Saturday, December 20, 2014

Shifting gears

DSC00338 (1300x960)Friday evening was, for all purposes, the end of the business year in Europe.  Most offices are largely closed or minimally staffed until January 5, two weeks from now.  For us, our labs are idle for deep-cleaning  and our clinical trial and testing work is paused.

But hard on that date, the second week in January will be enormously consequential for me, filled with binary events that will put my future onto one or another path. 

By February 1, life will be very good, or very different, in many ways.  So I’ve been pushing hard all week finish planning completed, brief key people, and coordinate their assignments.


It’s not dissimilar to the fine cooking that I devour on MasterChef. Ahead of time, they plan the dish, gather ingredients and tools, and define the timing and sequence of steps.  Then on the day and within the time allotted, prepare all of the elements,  bring them together on a single plate, and make a beautiful presentation for serving.

The winner goes through; the loser goes home.

I have five difficult problems that need to be solved, each with significant people issues to be solved alongside objective milestones.  hard and soft skilllsStill, like to think that my soft skills have improved a lot in the past two years, and they are really needed here.

Lucy Kellaway writes that Many people can master the numbers, but to be able to do that and know how to deal with the whims and mood swings of your clients and colleagues takes dedication and application – that is what sorts out those who make it to the top from those who don’t.

Or, as my research director used to counsel me, It’s 10% science.

The other necessary skill is knowing when to stop. 

DSC00452 (1300x975)It’s not easy after a week like this.  I’ve done all I can, but I wish I could have done more.  Did I do the right things, do them well enough, overlook something crucial? 

Outside, friends and colleagues have pushed back from the office, pulled out their reindeer sweaters, and bundled off to evenings with friends and celebrations with family.  Nobody will work, or will want to talk about work, for the next two weeks.

So I need to make the same mental shift.  For two weeks, set the worries aside, disconnect, and refocus on family and personal interests.

DSC00462 (1300x974)‘not always easy, but I’m worn through and its really necessary.  It feels good to close the email and step back from the phones once the decision is made. 

Instead, I’ve settled into cooking and reading, photography, writing and rambles.  I’m making cookies, shopping, joining friends for drinks, planning a visit to Colorado.

My first batch of shortbread snowflake biscuits was great!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Small differences

IMG_20141220_112251 (1300x1300)For me as an American, few experiences highlight the differences of being expatriate in the UK like shopping for potatoes.   Growing up, we were taught that brown potatoes were for baking, red for boiling.  In my own home, we gained sophistication: brown potatoes Russets, grown in Washington or Idaho, and baby golden spuds could also be boiled.

This taxonomy serves well in the Netherlands as well as the US, but not in the local Tesco.  Starch content is defining, not colour:  King Edward and Maris Piper for roasting, Charlotte for boiling, Desiree for mashing.  The British pair potatoes with food with the careful eye that we reserve for wines.

With a little study, I adapt (I’ve cooked a selection to learn the differences).  But dual ways of thinking about single things (or ideas) pop up all the time, sometimes in cultural contexts like potatoes, other times in business or relationships.  For me, they lead to philosophic reflections worthy of a Shrink and Sage during drives along the motorways.

A few recent examples:

Persuasion  / Seduction:   I was always taught to take an objective, dispassionate approach to business situations.  I operate from a base of  fact, evidence, analogy, and narrative to persuade; have believed in Bob  Sutton’s advice that Strong Opinions, Weakly Held, win the point.  But, after reading the Steve Jobs biography, I wonder whether business success truly can be achieved with dispassion?  IMG_20141220_112326Inspirational leadership is as passionate as it is insightful.  to what extent to great leaders seduce rather than persuade?  After glancing through a summary of Robert Greene’s guide to the art, I hope it isn’t (and the NYTimes warns of trying to imitate Jobs)

Hope / Faith:  I’m generally an optimist about the future, an idealist about people. But that has never translated into saying that I have hope about either.  Hope is pernicious when it becomes the last positive approach  to a situation where all prior efforts have failed.  I prefer to say that I have faith that things will work out, even when I can’t say how.  This is echoed by other writers.

Anger / Umbrage:  Life is filled with irritating incidents that annoy or irritate.  While I can feel a degree of anger when I get wet because I forgot an umbrella or I read an untrue critique of my product or project.   But if a colleague spreads an unjust comment about my performance or someone just behaves badly, is my feeling justified anger, or only umbrage at the lack of respect?  The soft skill to properly attribute anger is as important as distinguishing the type and response (and, for the latter, the Shrink and Sage reference Aristotle’s maxim to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way, while Russell factor IMG_20141220_112610analyzes his way to list nearly 200 varieties of the experience of anger).

Love / In-love:  I have always used the two terms  interchangeably, to tell a partner I love you, and to say I am in love when talking about them to others.  But it’s also true that there are people I love who I am not in love with (the opposite, unrequited love, is also possible).  To say I am in love with you sounds much better than simply I love you, but it’s not the everyday expression of affection.

The minor pairs that have been good for conversations while driving the Sheffield-Poole axis include

  • Persistent / aggressive:  It’s a cultural distinction.  Americans are used to the give and take, while the British, ever indirect, are the most uncomfortable with direct questioning.  The Dutch, usually plain spoken and blunt I expressing themselves, fall nicely between.
  • Anger / Fear:  I have learned that when someone is angry, its good to pause a moment to look for defensive anxiety. A surprising percentage of my irritations are expressions of fear or umbrage.  IMG_20141221_125023I often find it when others turn confrontational, opening better ways  to solve problems.
  • Safe / Certain:  My peers are increasingly seeking security and predictability as they age.  I’m still sorting this in conversations, particularly whether safety comes from certainty, from feeling taken care of, or from stress-free confidence that life’s risks can be surmounted.

To pursue your own duals, a good reference site is Difference Between, a fount / font of similar dorm-room debate fodder.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Christmas at Kew Gardens

DSC00411 (1300x975)Midnight strolls through public parks are always fun.  Museum Nights are held in major cities across Europe, and I still remember the flashlight exploration of Amsterdam’s Zoo, bears and lions sleepily blinking at the late visitors.

Similarly, at Christmas, Kew Gardens decorates their park with a wonderful show of seasonal lights and illuminated sculpture.  The w.wezen arranged dates and tickets: Despite bitterly cold weather, it was a lovely shared evening after a day of shopping in London, with a marshmallow roast and lots of hot tea to help to keep the chill off.

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The displays vary a lot. Simpler ones include chandeliers hung from trees and sparkling tunnels.  The more elaborate bits include Shakespearian productions and lit fountains synchronized with music and firepots.  In between  are ethereal flowers and groves constructed from neon and incandescent lights: these were among my favorites.

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