Category Archives: Reflections

White Fragility – Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism

As I was working on this post, I realized that I’ve read several books by black authors in the last few months. Unsurprisingly, the number has increased even more in the last three weeks. But even though I’ve read several, I’ve not written about books written by black authors, and the book that I’m talking about today is written by a white woman too. I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot. Why don’t I choose these books to write about? A lot of them are classics, they are great reads and they have taught me about other people’s experiences.

My hypothesis about why I’m not writing about these books is that I don’t feel qualified to comment on black people’s experiences and I’m scared to get it wrong. I’m afraid of being called out for getting it wrong. But not writing about books by black authors is a form of racism too. And not wanting to be called out for having racially problematic ideas is part of my White Fragility and what the book with the same title by Robin DiAngelo is about.

Our society is inherently racist. It’s in our institutions and our unconscious. Because our society is inherently racist, we are all socialized to be racists too. You can’t escape it even if you try. Yet if we’re centrists we feel that the people protecting statues, waving confederate flags, and shouting abuse at black people either online or in real life are racists. When we’re progressives we feel that people saying that all lives matter are racists. Yet if you ask the people in both of these groups if they are racist they will probably say that they aren’t. We see racism as a thing of the past. Slavery was ended a little over 150 years ago and we feel that inequality also ended back then. Being called racist triggers a strong defensive response in all of us. Even Trump claims that he is not a racist.

Most of us find it hard receiving critical feedback regardless of the topic. With racism, this feeling is even stronger. I find it hard to receive critical feedback of any kind and I would be mortified if I were called out about having said or done something that’s racially problematic. We have learned that racists are bad people. This means that we feel that a good person can’t be a racist. And surely we’re good people?! When someone informs us that something we said or did was racially problematic we get defensive, angry, or upset. We often retreat into silence and we feel anxious.
By thinking that all racists are bad people, we’re creating a false dichotomy. For most white people, racism is like murder: the concept exists, but someone has to commit it for it to happen. This limited view of such a multilayered syndrome cultivates the sinister nature of racism and by making it impossible to talk about it, it perpetuates racist phenomena rather than eradicates them. Racism isn’t black and white. Even if we’re good people with good intentions we might say or do things that hurt black people or people of color. Even black people or people of color themselves might have internalized racist ideas because that is what society has taught them.

We must get used to the idea that we all have been socialized to be various levels of racist. Not seeing the color of someone’s skin and not wanting to talk about racism also means we can’t recognize the inequality in our society.
Robin DiAngelo is a diversity coach. She works with groups of people (mostly at the request of the companies they work for) to talk about diversity, racism, and equality. In the book, she explains that as long as she’s talking about racism in a general and abstract sense, white people might get uncomfortable, but they can bear it. However, as soon as it’s pointed out to them that something that they said or did was problematic, the anger comes. There might be tears. People might walk out of the training or retreat into themselves. I can understand that response. But I can also see why that’s not a helpful reaction. If we would be able to receive feedback on our problematic racial patterns we could use it to learn and grow.

Because we have been socialized in a racism-based society, we have a racist worldview and deep racial bias. There’s no point feeling guilty about this. We didn’t choose to live in this society or for society to be based on these racist ideas. We had no way of avoiding our biases. This doesn’t alleviate us from the responsibility to work to unlearn our behaviors. We should try to identify our internalized feelings of superiority and how they are manifesting themselves. We have to be willing to get racially uncomfortable and be willing to examine the effects of our racial engagement. This includes not indulging in the anger, defensiveness, or self-pity that is often our knee-jerk reaction to a racially uncomfortable situation.
Let’s get away from the idea that there’s a good/bad binary when it comes to racism. Let’s accept that we all have a racial bias instead of seeing this claim as a deep moral blow, and let’s work to disrupt it.

I think all white people should read White Fragility.

Black Lives Matter

I wasn’t looking forward to writing this post. I didn’t want to feel the pain, anger, and frustration that I knew would be part of writing it. I could have chosen not to write it. And that is the definition of my privilege.

If I get off social media and avoid the news I can even in these extraordinary times avoid being confronted by and having to think about racism. I can only do that because of my white privilege. Several times this week I have been brought to tears by what I watched online or read on social media and in the newspaper. It’s tempting to wish things go “back to normal”. For many black people, “normal” means having to deal with prejudice, being called names, and having to be afraid of the police. For black people, racism is always there. If things go back to normal the only difference is that it will no longer be in the news.

For Europeans, it’s tempting to think that racism happens far away or that it happened long ago. Slavery around the world officially ended around 150 years ago. In some places, it’s not even that long. The Netherlands was one of the last countries in Europe to abolish slavery, after being pressured to do so by the British.
Once slavery was officially abolished not much changed, other than people not officially being someone’s property anymore. Governments felt bad for the slave owners, who had been accumulating wealth for a long time by working people to death in inhumane circumstances without paying them or even treating them like human beings. Because slave owners had suffered so much (yes, I’m being sarcastic), governments compensated them for the loss of their “property”.
Slaves, who had nothing, were in many cases forced to continue work on the plantations of their former owners while still hardly receiving any payment for their work, let alone compensation for the fact that they had been working in inhumane conditions and for free for years.
Remember, this was all only around 150 years ago.

We have to be honest with ourselves and recognize that racism is still happening everywhere. The idea that black people are worth less or deserve less has been part of our culture for centuries and it has been institutionalized too. In The Netherlands, we feel like we’re nice and progressive but I’m a lot less likely to be stopped by the police or have my tax returns reviewed than a black person is. I’m never asked where I’m from and I’ve never been refused entrance to public transport. Oh, and there are still plenty of people who feel “black Piet” is folklore and because of that can’t be racist. If you are a white person I challenge you to watch this short video (Being Black by Jane Elliott) and answer the question that Jane Elliot is asking honestly. Then ask yourself why you deserve to get treated better than most black people. It’s the skin color that you happen to be born with that earns you that privilege. It’s not an achievement. It’s pure luck. And (institutionalized) racism.

