Category Archives: Inspiration

Taking the work out of networking – a bit

When I decided to read Taking the work out of networking, I hoped that Karin Wickre had some sort of magical solution to make networking fun for those of us who don’t like going to events to meet a lot of people that we don’t know.
I’m what is apparently called an “extroverted introvert”. I like people and I like having conversations with them, but in small doses and for limited periods of time. I prefer dinner with a small group over a large event. It allows for more in-depth and meaningful conversations.

The book doesn’t reveal a magic formula that would allow me to avoid networking. Wickre, also classifying herself as an introvert, describes all the ways in which she manages and maintains her large network. She is so active connecting to people that I caught myself thinking “she can’t possibly be an introvert and want to do all of that all the time!”. I don’t her, of course, and I don’t know how she lives her life so I have no way of knowing that. She probably has a different way to strike a balance and manage her energy.

The book describes networking at events as well as online networking via LinkedIn and Twitter. Although I’m already reasonably active on social media it was this part of the book that resonated most with me.
Before I read the book I decided whether to accept or ignore a LinkedIn connection request based mostly on how well I know the person who sent the request. Wickre has a good point though that if you are looking for career opportunities or for information on a certain topic, that your weak ties are probably going to be most valuable to you. People who you know well often have a lot of the same connections that you do. People who you don’t know well are more likely to add something different to your network. This makes sense, so I have changed my attitude related to deciding who to connect with on LinkedIn.

In the book, Wickre also talks about keeping your network warm by regularly sending messages to people to let them know that you are thinking about them and that you value them as a connection. She does this by for instance sharing a link to an article that you think they might find interesting. This is a bridge too far for me, but it did inspire me to put a recurring item on my todo list to connect with people I haven’t spoken to for a while. I try to reach out to one person per day. After only one week I can already tell that I won’t meet my target of one person per day, but if I reach out to two or three people per week that’s already two or three more than I would otherwise have reached out to.
To be clear, these are people that I’ve been thinking about anyway and that I would love to catch up with. Even though time and energy are limited it feels good and valuable from a personal point of view to reconnect with them.

Even though the book doesn’t contain any miracles to avoid networking or magic spells that can turn you into an extrovert the book did give me a just forceful enough nudge to get me to make some changes and take some action.
The book also mentions the film The Intern, which is one of my favorite films to watch on a plane, so it gets extra points for that too.

The Intern

Good night stories for Rebel Girls – inspiring women with inspiring stories

I bought Good night stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli & Francesca Cavallo for a very smart and ambitious 14-year-old girl and loved the idea so much that I bought it for myself. The book starts with some advice.
To the rebel girls of the world:
Dream bigger
Aim higher
Fight harder
And, when in doubt, remember
You are right.
I’m not entirely convinced parents of 14-year-olds will agree that they are always right, but believing in yourself is a good point to start from in life.

The book contains 100 stories of special, fierce, talented and successful women. I find it inspiring and I’m fascinated by the stories. I have no idea if it is inspiring to a teenage girl. I don’t remember how the brain of a 14-year-old works. I do strongly believe that having role models helps. To see someone like you do something means that it’s easier to imagine that you can do it too. I’ve written before about my mum being a perfect role model for me as one of the first female software developers.
I’m not 100% sure that a short story in a book is enough to be a role model. But it also won’t hurt. I hope some of it sticks for the girls who read this book.

I tried to pick out one or two stories that I liked most, but I ended up with almost every page having a sticky note on it. In the end, I did make a selection but even if you feel you don’t need a role model I highly recommend reading the book and learning about all these inspiring women.
The stories are very diverse. There are stories about inventors, scientist, professional sports people, journalists, and activists. Something else that I love about the book is that it picks up on many themes that are relevant for all girls and women.

The Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi (love the name) was a painter before women were allowed to get close to artists’ studios and people didn’t believe the paintings were hers. When her father found her a tutor, he pressed her to become his lover. She refused and had to fight this powerful man in court. She lived between 1593 and 1653, but this is something that still happens today, 400 years later.

