Category Archives: Reflections

Seeing through time

I just finished reading Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. I never read it before and I picked it because several people that I admire talk very highly of both the book and its author. It’s remarkably easy to read.

The most fascinating thing about the book though is the use of time in it. The main character, Billy Pilgrim, travels through time. He has no control over it, he just keeps jumping back and forth. As a reader, you only experience a moment once, but Billy himself can live through the same moment multiple times. He doesn’t change what happens, nor is there the suggestion that he would want to. He simply experiences it.

He meets many colorful characters, of which the Trafalmadorians are the most remarkable ones. They kidnap Billy and explain that they can see six dimensions. This means that they can see all times simultaneously. They see time in the same way that we see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains. Past, present and future just “are”. Because of this concept of time, they don’t see death as the end of something. It just means that the person who died will not be around in a particular part of time. But he or she will still around during other times.

Although I can’t see six dimensions, I like the idea of thinking about time like this. Someone might be here today, and they were around in the past. You spent time together. At a certain moment, the person might die. They won’t be around to experience new things together in the future. But the moments that you shared and the time that you spent together will always be there. We might not be able to experience all time simultaneously, but we can go back to those moments in the past and still enjoy them by remembering.

This is not only true for time spent with people who are no longer there, it’s also true for other moments in your life. Some of these moments might be crisp and beautiful, like the view of a mountain lake on a sunny day. Other moments might be more like a dark cave with spiders and bats flying around in them. Going back to those isn’t very appealing. You might as well avoid thinking about them too much, as you can’t change what already happened. It can be very soothing and inspiring to go back to enjoy the happy memories every now and then though. But don’t get stuck. Remember to experience today.

The impact of kindness

What a surreal time we live in at the moment. World leaders who lie more and are less eloquent than toddlers, large groups of people ignoring or even arguing against proven facts, because they don’t fit their narrative and so much hate and intolerance everywhere.
In today’s crazy world disagreements are understandable and perhaps even necessary. But there’s no need to be harsh, hateful and unkind to someone you don’t understand or don’t agree with. It doesn’t cost you anything to be kind. Even if you are having a discussion with someone. Being kind doesn’t take anything away from the point that you are making. In my opinion, it’s even the opposite. An argument that is made calmly and with respect for the other person comes across a lot stronger than one embedded in insults and name-calling.

Most people, when being attacked or insulted, will feel bad. Whether you are right or wrong, when someone rips you a new one it will affect your confidence. With the loss of confidence, you will have a harder time making a strong case for your point of view. You might feel like disappearing.
I try not to let unkind words get to me, especially in a professional situation, but sometimes they do. Unfortunately, I’m a lousy actor and I don’t have a poker face. If you pay attention it’s relatively easy to pick up on how I’m feeling.

That’s not the worst part though. As something like that will knock my confidence and requires a significant amount of energy to digest, there will be less energy left for everything else. I might lack patience when someone wants my help or attention. Maybe I’ll react blunter than I would like to, or perhaps I’d fail to listen to someone without judgment.
I might involuntarily pay someone else’s unkindness forward.

When you give someone a compliment, on the other hand, they’ll feel good. You will build them up. They will feel more confident and that in turn will make it easier for them to express themselves.
This means that bluntly criticizing and kindly complimenting someone are both self-fulfilling prophecies. The impact of your words will almost automatically confirm your opinion.
So I plead with you to try and be kind to people. Give someone a compliment if you feel positive about them. And if you don’t then just keep your mouth shut. You won’t achieve anything apart from tearing down someone you feel is already down. Instead of condemning people, let’s try to understand them.
Let’s bring some sympathy, tolerance, and kindness in this crazy world we live in.

Kindness is free, sprinkle that stuff everywhere

Expand your world, read a book!

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

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

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

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

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

Carl Sagan2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don't raise your voice, improve your argument

Be bold – set an example

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Children learn more from what you are than what you teach

Find your inner child

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When I grow up

When I grow up from Matilda The Musical

Choosing you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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