Now is the time to stand up and speak out against the injustice of racism. You might feel that you are only one person. That you won’t be able to make much of a difference. But you can help. Everyone can.

  • You could join one of the protest marches around the world. These huge marches are made up of a lot of people who are all just one person looking to make a change.
  • If you are in a COVID-19 risk group and can’t be outside in crowds at the moment or if you’re simply not the marching type, you can go onto social media and make sure you extend your filter bubble a bit by also following some black people. Listen to them and believe them when they share their experiences. Even if it’s uncomfortable. Then share their stories. Your friends are probably not all following the same people, so by sharing you’re extending people’s reach.
    If you’re not on social media you can help by calling out racism in your friends and family. Not by calling them a racist. No one has ever been convinced to change their opinion through name-calling. Have a calm conversation with them. Explain why you feel their views are problematic.
  • To be able to talk to your friends and family and to increase your understanding of the challenges black people face make sure you make an effort to educate yourself.

I have put together some resources that you can help to educate yourself. Many of these are mentioned all over social media at the moment and Google is your friend. If you don’t live in the US or the UK you might have to work a little bit harder to find local resources, especially if you want to donate.

If your thing is reading consider one or more of the following books. The first three are fiction, the last three are non-fiction.

  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou
  • Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
  • How to Argue With a Racist – Adam Rutherford
  • Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge
  • How To Be an Antiracist – Ibram X. Kendi

The last title has an important message that you might have heard more often in these last few weeks. We are at a point where not being racist isn’t enough anymore. You have to be anti-racist. Which means taking a stand and calling out racism when you see it. At the very least.

You can also watch the following films or documentaries.

  • 13th
  • The Central Park Five
  • I am Not Your Negro
  • 3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets
  • And so many more that it’s easier to have a look yourself

Or if you prefer podcasts you could listen to

  • About Race with Reni Eddo-Lodge
  • Code Switch by the NPR
  • The Stoop with Hana Baba and Leila Day
  • Momentum: A Race Forward Podcast
  • Scene on Radio Season 2 – Seeing White

You can also donate to help out if you have the financial means.

Whatever you do please help make sure things don’t go back to “normal”. Let’s work together to use the current momentum to bring about lasting change. It won’t be easy or quick, we have to undo hundreds of years of cultural and institutional racism. It won’t be comfortable either. We will make mistakes and be called out for it. It will hurt. Hopefully, we’ll learn from it and do better next time.
Also realize that we are so used to our privilege that equality might feel like oppression. Continue to challenge yourself. There is no excuse for treating one group of people better than another.

Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter2

My bubble

Sorry for the long radio silence. And now that I’m finally writing, it’s not even about a book. Feel free to skip this post if you’re here for the book reviews.

Two weekends ago, when I was supposed to write, it was the first weekend we were asked to stay home as much as possible. Even though the guidance from the government still left a lot of room to move about at that point it felt daunting. I actually started a post, but couldn’t concentrate and only wrote a single paragraph. I was trying to get my head around everything that was happening and I couldn’t.
Last weekend I just couldn’t be bothered to write, because what’s the point anyways?

I’m finally starting to find my bearing again. Let me make clear that I’m extremely lucky. I’m healthy and I live in a beautiful home, right next to a lake, so I can walk out the door and enjoy the calming influence of loudly quacking water birds. I don’t have any kids, so I don’t have to balance working and homeschooling. I don’t have a partner, so I don’t have to compete for the best place to work in the house. I have a job that allows me to work from home and I work in an industry that can continue to function even if there will, of course, be a pretty significant impact. The company I work for is healthy and it’s always very people-focused. In these challenging times, the number one priority is still our people and their well-being and it’s heartwarming and reassuring.

You might wonder what the problem is then exactly. It turns that the world-changing completely and being asked to stay home as much as possible and away from other people is discombobulating. I live in a place where disasters are usually happening far away. We don’t have earthquakes, bush fires, wars, tornados or tsunamis. As I said, I’m very lucky. I like to be in control and I’m not used to experiencing the news first hand.

It turns out that a global pandemic is pretty far outside of my span of control and it took me a while to get to grips with how that made me feel. It’s not just the virus and what it does to the world and its people. It’s also trying to stay away from other people and to an extend becoming afraid of other people. Going to the supermarket generates so much stress that it gives me a stomach ache at the moment. And I worry about my parents and about the economic impact all this has on several of my friends.

I usually work from home approximately one day per week and I love it. I try to block that day so I don’t have many meetings and it allows me to get stuff done. It’s normally the most relaxed workday of the week.
Now that I’m working from home every day it’s completely different. I have back to back meetings (calls) on most days and it’s very intense. Much more intense than a day at the office. I haven’t been able to pinpoint why exactly, but I’ve heard this from several other people too, so it’s not just me. At the end of a workday, I’m shattered at the moment.

Right, sorry, I had to get that out of my system. It’s not all bad though. Several things are helping me to stay sane and entertained.

  • I’d been thinking about getting a monitor for my “home office” since I moved in here five years ago, but so far had been putting it off. The prospect of working from home provided the final push to finally get a large monitor to use when I’m working from home. I love my upgraded “home office”.
  • I exercise at least every other day. There are no work-dinners or social gatherings, so planning has gotten pretty straight forward. It’s either going for a run or indoor rowing as the options are somewhat limited. It had been a while since I had run due to the terrible weather in February. Since we’ve mostly been locked inside the sun has come out and it makes all the difference.
  • I go out for a 30-minute lunch walk every day to clear my head. It’s wonderful (and necessary).
  • I’m spending more time playing the piano. No commute means there’s more time in the evening. I love playing the piano. I’m no good, but I love it.
  • I’ve finally become a patron of some artists that I admire. This was also something that I had wanted to do for a while, but never took the time to do. As artists need our help now more than ever this felt like a good time to finally take action.

