to be objective, who can we trust? Can we even trust ourselves? I don’t think we can, we all have the tendency to gather, interpret and remember information in a way that confirms our existing beliefs. This is “confirmation bias”. The effect of confirmation bias is even stronger for emotionally charged topics.

So how should we deal with this? How do we determine what is fact and what is an opinion? When we read a non-fiction book, or an article in a newspaper, or even worse, on the internet, what is fact and what is opinion? When we read about new research and discoveries, how do we know that the scientists involved were objective? We can’t do our own research on every topic that we read about. Most of us already have a busy life…

One thing that helps a lot is if different scientists, in different parts of the world, are able to repeat the same experiments and get the same results. These days scientists repeating experiments to verify the results is getting rare. This is at least partially driven by another hot topic of this moment: the push for scientists to get published as often as possible. Magazines and journals prefer to publish new results from new research, rather than a confirmation or invalidation of previous research results. It’s also easier to get published if your results are statistically significant. An article about an experiment that didn’t deliver the results that you expected or hoped for is highly unlikely to get published. This means that invalidating or disproving previous research results is hard and often not very visible. Scientists are being pushed to delivery drama and quantity, not quality.

In the book, the author makes sure to discuss research results that support and results that oppose the ideas that she is promoting. In most cases, there is just as much evidence confirming a thesis as there is evidence disproving it. A lot of the results seem to be impacted by preexisting biases and opinions. There is a clear difference in the results of research done by men, versus research done by women.

The book doesn’t mention a lot of research on the topic of men or women being smarter or naturally better at STEM subjects. I do of course have a (biased) opinion though and the book did give me a new insight.

I believe that some typical boy or girl interests are innate in most of us. A lot of the love of dolls, barbies and pink in girls is cultural though. Driven by the type of toys that young kids get and by the behaviour that is (in many cases unconsciously) stimulated and rewarded by parents. Personally, I have never been drawn to dolls or pink. I liked LEGO and reading. I’ve always been good at math and I enjoyed it. Part of this is of course that we all enjoy the things that we are good at a bit more than the things we struggle with.

It has been proven in many different cases that if we ourselves or others around us expect us to fail at something, we are a lot more likely to indeed fail. If girls hear from a young age from their parents, family, babysitters and other boys and girls that math and physics are for boys, they are a lot less likely to be successful when trying their hand at math and physics. My parents have always been very supportive, I was very lucky that I was able to easily absorb what I learned in school. I also had the advantage of my mum being a trailblazer, working in IT. Although this was never emphasized, she was a great role model.

The book made me realize that there was maybe also something else that might have had an impact. I was a bit of a loner as a kid. I usually had one or two close friends, but I didn’t belong to any specific group of boys or girls. I was bullied between the ages of approximately 10 and 14.

This means that on one hand, I wasn’t influenced very much by the other girls and what they felt was “normal”. I also wasn’t worried that I wouldn’t fit in if I would choose a lot of STEM subjects in high school, as I didn’t fit in to begin with. Of course, this is a narrative that I’m constructing in hindsight. I now feel that not being popular and not being part of a close group of girls might have made it easier to pursue an education and a career in STEM.

There are still more questions than answers I’m afraid. The difference between men and women will remain the topic of a lot of research and debate. We’ll also continue to look for ways to get more women STEM until there is equal representation.
Be prepared to investigate your own ideas and opinions and keep an open mind to other people’s ideas. If we are open to learning from each other we are most likely to get valuable new insights.

Perseverance paid off – mission accomplished!

About 14 years ago I trained really hard for several months and ran a couple of 10km races. In every race I finished just over 50 minutes, so that became a bit of a thing. The closest I got to that magic mark was 50 minutes and 4 seconds in a race in a tiny little village.

For 14 years I’ve tried on and off to break the 50 minute mark, without really committing to it. This year I decided to give it another go. I’ve really been enjoying running, and the lovely weather made it easier to go out on runs regularly.

I’ve been very close to reaching my goal twice this year. So close in fact that I felt I might have subconsciously sabotaged myself to not reach it.

With this in mind I had planned ahead for this week. I had the week off work, so I had more time to run and rest and I decided early on that this would have to be the week. I ran 14km on Tuesday, which was my longest run in years, mostly to prove to myself that I could do it (I also remembered why I normally stop after 10km, I find running 14km boring!).

Before I went out today, I knew what the goal was. I didn’t tell anyone about it, so I wouldn’t have to explain if this would become another failed attempt. I’ve always been my own worst critic though, so there was still pressure. I was even a bit tense before setting off.

I know that running as relaxed as possible, being in the moment, is the most pleasant way to run, as well as usually the quickest. I couldn’t do it today though. I was uptight and in my head from start to finish, making the challenging goal even harder to reach.