Brenda Chapman is a director at Walt Disney Studios, who at a very young age decided that she wanted to create animated films with strong and brave girls and women in them. She didn’t like that the girls she saw in most animated films were helpless princesses. She moved on to create Brave with the strong princess Merida and won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for it.

Irena Sendlerowa is a Polish war hero who saved 2,500 children by fostering Jewish children in Christian families and give them Christian names. She wrote down their real names and their new names on slips of paper that she hid in jars in a friend’s garden. After the war, she dug up the jars and was able to reunite many kids with their real families. It’s something a certain modern-day organization with much more advanced options to keep track of children could have learned a lot from if they were at all concerned with the wellbeing of these vulnerable kids.

In Mexico, an exceptionally bright girl called Matilde Montoya wanted to be a doctor. She was told that women couldn’t be doctor’s and the university tried to expel Matilde more than once. Matilde wrote to the Mexican president, who stepped in and stood up for her in her fight against the unfair treatment she received from the university. It’s an example of men speaking up in support of women can really make a difference. Yes guys, I’m looking at you!

Women sticking together can also have a big impact as Wangari Maathai proved in Kenya by creating a movement of women who all planted trees in their villages. She started small. Several women from her own village collected seeds from the forest and planted them in cans at their homes. When they were strong enough, they planted them all around the village. Eventually, the Green Belt Movement expanded beyond the Kenyan border, forty million trees got planted and Wangari won the Nobel Peace Prize. A lot of small changes added together can have a huge impact. Don’t be discouraged by starting small, if we don’t start with small steps because we think they won’t matter we will not be able to achieve significant change.

Wangari Maathai

My heart hurts not being able to also write in more detail about the first suffragette’s in New Zealand, Kate Sheppard and computer scientist Margaret Hamilton who worked for NASA and saved the Apollo 11 mission by solving an issue that could have stopped Apollo 11 from landing on the moon in mere minutes. I hope you will read the book and learn about all the inspiring stories for yourself.

Emilia – Do you feel it? Inside of you.

Emilia is a play written by playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm. Emilia is Emilia Bassano, born in 1569 as the daughter of a royal musician. After her father dies when Emilia is just 7 years old she comes to live with Susan Bertie, the Countess of Kent. She gets a good education and introduced to well off men at the court. As there are many uncertainties about the details of Emilia’s life the play describes a possible version of it.
The book was a gift from a dear friend and it made the message resonate that much stronger because of it.

It’s heartbreaking to read how Emilia feels like she is being silenced and tamed.
“My voice feels too loud in here. I must try to whisper more. Though sometimes I can’t help but scream! […] I must try to only speak when I’m asked. No screeching. No jumping about. I’m a young lady now. This is what I’ve learnt. You see? I can be tamed. I know now that as I grow I must also shrink. I must not take up too much space. If I am to marry well I need to practice these tricks to hush my whole being so that I am only seen when needed.”

Emilia is afraid that getting married would mean that she won’t be able to write anymore, that her life will just be focused on supporting her husband and she opts instead to become the mistress of the older Lord Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon and a cousin of Queen Elizabeth I. Lord Carey makes sure that Emilia is well taken care of financially and allows her to continue writing. When he gets Emilia pregnant though he arranges for her to marry her cousin Alphonso Lanier. In the play, it is suggested that Alphonso is gay and that the marriage is one of convenience for both of them. Emilia gives birth to a son that she calls Henry, presumably after his father.

Emilia and William Shakespeare meet by chance and they fall in love with one another and have a passionate affair. Emilia even gets pregnant and gives birth to Shakespeare’s daughter, Odilya, who dies when she is only 10 months old. Odilya’s death breaks something in Emilia and she feels an even stronger drive to write. Her frustration at not being able to get her work published and see it performed as Shakespeare does his work reaches a boiling point.
“The pain and anguish of your own losses written large upon the stage. Does it help? I think it must. If only my own grief could be dissipated as such. But it can’t. Can it? And it is because of this that grief is not my only pain. It is my whole existence in your shadow. It is women born to a status that dooms us to your ill will”.