I’m an introvert at the best of times. I like being at home and reading while drinking a lot of tea. This is a good time to be an introvert.

If you read this far, thank you for indulging me. I will try to resume normal book review service again this weekend. In the meantime, please stay healthy and take care of yourself and the people around you if you can. Be safe and be kind.

Home Office

Daring Greatly

Daring Greatly by Brené Brown is about vulnerability and connection. To be able to create a genuine connection with other people you need to show your true self. You need to dare to be vulnerable. It might feel safe to put up an armor and hide behind it, but it also means that you isolate yourself behind the shield that you put up. When we can’t connect to others we suffer. The safety we perceive behind our shield is a farce. It hurts us more than that it protects us.

When someone shares their fears it resonates, because we recognize them. We all feel similar fears and seeing them in others is comforting. It shows us that we are not alone.
But while we find other people’s vulnerability attractive and relatable, we see our own vulnerability as a weakness.

  • Vulnerability is the last thing I want you to see in me, but the first thing I look for in you.
  • Vulnerability is courage in you and inadequacy in me.
  • I’m drawn to your vulnerability but repelled by mine.

The reason we find it so hard to be vulnerable is because we are afraid of shame. Shame is the most primitive human emotions and we all have it (except when you’re a sociopath).
Shame is the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection. I’m not worthy. I’m not good enough. I’m unlovable. I don’t belong.
Shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders, and bullying. There are no positive outcomes attached to shame. It’s a destructive emotion.

Shame is the fear of disconnection. It’s something that we attach to ourselves, not to our behavior, making it intensely painful and hard to get out of. We don’t even want to mention shame, and the more convulsive we are about avoiding it, the more power it has over us.
The most effective way to avoid shame is to stay connected. When we feel shame creeping up, instead of putting up our armor we should lower it. We should show our vulnerability despite our fears. That’s what courage looks like.

I feel that being vulnerable and avoiding shame has a lot to do with being authentic. I’ve written here about being bullied as a kid. As a result, I still often feel that people are talking about me behind my back and a fear of shame is never far away. I know intellectually that most people are way too busy with themselves to spend any brain cycles on me, but the fear of being made fun of is deeply embedded in me.

In a sort of weird twist, I’m also unapologetically me. I know what I want and I give absolutely zero fucks about what other people think about that. I prefer to spend an evening on the sofa with a book over going to a party and I’m not afraid to say it out loud. I don’t drink when going out for dinner (especially if the dinner is work-related). And when I travel I always bring a power strip. I’ve been made fun of for that many times. Yet the same people who make fun of it often make use of it.

I’m not afraid of sharing my insecurities and challenges. This is unusual in the IT consultancy world. Yet whenever I do it, especially when presenting in front of larger groups, many people tell me how much they appreciate it.
Despite being comfortable in my own skin I still find myself regularly nodding or uhuh-ing to avoid having to indicate that I don’t understand what was being said, or because I don’t agree but am afraid that my opinion is not a popular one. I try to avoid shame by hiding behind a mask and it never feels right.
The more we are able to be and share our full selves the easier it is to find connection and courage.

We don’t just have to deal with shame in our attempts to be vulnerable and connected. We live in a culture of never enough. As soon as we wake up in the morning we think “I didn’t get enough sleep”. The next thought is “I don’t have enough time”. We spend most of our waking hours hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don’t have enough of. Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we’re already inadequate, behind, lacking something.

This mind-set of scarcity lives at the very heart of our jealousies, our greed, our prejudice, and many of our arguments both with ourselves and with others. It’s hard to be vulnerable and connected when you feel like you are lacking the time and resources to do what you feel you have to do. I challenge you to be honest with yourself the next time you feel like you are being attacked by the scarcity monster. Is there really not enough or are you stressing out and pushing for more out of habit?

Get into the vulnerability arena and put your armor down. Being brave is not winning or losing, it’s showing up. Be authentic. Instead of going for the easy sarcastic snark, try saying something positive when you have a chance. Support others in their attempts to be vulnerable too. Be willing to sit with the discomfort of your own and other people’s vulnerability.
The world can be a much nicer place if we’re all brave enough to show our true selves. Let’s dare greatly.

The image has a red background and shows the title of the book, Animal Farm in black, and the name of the author, George Orwell in grey. The image also shows the profile of a pig in pink with white letters displayed on top of the pig stating "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than the others."

Animal Farm

I read Animal Farm by George Orwell in high school, but I must admit I didn’t remember much of it, other than the high-level premise and “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”. A sentence my father used during my childhood whenever someone tried to apply double standards or argued for doing so.

The original introduction of this book, written by Orwell himself is added to the back of the edition of the book that I read. I found it very interesting to read the introduction, but it was probably a good decision to place this text after the main story. The introduction is almost as long as the entire book and I’m not sure I’d have gotten to the main story had I tried to read the introduction before the rest of the book. This qualification needs a little bit of clarification. The introduction is really long for an introduction to a book, but also, the book itself is very short, it’s only 69 pages. A lot of people probably know this, as it was this characteristic of the book that meant the book got chosen to be on many a high-school reading list.

The main story is about a farm where the animals chase the human owner, who they feel isn’t treating them well, away.
At first, the animals are very happy. They have more autonomy. Even though they still work hard, they feel like they are working for themselves and each other and morale is soaring. All the harvested crops and earnings go to the animals, so they benefit directly from their hard work.
Together the animals draft seven commandments that help the animals to govern themselves and the farm and that provide a framework that they should live by:
1. Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy.
2. Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend.
3. No animal shall wear clothes.
4. No animal shall sleep in a bed.
5. No animal shall drink alcohol.
6. No animal shall kill any other animal.
7. All animals are equal.

