Birthday musing: 36 events that shaped my life

The last time I wrote a birthday post was 4 years ago. Today, I turn 36 and I challenged myself to think about defining moments that shaped my character and perspective on life. It was surprisingly easy! I also realised that whatever I write about is rooted in one or more of these events. So if you’re ever wondering what’s wrong – or right – with me, here are 36 events that shaped me:

  1. being born first

  2. being born female

  3. being born Black African

  4. being told early that I am smarter than most people

  5. being told later that I am not

  6. being called ‘ugly’ more than once

  7. finding out not everybody likes me

  8. finding out I don’t like everybody

  9. having a really good maths teacher throughout primary school

  10. following simple instructions without questioning

  11. questioning simple instructions

  12. living in the Middle East for most of my teens

  13. marrying in my early 20s

  14. having children

  15. being the only black person in the room

  16. being the only woman in the room

  17. meeting people who believe in me

  18. meeting people I believe in

  19. finding out that people can lie straight to my face

  20. finding out that there is a power greater than anything or anyone

  21. learning to tap into that power

  22. leaving a job where it was not okay to be ambitious

  23. leaving a job where my values and the company’s values did not align

  24. leaving a job to follow my ambition

  25. discovering the past can be left behind

  26. learning that living in the present is more important than worrying about the future

  27. appreciating my sense of humor and that I have it for a reason

  28. writing – even when I don’t feel like it

  29. loving – even when I don’t feel like it

  30. rejecting words that tear me down

  31. accepting words that build me up

  32. getting proof that time heals almost everything

  33. letting friends walk away

  34. walking away from friends

  35. loving myself just as I am

  36. allowing people love me without questioning if I’m deserving of it

I hope to continue dealing with some of these events through my writing here. Fingers crossed, it won’t be too uncomfortable…

Happy birthday to me! :-)

On corporate careers: misconceptions, mistaken identities and other near misses

This is not your typical career post. I’m not going to patronise you by telling you how to make your career the envy of many. Neither am I going to tell you to forget having a corporate career because the corporate world is evil. No, none of that nonsense. I’m going to tell you my greatest misconceptions during my corporate career that spans 10 years. You will see potential identity issues and near misses, which could derail any promising career.

the boss

Choosing a job, not a manager – New challenges are so exciting! It doesn’t matter if I don’t have direct experience in a role, I get excited about finding out what I’m meant to be doing. In fact, if I can already do the job I’m unlikely to be interested. I read the job description, highlighting in green where I have experience, in yellow where I have knowledge but no direct experience and in orange where I have nothing at all. Then I make a plan to fill the gaps. Sounds pretty thorough, right? Well, that’s a misconception right there. I hardly ever ask crucial questions about who’s going to be my manager in the new role. I know their names but I don’t find out what they are like to work for, what their management style is and if I should be bothered to enter into their kingdom. Oftentimes, this is more important than the job itself. It doesn’t matter how smart I am. If I have to regularly combat difficult personalities or succumb to a management style that doesn’t work for me, I’ll lay awake at night. If I could go back in time, I’d ask more questions about management style and values. I might still take the job after finding out that the manager eats human ears for breakfast (my ears are my favourite feature) but at least I’ll know – and I’ll have an approach for managing them…because the job is worth it.

speak no evil hear no evil

Tolerating bad behaviour for far too long – Corporate environments are odd places. Many have open plan spaces where you sit at your desk for hours hitting away at the keyboard connected to your computer. There are times that I’m a few meters away from a colleague(s) and no words are exchanged for the most part of the day. It’s not that we hate each other. We are just really busy, hunched over from 9 to 5, buried in a spreadsheet or a slide presentation or horse manure. Offices are odd places for sure. Then imagine people behaving badly on top of that. Behaving badly could include:

  • sending that saucy email with a lot of comments about things the sender knows nothing about while copying the whole world,
  • shouting at other colleagues because life just feels better after shouting,
  • people not pulling their weight on the job

I use the ‘3-strikes-and-you-are-out’ approach but not everyone is as understanding as that. After all, we are all here to work and to get paid for a hard day’s job. Corporate environments are not charities. Sooner or later, somebody will mercilessly threw slackers under the bus.