Today’s run wasn’t a pleasant one. Even though I was running below target from start to finish I was close to stopping several times, because I was uncomfortable and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to keep up the pace until the end. I’m very happy that I didn’t quit. I ran 10km in 49 minutes and 23 seconds. Well below my goal.

I didn’t enjoy today’s run, but I am of course happy that I was finally able to beat my self-doubt and the clock. I do still enjoy running. A lot! I’ve also enjoyed most runs leading up to today. So I will now go back to running because I love it. I don’t have to push myself to, or beyond, my own limits every time. I won’t set a new goal anytime soon.

Summer flu and an update on freewriting

I have what is apparently called a “summer flu”. I didn’t know this was a thing, and I would have been happy to live on unaware of its existence but alas, no such luck.

When you have the flu in winter you curl up on the sofa with blankets and tea and books and candles and it’s nice and cozy. Even though you’d rather not be sick, it’s ok to spend a couple of days like that. Now though, even the thought of a blanket makes me break out in sweats. I want to be outside, playing tennis, running, working in the garden, or reading a book in the sun. Feeling hazy and having a headache and a sore throat is very much at odds with the sun and the lovely weather outside. Not much I can do about it though.

To make the most of the situation, I’d like to give you an update on how I’m getting on with freewriting. This is the 21st day of writing. If you would go through the trouble of looking up the date of the first freewriting post, you’ll notice that it was posted more than 21 days ago. I don’t write every day. If I get home late, or if I have to choose between sports and writing, I sometimes skip the writing. Which is fine. My goal wasn’t to write every day. I started this because I was looking for my writing voice, and I hoped that the freewriting would help me find it.

I am enjoying freewriting. It’s a great outlet, and a way to help me order my thoughts. When something is going around in my mind I need to let it out. On some days, what I write turns into a blog post or a concept for one. On other days I’m happy no one will be reading what I scribbled in my notebook. Writing more has increased the number of useful ideas for blog posts that I’ve been able to come up with. Sometimes the idea sits in my notebook for several days, before I pick it up again and rewrite it into a blog post. I still find that a lot of what I write is not suitable for publication. Mainly because I don’t want to publish anything from which it is possible to identify any of my friends, family, colleagues, or my employer. If someday I will pluck up the courage and find the inspiration to write fiction, then some of these ideas can be used as inspiration. Until then it will stay in my notebook.

Freewriting has helped me to find my writing voice. Writing with pen and paper makes it easier to write down what I think. There are no typos and no red wriggly lines show up if I misspelled a word. I just continue to write, knowing that if I ever want to publish it, I’ll have to type it anyway and I can fix any mistakes at that point. It makes writing feel more natural. I’m less subconscious and I’m able to keep my perfectionism at bay.

Writing (and reading) more also means that I get more practice again writing and thinking in English. A couple of years ago I spoke English at home and at work, so most of my thinking was in English as well. That’s not the case anymore, which means that I sometimes get a bit rusty and more predictable in my choice of words.

All in all, the freewriting only has benefits so far. It makes me feel good, it improves my writing, it generates ideas and I’m enjoying it. If you’re looking for me, I’ll be writing some more!

Inspired by Minimalism

I’m not a minimalist by any stretch of the imagination. I’m very tidy, but the storage space in my house is “well-used”. I also recognize that I like the buzz of buying pretty things. It makes me feel good, at least temporarily.

Almost a year ago now, I read a book that had quotes from “The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up” by Marie Kondo in it. Even just reading the quotes inspired me. Especially the concept of only buying and keeping things that you either need or that bring you joy and happiness, stuck with me. It sounds very much like common sense. Yet despite being reasonably smart and sensible, I wasn’t applying this rule in my own life.

I have since tried to live by this guidance and it’s worked out very well. I didn’t even consider that I might save money by applying these simple rules, but I was surprised by the difference that it has made, financially. Instead of buying relatively cheap things, like clothes regularly, I have invested in some more strategic purchases. I was able to buy new dining room chairs and insect screens and sunscreens. Especially the last two have proven to a be a worthwhile investment with the, for Dutch standards, uncharacteristically warm weather of this summer.

Besides buying less, I’ve also thrown out more. Every now and then, when I feel restless, instead of buying things, I will direct my restlessness towards cleaning up a specific part of my home. Things that I don’t need and that I don’t love will go to a charity that can put my abundance of things to good use. Or if it’s too scruffy for that it will end up at the tip.

Slowly I can see more space opening up in cabinets. An unknowing visitor wouldn’t be able to notice the difference, the changes are happening mostly behind closed doors. But it certainly makes me feel good.

I’m assuming that there will be a point where there’s no more unnecessary and unloved stuff to clean out. In the meantime, I will continue to direct my restlessness at combing through cabinets and drawers, getting rid of any excess baggage that I’ve acquired over time. A cheap form of therapy that leaves behind a positive vibe, even after the buzz wears off.