These commandments might sound good and sensible if you’re an animal and they are. Theoretically. Unfortunately, the pigs in the story, like humans in real life, are unable to resist the temptation of power.
After a while, the pigs slowly start to take more power and allow themselves some privileges. They also slowly change the (written) commandments, but they do it by only making one small change at a time and each small change doesn’t seem bad enough to fight.
Eventually, the pigs end up being mean, hypocrite and lying dictators, living a comfortable life, while they work the other animals to death.

Orwell wrote the book in 1943 and it was published in 1945. The story reflects the events leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Stalinist era in the Soviet Union following that. If anyone wasn’t able to recognize the story Orwell helps a bit by letting the animals address each other as “comrades”.

Even though the story was written a long time ago, it’s still relevant today, and not just in Russia. The small steps that are taken to break down democracy and that don’t appear to be worth protesting about are visible in many countries around the world. Trump has already gone through many small steps in the US. In Australia Scott Morrison’s government had journalists’ houses raided to try and find the source of an article they felt shouldn’t have been published. In the UK Boris Johnson wants to put the BBC up for sale.
Communism doesn’t have a patent on slowly destroying democracy in favor of a power-hungry dictator.

I hope we won’t let history repeat itself, but I’m afraid that we will. Decent people are just too…decent. And perhaps too scared and too comfortable. We might not start fighting back until it’s too late.
These power-hungry thugs don’t play by the rules. They break as many of them as they can and then change them to suit their needs.

I’m not any better than anyone else. I will avoid conflict if I can and lay low instead of stepping into the ring to stand up to thugs and bullies until I get angry and emotional.
This isn’t easy, but let’s try and stop the thugs before they take over the world.

Looking back – the books of 2019

Towards the end of February, I realized that until that moment, I had read more than a book per week on average in 2019. I had heard about people reading a book per week and always thought it was impossible, but I decided that I would start tracking the books that I read and see how far I would come.
In March, while thinking about a structural solution to the ever-returning question of ‘what to blog about’, I decided to write about the books that I read. This had the added benefit of making what I learned from the books stick.
I’ll throw in the spoiler right here: I read 60 books this year and while I’m proud of the number, it didn’t feel like hard work at all. Reading makes me happy. I feel more relaxed after reading for an hour than I do after watching TV for an hour. Watching TV is the only thing I stopped doing to free up time for reading. I didn’t have to put everything else in my life on hold. It’s almost the opposite. There were several other “projects” that made 2019 a great year.

I started to learn to play the piano in February. As a teenager, I’d had guitar lessons for several years, but I never felt in any way competent or confident playing the guitar and gave up on it eventually. Since falling in love with Tim Minchin and his work and hearing him talk about how much he loves playing the piano I had been tempted to try playing the piano myself. Not to become famous or even ever play in front of an audience. Just for me. In February I made the decision to start small and sensible by renting an electric piano for 6 months.
I had one lesson but unfortunately, the piano teacher’s schedule didn’t align with my (pretty rigid) work schedule. Thankfully I got some good tips, the most impactful being the recommendation of the SimplyPiano app. It’s flexible and easy to use and as the app only uses positive reinforcement it’s also stress-free. The app allows you to play songs pretty much right away and it’s easy to track progress. In August, after 6 months with the rental piano, I decided that I liked (loved) it enough to buy my own piano. I will never be a concert pianist, but I absolutely love playing and I make enough progress to keep me interested (hooked).

In June I agreed to run the 16km “Dam tot Dam” run on September 22nd as part of a team from work. Anyone knowing me a little bit will realize that when entering a race, I don’t just want to finish it, I want to do well. Not to win it, but to run a decent time. I increased my running schedule significantly over the summer to get from my usual 10km to 16km at a decent pace. A bad cold just a few weeks before the race threw me back a bit, but I was able to finish in a decent 1:26:56.

In November I spent most of the month traveling to see Tim Minchin perform in the UK 5 times in 3 different places. I’ve been a big fan of Tim for 4 years, but as he hadn’t toured for 8 years, I hadn’t seen a full live show from him. It was a brilliant, crazy, and ok, somewhat tiring month.

While my reading wasn’t materially impacted by my other adventures, writing a blog post per week has proven to be challenging. Writing a post takes me between 3 and 6 hours. That’s almost a full weekend day. Towards the end of the year, I couldn’t find the self-discipline and motivation to invest that much time every weekend. Overall, I wrote 34 book-related posts since the beginning of March, which I’m happy with.
I’ve also learned that there are some books that don’t have a blog post in them for me. They can be great reads but might just not have enough background story to warrant a complete post. This mostly happens with fiction, as I don’t want to give away any spoilers beyond the basic premises of the book. It has made me decide not to write about books if I don’t have anything worthwhile to say about them. The best examples of this are Stella Rimington’s Liz Carlyle books. I’ve written about a couple of them and I feel I’ve said everything there is to say about the series. I heartily recommend reading them, both the author and the protagonist are bad-ass women, but I won’t be writing about them anymore.

At the bottom of this post, you’ll find the full list of the books that I’ve read and the blogs I wrote about them. Having read this much I felt I should also list my top picks for this year. I liked most of the books that I read, but these stood out for one reason or another. My top has turned out to be a top 4 and it’s a 50/50 split between fiction and non-fiction.

  • Neil Gaiman is a master storyteller and the best story that I’ve read from him so far is The Graveyard Book. It’s tense and emotional and uplifting and heart-breaking. It’s beautiful and I wish I could read it for the first time again.
  • Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman has been mentioned in at least half of the other non-fiction books that I’ve read this year. It explains why humans behave the way we do. Perhaps if more people read it and understood the implications it would mean we could start thinking a bit more again and shout a bit less.
  • The Alice Network by Kate Quinn is based on a real-life story and evokes all the emotions. All the protagonists are women and I still can’t believe how brave these women were. Absolutely stunning.
  • Caroline Criado Perez is also a bad-ass woman for writing Invisible Women. This book talks about several situations and places where women are structurally neglected or simply forgotten about. It’s a bit of a depressing, but very important read. And if reading it pulled me down, I can’t imagine how Criado Perez felt while writing it, but we should all be grateful that she did.