Focusing on weaknesses instead of strengths – Ever since I was a child, I have ignored my strengths. Literally. When I get my report sheet, I scan through and notice all the ‘buts’, ‘althoughs’, and ‘could-do-betters’. I almost always need a second opinion on the report sheet, someone to talk me off the ledge. It takes another look for me to notice the ‘she is excellent at this’ and ‘she is a leader in that’. Honestly, I never see it the first time. If someone asked me my weaknesses, those would roll off my tongue quickly but I often have to think about what my strengths are. In fact, I ask my friends what my best traits are quite a lot because I tend to forget.

 

In my corporate career, this is probably the worst misconception – the misconception that I need to improve my weaknesses more than I need to make my strengths even stronger. It causes what I call, ‘mistaken identity’. I could end up presenting myself with my weaknesses at the forefront. Try it. Describe yourself with your weaknesses. For instance, you could say, ‘I’m terrible at numbers and I have no patience for slow learners.’ Then try describing yourself with your strengths. Something like, ‘I’m creative and often come up with innovative ideas. I’m also calm and productive under pressure.’ Well, who would you hire for a job? It’s the same person.  One of my lecturers at business school used to say and still says that people should ignore their weaknesses. ‘Just leave it alone’, he says. ‘Focus on your strengths’, he says. ‘That’s what the company hired you for – to tap your strengths – not to improve your weaknesses,’ he’d often say. I’m not sure I can totally ignore my weaknesses but perhaps if I focus more on my strengths, I’ll have greater impact because I’m more effective. Or so I’m told.

light the boss' cig

Neglecting to feed the ego monsters – I cannot for the life of me massage people’s egos. I’m not dissing it, trust me. It’s a good skill to have and should probably be in the curriculum at any good university. I just can’t do it because I struggle to say things I don’t mean. It’s worse when the ego monster is expecting me to feed them without doing much to deserve it. I think, ‘Huh? Excuse me…I have things to do’. Really bad attitude on my part and a potential near miss as far as corporate careers go. In corporate careers, the ego monsters could be:

  • the boss
  • the boss’ boss
  • that IT guy who can work magic on a fried hard drive
  • a senior manager whose buy-in is needed for the project to go ahead
  • his secretary

I conclude that feeding egos is possibly the most important skill in large organisations with tall hierarchies. Hopefully, it’s backed up with a measure of efficiency on the job. Bosses want to feel good (as do all human beings) and the majority of them don’t mind if you mean it or not. Just do it and it might be the start of a blissful relationship. It feels awkward when I do it. Like Pinocchio, I stand there expecting to be outed as my nose grows… My smile is tense and phony. Certain muscles in my face twitch. It would be easier if I could sit this one out. But I can remember times when my corporate career would have been much easier if I had simply played along…

There they are – I shuffled along with energy, enthusiasm and some mildly worrying misconceptions.

Do any of these resonate with anyone?

Images from flickr users: Pulpoux!!! – the boss; Theen Moy – Speak No Evil, Hear No EvilGiulio Magnifico – Light the cigarette for the boss

I lost my mojo. Then I found it on a plane.

Be yourself, be kind to others and your soul will rejoice

– me

I am on an Aberdeen-Birmingham flight. The plane is small and full. As I sit down on my aisle seat, I do my best to tuck in my limbs so as not to irritate the window-seat passenger. My mindset on flights is that unless the passenger next to me looks particularly friendly and/or initiates a conversation, I’m willing to sit there in silence for the duration of the flight. A little brutal maybe, but it’s the safest option.

reading passenger

I am halfway into a paragraph in my book when I hear the voice of a young lady in the seat across from me. She is talking to the passenger next to her. She laughs a lot. I do not hear the other passenger (a man) speak for the first 15 minutes of the conversation. She talks and talks. I learn that she is 23 and got married about 18 months ago. I learn that her husband is a doctor and a similar age to her. I also gather some information about her 2 siblings – one a brunette and the other blonde (she is a red-head).

Believe me, I try not to listen but I think the whole plane is listening. She isn’t perturbed by the quietness of the passenger she is chatting with. He nods and smiles from time to time. About 30 minutes into the flight, his voice becomes more audible. He laughs. I hear that he has a girlfriend and has been to Aberdeen only a handful of times.

The two talk for the 1-hour flight, with the young lady leading the conversation, asking questions and probing for detailed responses.

I have to be honest. I am half irritated by her. I have a book in my hand and I can’t get through more than a couple of pages due to the distracting conversation. We passengers glare at her periodically, hoping she just ends the conversation. We already know too much.

missing plane

The other half of me greatly admires her. She is bold and confident. At 23, I think she displays tenacity that is uncommon in many young women. I think about my safe option to keep to myself on planes (and in other public places, especially places that ‘move’ e.g. trains).