For me and hopefully for most people living now it’s easy to feel Emilia’s anger and frustration about how unequal women were being treated. In her time she was one of the very few people advocating of equal rights for men and women and it was a dangerous opinion to share.
As Alphonso is spending all of their money and leaves them in debt, Emilia goes to live with Lady Margaret Clifford, Countess of Cumberland and her daughter Lady Anne Clifford. Lady Margaret is also a feminist whose husband George has multiple indiscreet affairs. She asks Emilia to be a tutor for Lady Anne and to write poems for women, to warn them about the wicked ways of men.

As women’s writings are censored and they are only allowed to write about religion and virtues they distribute and reproduce the poems through an underground network of women. When some of them fall into the wrong (male) hands they get paid a visit by Sir Thomas Howard and it becomes clear how dangerous it is to advocate equality.
“Instead of giving thanks for the generous and kind disposition of all men she seems to suggest that men are to be ignored and discarded in favour of a new order in which women are seen as equal. This preposterous notion gives no thought to clear fact that for as long as time immemorial women have never been equal to men and instead must accept the natural order of things. Inferior. Ever more so and subservient to the end. This poetry, if you can call it that, is akin to a call to arms and it is the most dangerous rubbish I’ve ever read. […] Do not forget the growing discomfort the spread of a certain kind of sorcery that this could be described as. You would not want to be tried as a witch Emilia – I fear your crimes would not go down well.”

As Emilia and Alphonso hit rock bottom financially Emilia starts to teach poor women, both because she wants to give these women a voice and to make a bit of money. The women embolden each other to speak up louder and louder, despite the danger. They encourage Emilia to start writing feminist messages hidden in religious poems, so her work can get published and it finally does. These published poems are the only things that she wrote that have been saved for us to read. At least the only ones that she has been credited with as the writer…

Emilia in action

The fierceness of Emilia and the other women is intense and inspiring. It’s emotional even when reading it. I’m sad that I won’t get to see the play (unless it will be extended), but there is talk about a film, so I’m keeping my hopes up. If you are in London while it’s still running I urge you to go and see it. If not I highly recommend the book. Even if just to read Emilia’s final speech, which is quite something.
We’ve come a long way, but we also still have a long way to go. And these days we even have to be vigilant to make sure that we are not going backward!

“Listen to us. Listen to every woman who came before you. Listen to every woman with you now. And listen when I say to you to take the fire as your own. That anger that you feel it is yours and you can use it. We want you to. We need you to. Look how far we’ve come already. Don’t stop now.”

Macbeth – A tale of ruthless ambition

Macbeth is the second Shakespeare play that I read. Before I tried, I didn’t think I’d be able to understand, let alone enjoy Shakespeare. Last year I visited Shakespeare’s Globe during a weekend trip to London. I found these cute little books from the Macmillan Collector’s Library that didn’t seem too daunting, so I decided to try one. Some of the words look a bit different, but often reading out loud will make it easier to understand.

The books in this series start with an extensive introduction, which explains the outline of the story. There’s also an overview of the names and roles of the most important characters in the play. With names like Macbeth, Macduff, and Malcolm this is helpful.

Macbeth is a story about how ambition and greed can make ordinary people become violent and ruthless. It’s called the Scottish play, as most of it is set in Scotland and focuses on the fight for the Scottish crown.
Macbeth is a general in King Duncan’s army. When three witches tell him that he will one day be king Macbeth’s ambition gets the best of him. He decides not to wait for “one day” and takes matters into his own hand. At first, Macbeth is hesitant about killing, but Lady Macbeth is ruthless and even asks the spirits to fill her with cruelty.
After having killed the roles are reversed. Macbeth develops a taste for it while his wife is being consumed by guilt and slowly loses her mind.