I intend to continue reading at approximately the same pace next year. I’m enjoying it and it makes me feel good, so there is no reason not to. On top of that, there is always a list of books that I want to read. More books get added to the list all the time. At the moment the list is 15 books long, but I’m always looking for new ideas, so if you have a book recommendation please let me know what it is.
For now, the plan is to write (and publish) a blog post every two weeks. This will allow me to be a bit more selective when deciding what books I want to write about and it means I can spread the writing effort a bit.

First things first, though. I hope that you have a great New Year’s Eve and I’m wishing you a happy and healthy 2020. I’m looking forward to more books, friendships, music, travel, and beauty when you least expect it.

#

Title

Author

Blog

1

Start with Why

Simon Sinek

2

The Fault in our Stars

John Green

3

The Psychology of Time Travel

Kate Mascarenhas

4

The Graveyard Book

Neil Gaiman

5

Homo Deus

Yuval Noah Harari

6

Becoming

Michelle Obama

7

Drive

Daniel H. Pink

8

Creativity Inc.

Ed Catmull

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/03/30/creativity-inc/

9

Deadline

Stella Rimington

10

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

Douglas Adams

11

Maybe This Time

Jill Mansell

12

Onbehagen

Bas Heijne

13

On Writing

Stephen King

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/03/09/on-writing-writing-advice-from-stephen-king/

14

Thinking Fast and Slow

Daniel Kahneman

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/03/04/thinking-fast-and-slow/

15

Present Danger

Stella Rimington

16

Life, The Universe and Everything

Douglas Adams

17

Kern = King

Marco Frijhoff

18

The Power of Habit: why we do what we do, and how to change

Charles Duhigg

19

Milkman

Anna Burns

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/03/16/milkman/

20

Macbeth

Shakespeare

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/04/14/macbeth/

21

Good Omens

Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/03/23/good-omens/

22

How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World

Francis Wheen

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/04/07/how-mumbo-jumbo-conquered-the-world/

23

The Secret River

Kate Grenville

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/04/21/the-secret-river-how-a-lack-of-understanding-can-lead-to-a-disaster/

24

Rip Tide

Stella Rimington

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/04/28/rip-tide/

25

Thinking Ahead

Dirk Helbing

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/05/05/thinking-ahead/

26

The Happiness of Pursuit

Chris Guillebeau

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/05/12/the-happiness-of-pursuit/

27

Emilia

Morgan Lloyd Malcolm

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/05/19/emilia/

28

Midnight’s Children

Salman Rushdie

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/06/01/midnights-children/

29

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls

Elena Favilli & Francesca Cavallo

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/05/26/good-night-stories-for-rebel-girls/

30

Singing in the Brain

Erik Scherder

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/06/09/singing-in-the-brain/

31

Taking the Work out of Networking

Karen Wickre

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/06/15/taking-the-work-out-of-networking/

32

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

Douglas Adams

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/06/22/so-long-and-thanks-for-all-the-fish/

33

Women in Tech

Tarah Wheeler

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/06/30/women-in-tech/

34

The Geneva Trap

Stella Rimington

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/07/06/the-geneva-trap/

35

The War for Kindness: building empathy in a fractured world

Jamil Zaki

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/07/14/the-war-for-kindness-building-empathy-in-a-fractured-world/

36

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Gail Honeyman

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/07/21/eleanor-oliphant-is-completely-fine/

37

How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age

Dale Carnegie & Associates

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/07/28/how-to-win-friends-and-influence-people-in-the-digital-age/

38

The Taming of the Shrew

Shakespeare

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/08/04/the-taming-of-the-shrew/

39

The Alice Network

Kate Quinn

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/08/11/the-alice-network/

40

The Science of Storytelling

Will Storr

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/08/25/the-science-of-storytelling/

41

To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/09/08/to-kill-a-mockingbird/

42

The AI Does Not Hate You

Tom Chivers

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/09/21/the-ai-does-not-hate-you/

43

Close Call

Stella Rimington

44

The Handsmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/10/06/the-handmaids-tale/

45

Nonviolent Communication

Marshall Rosenberg

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/10/13/nonviolent-communication/

46

Invisible Women

Caroline Criado Perez

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/12/15/invisible-women/

47

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Heather Morris

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/11/24/the-tattooist-of-auschwitz/

48

Fahrenheit 451

Ray Bradbury

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/10/20/fahrenheit-451/

49

Romeo and Juliet

Shakespeare

50

Mostly Harmless

Douglas Adams

51

The Go-Giver Leader

Bob Burg & John David Mann

52

Twas the Nightshift Before Christmas

Adam Kay

53

Unmasked

Andrew Lloyd Webber

54

Sensemaking

Christian Madsbjerg

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/11/03/sensemaking/

55

No One is Too Small to Make a Difference

Greta Thunberg

56

A View from the Cheap Seats

Neil Gaiman

57

Bluebeard

Kurt Vonnegut

58

The Monarchy of Fear

Martha C. Nussbaum

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/12/22/the-monarchy-of-fear/

59

Het Wit en het Purper

Willemijn van Dijk

60

Pale Blue Dot (audio book)

Carl Sagan

My piano

The Monarchy of Fear – A Philosopher Looks at our Political Crisis

Martha Nussbaum’s The Monarchy of Fear is first and foremost a call to think. To think critically, even when it’s uncomfortable. In her own words “Even though it’s hard, it’s important to think and examine options and angles, rather than lazily jumping to conclusions and blaming minorities or women.”. If you do think critically you might think that the title suggests that the book is about fear instead of about thinking and you’d be right. Fear and thinking are closely linked in the sense that it’s hard to think clearly when you are afraid.
In evolutionary prehistory this was useful. When seeing a tiger up close, following fear’s instinctual prompting is much more useful than thinking long and hard and deep until you end up as the tiger’s dinner. In our complicated modern world, however, we can’t rely on instinct. We have to think and think critically.