Then I realise something:

The young lady…that used to be me

I have let the fear of rejection change how I behave in certain situations. Being an extrovert by nature, I have a lot to say, a lot going on in my head that I want to share. But more and more, I don’t. I think it’s not important. Or the slight frown coming across my listener’s forehead becomes my cue to be quiet and withdraw.

As we disembark from the plane, the man thanks the young lady for great company as it helped the time pass quickly. I can’t help smiling. I want to thank her too.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I’m glad to witness that young lady on the plane. I am on my way to attend a workshop (I wrote about the workshop here). The workshop is an awesome experience in part because of the young lady on the plane. I walk into the venue deciding to be yourself and not to shrink when people don’t take me on as I hope. I smile and talk to complete strangers with no malice even when they appear not to welcome my intrusion. It is liberating and I have fun. My spirit is light. My soul, gratified. I am not holding back.

My extroverted nature has been partially suppressed for years. In fact, I think there are times I lose it. Somehow, I’m finding it and I want to keep it even when I’m gray. I just need to have more faith in who I am. And gentle (and not so gentle) reminders are welcome. Thank you, Red-Headed Young Lady :-).

Images from flickr users: Dreemreeper – reading passenger on plane; Eole Wind – Missing plane; Paula Bailey – Paula Bailey

From drawing blanks to making conversation

October has been a really good month for me. I learned quite a bit this month, I made some solid decisions and I went on a relaxing holiday! Part of the result of my learning is that I’m more confident about starting conversation with important people.

Drawing blanks

It’s rather embarrassing but when I have an opportunity to chat informally with important people e.g. a CEO or celebrity etc, I cannot for the life of me think of anything to say! I’m normally really chatty with people I know and even those I don’t know but if I was ever in an elevator with Bill Gates, I’d totally freeze up! What’s up with that? I’ve often heard people talk about the “elevator pitch” and how everyone has something like 10 seconds to describe themselves in a way that sells. I swallow when I hear that. There! My secret is out. I’ve heard one of my managers who noticed this describe me as “shy” – laughable, I know. Anyway, I think I’m on my way to overcoming this weakness of mine. I just need to breathe (in a non-obvious way, of course) and then think of something intelligent to say, right? Oh dear.

Making conversation

I once wrote an article on LinkedIn titled, “How to Befriend Almost Anyone At Work”. It’s more for building relationships with colleagues. For me, building rapport with people that I feel are on my level is pretty easy. Some executives can be easy to start a conversation with. They make it seamless and relaxed but more and more, executives- and indeed anyone in an important position in the corporate world – are getting inundated as pressure grows to improve business performance. They just don’t have the time or patience to make it easy. This is why I think I need to try harder (since I unfortunately care about this kind of thing!) even if the executive gives me little or nothing to go on. Gulp.The fortunate thing is that a guy called Bernard Marr recently wrote an article, “How to Start a Conversation with Absolutely Anyone”. It is a great guide and I felt a glimmer of hope after I read it. Unlike my article, it is more about what to SAY or bring up rather than how to befriend someone. Afterall, I’m unlikely to become Bill Gates’ best friend just because I impressed him with a interesting conversation in an elevator. Well, maybe.

Some of what Bernard mentions are (in my own wacky words):

  • Looking for something in the environment to talk about e.g. the food, the guests, the venue
  • Skipping small talk – don’t mention the weather for goodness sake, unless of course there’s a hurricane outside and you are under the table together. I’d imagine it would seem insensitive not to mention it!
  • Ask open ended questions. If you ask yes or no questions then you’ll get a “yes” or a “no”. At this stage, the only way to get more is to ask “why?” There’s only so many times you can ask why before you sound like a 3-year old on speed.

And so on. The article is worth reading if this stuff is of interest to you.

Do you have any other tips for starting conversations? I’d love to hear them in the comments.

Happy Weekend!

PHOTOGRAPHY: Loved & Abandoned

"Loved & Abandoned"

“Loved & Abandoned”

 

I shot this on Sunday afternoon near my home. I caught one glimpse of it and had to make a U-turn.

The scene represents a friendship left to die, passion allowed to wither and a life once energetic, ultimately not lived to its full potential…

 

Photo credit: Yekemi Otaru

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