There is a lot of violence and death in the book, but the most heartbreaking part is when one of the noblemen has to deliver the news of the death of Macduff’s wife and children to him in England.
“Let not your ears despise my tongue for ever,
Which shall possess them with the heaviest sound
That ever yet they heard”

Needless to say that the writing is beautiful. It’s easy to be so focused on the story that you forget to pay attention to the beautiful sentences. There are several parts of the book that I read multiple times because I wanted to focus on the beauty of the prose rather than just read and understand the story. I know that I’m a couple of centuries late to this party, but I feel it’s worth noting as there might be more non-native English speakers who shun away from Shakespeare, thinking it will be too difficult to read. It’s doable and worth the effort!

By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes

How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World

I expected to just read this book by Francis Wheen as a reference (and therefore for it to be a bit boring). I thought it would be like a Ben Goldacre book, super interesting, but not necessarily written to entertain a large audience.
The beginning of the book is almost the opposite. I was immediately absorbed in it and couldn’t put it down. It’s much more Harari than Goldacre.
The book is not just interesting though. It’s also devastating and if the news today isn’t enough to make you feel like we’re screwed, this book might do it.

Wheen starts out by explaining The Enlightenment or the Age of Reason. This is a movement that started in the 17th century and was based on the idea that “rational inquiry leads to objective truth”.
After this upbeat start of the book, Wheen uses the remainder of the book to show how the humane values of the Enlightenment have been abandoned since 1979. 1979, incidentally, is the year in which I was born but I promise I had nothing to do with this betrayal of reason.

The late 20th-century movement that rejects objective facts, science, reason, and logic is called post-modernism. The movement was popular among progressives and made it a hip thing to talk nonsense and be as vague as possible. Few progressives who didn’t subscribe to this epistemic relativism dared to criticize it for fear of being ridiculed. This feeling was justified as it’s almost impossible to argue against bogus ideas if notions of truth and falsity no longer have any validity. It’s scary and depressing that this seems to be just as relevant today and that we still haven’t found a way to counter it.

What shocked me is the totality with which the world has seemed to reject reason. World leaders whom I have looked up to all my life (even if I might not have agreed with some or even most of their policies) turn out to have been enthusiastic believers in the power of mumbo-jumbo. If world leaders fall for the charms of charlatans, it’s not hard to imagine that entire communities can fall under their spell.
The personal beliefs of these world leaders have led to a lot of spending of public resources and money on all sorts of nonsense and to vulnerable people being exploited.

Man once surrendering his reason has no remaining guard against absurdities

I expected the book to mostly be about alternative medicine and spiritual beliefs, but a lot of it is focused on economic mumbo-jumbo. The book describes examples of how the west in general, and the US and the UK in particular, have used and are using their power to extend their own power and wealth and to slow down the growth of developing nations. Leaders like Thatcher and Reagan were among the first firm believers in the “trickle-down” effect”, meaning that when the rich get richer, they will share their wealth with the poor, without intervention through taxes and the government. I don’t think anyone still believes this today. The gap between the rich and poor is increasing at an ever greater speed and the further the poor fall behind, the harder it becomes to catch up.

Wheen also explains how the stock markets have gone crazy, especially over internet start-ups. A company nowadays can be worth many millions on the stock exchange without having made any profit and in some cases without realistically being expected to ever do so. As in this case value is literally “in the eye of the beholder” that value can also be diminished if people decide to start selling their shares. This means that people and companies trading stocks can gain a lot of money in a short amount of time, but they can lose it just as easily.

History shows that most people are unable to believe that a large group of people would follow someone who would use violence to oppress opponents, people of a certain race or of a different religion. Even when it happens right under our noses it’s very hard to believe it. Until it’s too late. We all think we wouldn’t fall for it and things will work out in the end. After all, we can clearly see that Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot were despots. Surely we are able to spot the next one coming along and prevent similar atrocities from happening again. Unfortunately, we are too gullible and because of that at risk of letting history repeat itself.