There is a lot of fear in the world today and most of it is based on real problems like rising real-estate prices, increased costs of health-care and education, the climate-emergency, and the uncertainty about what the impact of AI will be on the job market and the type of work that we do.
These problems are difficult to solve. A lot of studying, modeling, and thinking is required to come up with potential solutions. Implementing these solutions will also take a long time and require that we change the way we live. Even then there is no guarantee that these solutions will indeed resolve the problems they were designed to mitigate.

With so many things to be afraid of and so few easy solutions, it’s comforting to be able to find a “bad guy” who can be blamed for it all. People have a deep-rooted need to feel that the world is just. When it doesn’t present itself in that way pinning blame and punishing the adversary feels like taking back control. When there isn’t really a person or institution to blame it seems very attractive to start “othering” groups like immigrants, religions, women, or the wealthy elites. Fear gets mixed with anger, blame and envy and makes it hard to be empathic. Fear makes us naturally asocial and narcissistic. Add all that together and you can see today’s world emerging.

Unfortunately, aggressive “othering” strategies stop people from thinking and doing useful analysis. Thinking is hard, anger and blame are easy. And they are retributive, seeking to inflict pain in return for the fear a person or group is feeling. This burning desire for payback of perceived wrongdoings is a risk for democracy.
Aristotle discussed fear in a treatise on rhetoric for politicians. In order to persuade people to do what you want, he said, you have to understand how their emotions work, and then you can tailor what you say to their own psychology. To whip up fear politicians should
• Talk about supposedly impending events that are highly significant for survival or well-being;
• Make people think it will happen soon;
• Suggest that things are out of control.
Through this recipe, fear can be manipulated by spreading false information and by phrasing impending events as unavoidable and significant threads. This knowledge can be used for good but it can, of course, also be used with bad intent. This is exactly what’s happening with companies like Cambridge Analytica, who influenced voters through social media campaigns full of lies, tailored to play into their specific fears.

To fight these tactics is hard and it requires a lot of effort and awareness from individuals. We need to all think critically and read widely. Meaning don’t just read what’s offered to you through the echo-chambers of the internet, but also actively look for other sources of reliable information. That’s not just true for “them”, but also for you and me. The echo chamber echos for everyone and adds to our confirmation bias, our natural tendency to dismiss any information that isn’t in line with our previously held beliefs.

Another way to fight the false dichotomies created by fear and misinformation is by being hopeful and spreading messages of hope. People who were able to remain empathic and hopeful in the face of fear and oppression were, for instance, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Both were able to unequivocally condemn racism without seeing racists as evil or inhumane. Even after 27 years of captivity, Mandela saw the humanity and the will to do good in his oppressors, despite their awful deeds. Most of us don’t possess this level of patience and empathy, but most of us aren’t held captive for 27 years either, so perhaps we can manage to show some empathy and kindness towards someone who is tweeting something you don’t agree with. Although never imprisoned, former president Obama is setting the right example with the most-liked tweet ever: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

I feel that the topic of this book is incredibly important. The better we understand the mechanisms behind the fear and the anger and the othering, the better we can counter it. Please remember that we have to counter it with patience and love and empathy and not with more anger and othering. You might have every right to be angry about something someone else says or does, but attacking them isn’t going to convince them to change their minds. It’s only going to make them angrier. It’s incredibly difficult, but we have to try to fight anger and hate with love and empathy. Let’s try to help each other to show love and see other people’s humanity. And if you can, read The Monarchy of Fear to get a better understanding of what we’re up against.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

The tattooist of Auschwitz is the story of Lale as he told it to the author, Heather Morris. The book is very well written and so tense that at times I’m afraid to breathe. It’s hard to put down and reads pretty quickly, but not quick enough to be able to finish it without breathing.
The people in the book are all very human. Even the SS officers have their weaknesses.

Lale is a survivor, he does what he needs to do to have the best possible chance to survive the atrocities of Auschwitz. He’s careful not to hurt other prisoners, but he will not pass on an opportunity to get more food or clothes or protection for himself and his friends. You could argue that by tattooing the numbers on each new prisoner who enters either Auschwitz or Birkenau he hurts them by definition. But he figures that if he doesn’t do it someone else will and he’s probably right about that. The situation is a clear example of how hard it is to decide where you stand and how you will behave in a war. I don’t think you can know this if you haven’t been in a life or death situation. And I can imagine your decisions and behavior will change if the life or death situation lasts 3 years.

Lale falls in love with Gita in the camp. Their love lifts their spirits and the spirits of those around them. Their love is heartbreaking and empowering at the same time. It must have been very strong to be more important and more pronounced than their hunger and their fears. They take significant risks for each other. It also makes the story more bearable for the reader as it provides a glimmer of hope and occasionally even happiness.

Despite the love between Lale and Gita it’s a hard book to read. It would be easy to think this won’t happen anymore. That we won’t let one group of humans slaughter another group of humans based on one or more almost random criteria. But we know this is not true. Myanmar has rejected the citizenship of Rohingya Muslims. Myanmar security forces burn down Rohingya villages, murdering and raping the people.
In China at least 1.5 million Uyghur Muslims are being detained and tortured. Their children are often taken away from them and put into non-Uyghur families. We can pretend that ethnic cleansing is a thing from the past but its not.

Humans can be terrible people. And if we feel being terrible will allow us to be part of a tribe we would like to belong to we find it very hard not to be terrible. You don’t have to go to China or Myanmar to see this in action. I’m sure there is a social media pile-on happening as you read this. Someone who presumably said something someone didn’t like or did something they don’t understand will receive a terrifying amount of hate and threats from people they don’t know. No questions asked.

Selfishness has reached peak levels. If you are wealthy you don’t need a community to survive and many feel that they have to protect what they’ve got. Instead of helping those less fortunate than they are they fight to minimize taxes. They keep people who are in any way different at as much distance as possible. If they might get too close then perhaps bullying and threatening will scare them off. If people ask for help they are sent away, preferably to a place more horrible than the situation they originally fled.

Why do we do this to each other? Why not, if you have been lucky enough in life to have everything, share some of what you have with someone less lucky. Why not live and let live, even if people want to lead a different life than you do? It has been proven over and over again that material wealth doesn’t bring happiness (as long as you have enough to pay for all basic necessities). Helping others and bringing happiness to others is much more likely to bring happiness to you than money or possessions are. Maybe we can all just put this to the test. Who knows how much good it will do to us and the world around us.

Be kind to others, respect their opinions and preferred way of life, help people in need. Next time you feel outraged because someone is different, or doesn’t like something you like or likes something you don’t like try to take a deep breath and think about why this makes the other person a terrible person. What is it that upsets you? Can you try and put yourself in their shoes and empathize with them?

The story of the tattooist of Auschwitz is a powerful one, but it did nothing to improve my faith in humankind. This is exactly why the book is a must-read. We need to be aware of how easily we can be corrupted, so we can be vigilant.
When you finish the book you will be rewarded with the story about how the book was written, which is almost as good as the book itself and moving in its own regards.

Fahrenheit 451 – a classic that makes you think

After The Handmaid’s Tale, this book by Ray Bradbury is another classic and another book describing a dystopian US future. Guy Montag is a fireman and a fireman’s job is to burn books. When some secretly hidden books are discovered, usually through a tip from someone close to the booklover, the alarm in the fire station will sound and the firemen will rush out to burn them. The fire chief explains to Montag that it used to be ok to be different and read books. When the population grew ever bigger and denser it became important for the authorities to make sure there were no outliers and individualists. When everyone is the same there is no reason to compare yourself to others, thus taking away a major source of dissatisfaction and unhappiness.

This reasoning is interesting, as in The Handmaid’s Tale underpopulation and the need for people to focus on simply reproducing as much as possible is cited as a reason to keep people from thinking for themselves.
We see this in the real world too. Different leaders come up with a myriad of reasons to explain why it’s important that they get more power. Most authoritarian regimes come into power because at least part of the people feel that they might have a point. Most of them will come to regret this later when the veil hiding the regime’s selfish wish for more personal power evaporates.

Both in Fahrenheit 451 and in The Handmaid’s Tale it is suggested that by taking away people’s opportunity to read you take away their opportunity to learn and think for themselves. Both societies were dreamt up by authors and it makes sense for authors to feel that books being banished and reading being forbidden is a disaster.
Personally, I love learning through reading books, but I think there are also other ways to learn and educate yourself on a whole range of different topics. Not reading books doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not actively working to learn and grow. You could watch TV shows that make you think or watch online documentaries. You can read blogs, listen to podcasts and listen and talk to other people and learn from them.

Entertainment in Fahrenheit 451’s society is provided by interactive shows that do nothing to educate or challenge people. The shows are displayed on large screens. The ultimate setup to strive for is for all four walls of your living room to be replaced by the screens. The people in the shows are described as “family”. Montag’s wife Mildred loves the screens (they have three walls covered) and proclaims that she is happy talking to her “family”. When she’s not watching the screens she has earbuds in her ears that allow her to listen to the radio or to the sounds of the sea or the jungle. They are noise canceling, so she can’t communicate with others while wearing them. Mildred doesn’t like disruption and she doesn’t want to be challenged to think. Neither do her friends when they come and visit.
There aren’t many women in the book and most of them aren’t painted in a positive light.
Thankfully Clarisse, the girl who lives next door to Montag, is one of the heroes. She makes him wake up from his apathy by asking him seemingly simple, but provocative questions. She makes him think for himself.

This is also what the author is challenging us as readers to do. Think. Don’t just live your life on auto-pilot, but think about what you are doing and why you’re doing it. This comes back to David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech “This is Water” that I wrote about here. If we are the fish from the speech it’s important to make a conscious decision to recognize the water that we’re swimming in. Even when it’s always there. Especially when it’s always there.

After coming back from holiday last year I noticed that I didn’t feel good at the end of my evenings. I needed the disruption of the holiday to even notice this. I live alone and when sitting down with a cup of tea in the evening I always turned on the TV. I thought I felt better with the TV on because it provided some background chatter. Often I ended up watching though, even if nothing decent was on. When bedtime came around I felt like I didn’t get anything out of the evening. To conquer that feeling I stayed up longer, hoping that watching some more TV would make me feel better. It never did, but going to bed late certainly made me feel tired.

It’s been almost a year now since I stopped watching TV on weeknights. I also canceled my Netflix subscription. Instead, I read and I started to learn to play the piano. Both reading and playing the piano give me a lot of joy. It makes me feel like I used my time wisely and like I did something that I will still feel good about in the morning (do you ever consider when you have trouble going to bed because you think just one more episode won’t hurt, whether you will you feel better or worse in the morning because you watched that extra episode?). When I read or practice instead of watching TV I feel like I’ve had a longer and more fulfilling evening. It makes it easier to go to bed on time (sort of, I’m still a night owl).