If you are willing to have your mind blown and if you think you are able to stomach reading all about how mumbo-jumbo conquered the world I’d urge you to read this book. It provides an eye-opening background story to recent history and hopefully if enough people become aware we can work together on a more reasonable future.

Milkman – The power of gossip and social pressure

Milkman by Anna Burns is a gloomy story about rumors and gossip and the life and death consequences. The city where the story is set is divided by religion and politics. The city is not named, but the Anna Burns is born in Belfast in Northern Ireland.
The protagonist is “middle sister”. None of the characters are referenced by name. They are referenced based on their relationship with the protagonist, or the most consistent gossip about them in the community.

Men are getting killed because of something they did, something they didn’t do, something they might have done, or simply by mistake. Women are not seen as a thread. When all the “ordinary” women unite though, for instance, to get rid of a curfew, the men in power have no choice but to give in to their demands.
The impact of divide and distrust on everyday life is all-consuming to the protagonist. It feeds her self-doubt to the point where she completely isolates herself and forgets who she is, or at least who she used to be.

While thankfully I have not lived in an environment as described in the book, it’s easy to feel the emotions and the undercurrents described in the book. I guess in a way high school can be seen as a micro-version of such an environment. A place where who you are associated with, what group you belong to, where you live, what rumors are made up and how they take hold or disappear determines how (un)comfortable life is.

On top of that, you are falling in love, discovering your sexuality and getting your heart broken. But also you might break someone else’s heart, either on purpose or by accident.
It’s a place where most men seem less mature than most women, but are at the same time they are more powerful. This leads to violence, misunderstanding and in extreme cases to physical and mental abuse.
It’s a unique book, both in the way issues are addressed and in the style in which it’s written.

The emotions in the story are gripping and dark and the relationships are complex. It’s a very interesting and enjoyable read. If you feel like you can deal with the gloom I would recommend reading Milkman.

On writing – Writing advice from Stephen King

I’m not a Stephen King fan. I saw the film Misery with my classmates when I was a first grader in high school. I tried to hide my fear, but I was so scared I never got close to anything related to Stephen King again after that. Until this book. I figured that a book on writing should be safe enough.

The first 30% of the book is a biography. I don’t know why he decided to structure the book like that, but it works. It provides context for the writing advice and it made me trust him.

When he does talk about writing he explains that he doesn’t believe in plotting a story. This is interesting to me because it’s 100% opposite to the premise of Story Genius by Lisa Cron that I read a few months ago. Stephen’s explanation is that you can’t plot life. Plotting a story is likely to suck the energy out of it. It will become artificial.

The thing I like most about this is that I’m pretty sure I won’t have the patience to plot a story the way Lisa Cron proposes to do it. Stephen King compares a writer discovering a story while writing to an archeologist uncovering a fossil. While it’s still a lot of hard work it sounds like a lot more fun than plotting out every little detail before starting the actual writing.

For King, a story starts with a situation. There is no plot to start with and characters are flat. The characters come to life when the situation starts to develop. While he’s writing and excavating the story from where it’s buried the plot will become visible.

He completes his first draft without sharing any of it with anyone. This helps him to maintain the energy and speed. While writing a first draft, any outside input, whether praise or criticism, could impact the development of the story. Once the first draft is finished a small number of “important readers” get to read it, ask questions about it and give feedback. You should also read your first draft yourself. According to King, this is a very positive thing that you will likely be looking forward to at that point.
I’m not convinced I’d feel that way, but who knows, maybe I would.

I don’t know if I’ll ever write a novel, but if I don’t it won’t have anything to do with On Writing or Stephen King. I’ve gotten to like him through reading this book. I’m not sure if I like him enough to get me over my trauma and try reading one of his other books, but I’m considering it. It won’t be Misery though, that’s for sure!

When asked how do you write