Your experience might be completely different. You might not enjoy reading and watching TV or Netflix might genuinely make you feel good. If that’s the case then please continue to watch TV or Netflix! The point is to stop and think about it. Are you living your life on auto-pilot? Or are you at least occasionally appreciating the water that you’re swimming in? You need to make a conscious decision to snap out of auto-pilot, as our brains prefer to just do what we always do. The brain is the organ that uses the bulk of our energy and to use it efficiently it usually leaves its System 1 monkey brain (as described by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow) in charge.

I know this all too well. I love structure, rhythm, and regularity. It means that I can use my energy on the important stuff like being kind and trying to empathize and having too many meetings and still giving everyone the attention that they deserve. And to occasionally ask “How’s the water?”.

How's the water

Nonviolent Communication

I’ve been a co-trainer on a great program in which we use the Nonviolent Communication approach as described by Marshall Rosenberg, but I hadn’t read his book until now. The book contains so many great insights that I will probably read it again.

When Rosenberg talks about nonviolent communication he doesn’t mean talking without physically assaulting the person or people you are communicating with, although that too is a pre-requisite for creating a connection. Nonviolent means communicating using observations and avoiding judgments, expressing what we feelings instead of our thoughts, sharing our needs instead of using learned strategies to get what we want and requesting instead of demanding. Applying these four steps might sound easy, but it’s very hard to do. We are used to having an opinion about most if not everything and we naturally feel that the world revolves around us and our experiences. This is not surprising as we all look at the world from our own unique perspective. Looking at it through someone else’s eyes requires significantly more effort and is therefore often not bothered with. I’ll describe the four steps of nonviolent communication in a bit more detail to give you an idea of how it works.

Sharing observations instead of judgments (step 1)
Describing what we observe makes it easier for other people to listen to us. Although your observations will always be influenced by who you are, you can describe them using objective language, free of judgment. When we use judgmental language it’s very likely that the person we’re trying to connect with feels put off or even attacked by our words, which gets in the way of creating a connection and communicating openly and effectively.

Express what we feel instead of our thoughts and emotions (step 2)
What we feel is personal and can be directed in two ways, inside and out. What we feel external is fairly straightforward and most people would be comfortable sharing that they are hot or cold or that the chair they are sitting on is soft. Sharing what we feel on the inside leaves us exposed and vulnerable. This makes it very hard for many people to open up about what they really feel. What we tend to do is trick ourselves by creating sentences like “I feel that he might be holding something back”. In this case, we’re not sharing what we’re feeling, we’re sharing what we’re thinking. When the word “feel” is followed by “that” it will almost always be a thought and not a feeling that is being expressed. When we say that we feel sad/frustrated/happy/angry we are sharing what we feel on the inside.

Sharing needs instead of strategies (step 3)
We all have basic needs. A lot will be the same for most humans, although a few will always be more important to you than others. My most pronounced basic needs are recognition, autonomy, and control. If your basic needs are not being met you will generally come up with strategies to try and get back to a situation where your basic needs are being met. If I feel like I’m losing control I might get bossy for instance. If your basic need is attention you might have a strategy of becoming very quiet in the hope that your partner notices or you might start to sulk or stand in front of the TV until you get the attention that you are craving for.
Our strategies might work, but they don’t make us nicer people to be around and they don’t create a connection with others. If, instead of getting bossy, I were able to say that I’m stressed out or frustrated because I feel like I’m not in control the people around me are much more likely to sympathize. They might even be able to help me regain the feeling that I’m in control.

Requesting instead of demanding (step 4)
After sharing an observation, expressing our feelings and revealing our needs we can make a request to the person or people we’re trying to connect with. Making a request instead of a demand means of course that we have to ask a question, but it also means that we have to be willing to accept a “no” to our request. If we make a request and we get angry or upset if we get a “no” that means that the request was a demand after all.

Applying these 4 steps takes a lot of practice. It sounds so simple, but it’s hard to apply in a conversation. I’ve been teaching nonviolent communication for a couple of years and that plus reading the book still only got me to the point where I’m aware that I’m often unable to apply it in conversations. This week I tried to apply it in a WhatsApp conversation, which I immediately admit isn’t necessarily ideal for creating a connection. It did give me time to think about how to construct a sentence using the steps above as contrary to what many seem to believe, WhatsApp communication is asynchronous. Despite the extra time I had to think about the sentence I wanted to use to create a connection with the person I was chatting with I couldn’t do it. I was unable to construct a sentence using Rosenberg’s approach that I felt comfortable sharing. I’ll continue to practice and I’ll read the book again!

For me, nonviolent communication has always been focused on connecting with others. I was surprised to read about using it to show self-compassion. I’d never thought about that, but it makes sense. It’s also very hard to do. You don’t have to worry as much about coming across as weird because you use somewhat unusual sentences, I’m quite comfortable with my own weirdness. Not so much with my own inadequacies though. I find it much harder to be kind to myself than to be kind to others and I know several other people who are the same. We are expecting a lot from ourselves and it all has to be done perfectly and with a smile. I like Rosenberg’s advice to avoid “shoulding” yourself. We feel “we shouldn’t have done that” or “I should get up earlier”. “Should” implies a demand and it threatens our autonomy. We respond badly to demands, even our own demands on ourselves. It might not feel like you have a choice but phrasing it in your mind like it is a choice will make it easier to keep yourself motivated. “I choose to do abs exercises tonight because it will keep my bowels moving and my belly looking tight.” “I choose to go outside in the evening to throw out the trash because I want to get rid of the smelly bin in the kitchen.” I apologize for the silly examples. You can probably tell that I have an easy life, especially while I’m on holiday.

There are so many things worth sharing in this book that I could go on forever, but I won’t. I went back and forth between sharing the things that I found most remarkable in the book and sharing at least some of the basics. I choose the latter, although it pains me not to be able to talk about the role of empathy for yourself and for others in nonviolent communication. If you just read the book and tell me what stood out most for you we can talk about it and I can get it out of my system that way. Thanks!

The 4 steps of nonviolent communication