Sunday, October 25, 2009

The colour of money - learning the business of business

I’ve been reading the deliciously phrased “the Pleasures and Sorrows of Work”, in which the talented Alain de Botton, unearths with the curiousness and wonder of a child, the narrow and peculiar worlds of our working lives.
By turns I’ve read about him discovering and exploring freight logistics and warehousing, and tracking tuna from catch, through cleaning and canning to final consumption, across cultures, seas and surprisingly short periods of time. He’s currently discovering biscuits, expressing amusement, surprise and captivation at the seriousness with which people take jobs, that to a philosopher, seem so absurdly specialised as to be patently ridiculous.

It’s all reminded me of the reasons for starting what has now been a significant part of my life’s journey—the path of learning that my career has taken me on over the last 11 years. I choose consulting precisely because I had a sense that running through and supporting this world, was a backbone of business and commerce with which I had little familiarity. My limited exposure through a student organisation while at Uni left me curious, and my academic background of mathematics and languages, had hardly prepared me to understand ‘the real world’. So I set off, quite deliberately, to get an education in just how things functioned…and really, that’s what’s it’s been.
For the first two years which were by turns both rapid fire, and super slow, like a long, long movie on fast forward, I worked in the beverage industry, in pharmaceuticals, in banking, insurance, shipping and mining. And each experience was a revelation.

It produced a sensation similar to trying on the right prescription glasses for the first time, where suddenly definition you didn’t know existed is vividly clear. Leaves have crisp outlines and people far away are suddenly visible. The world makes both more sense, and is also more overwhelming, without the ability to pull back, and be a bit apart from it, naïve to it.

Suddenly a walk in the supermarket, wasn’t about finding groceries, it was about category displays, and shelf-heights, and visual clarity of pricing. It wasn’t about buying food to eat, it was about seeing the people, and the lives, the thought, efforts, and yes—passion, behind each seemingly random decision. A trip to IKEA was no longer just about the meatballs – suddenly all I could see was a racetrack display and highly sophisticated visual merchandising. I was no longer a mindless consumer, I was mindful, educated. I was able to see up the magician sleeves yet still helplessly captivated, unable to exit without at least one plastic brush, a flexible ice tray and a 6 pack of glasses with embossed hearts.

It was everywhere – an innocent question asked by a pharmacist – did I want the generic version of my antibiotic —always asked slowly, in case my innocent consumer self might not be able to comprehend such a word. And yet, my dirty secret – that the question recalled hours of debate about how to make a brand last in the face of such competition - to fight them or to join them. A telemarketing call from an insurance company had me thinking about whether their IT systems could talk to each other sufficiently, and was she going to appropriately up-sell me?

All this insight was also sort of a secret, as every project and every client deserves and receives high degrees of confidentiality. So, just as his whole new world was opening, I found I couldn’t really share these revelations with old friends, and so suddenly I was part of a new clan, my own workforce.

It’s a journey I get to witness with our graduates now, as if they’ve been let in on a big inside joke, or invested in some way into broader society. This is what happens, this is how it works – at last – they “get it”. Now I’m older, more immune. The sheen of discovery has lost some of its lustre. But something must have stuck. Otherwise why would I insight on explain the concept of being a marketing category to my five year old?

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Multiple Personalities

Multiple Personalities

Have all the good parts died? As a parent are we doomed to being boring?

I’ve had a few random conversations lately about “voice dialogue coaching”. I’m a layperson here, so apologies to any experts if I mess this up, but my understanding is it’s a form of therapy which engages with each of the various parts of your personality – but as distinct voices or people. So - we all have these different parts inside us (the serious achiever, the rebel, the party animal, whatever) and they all kind of co-exist – they talk to each other, just like the little devil and angels on your shoulder in the cartoon. For some, it doesn’t work so well. The definition of “associative personality disorder” (or multiple personalities — like the show starring Toni Collette at the moment) is where different parts or voices don’t know about the others. They all think they’re the only voice.

But for most of us – we know they’re there. And they don’t all agree. The mother might want to stay home. The career person might want to work harder. The rebel might want to lie on the beach and hope the rest of the world goes away. And at different times, different voices get more of the say.
Makes sense… I’ve always felt for a long time like I had loads of different sides to me.

As a teenager, I think I thought that made me a bit special… I used to ponder why it was – and reflect that no-one new the true me, because they’d just see a sliver of me (ahhh the insular universe of a teenager). I wondered if it was because I’d moved around so much. Was is the 14 schools, the loads of part-time jobs? Apparently we develop new personalities or voices as a survival trait. Again, makes sense. A new school, or job can easily require a new set of features required to succeed (being loud, quiet, shy, whatever).

As I got older I saw the power of bringing all these parts together – so it was a huge revelation when I relaxed at work. My professional corporate side was much more effective when I brought a bit more of my silly side, and a bit more of my warmth.
Indeed until recently, I was starting to see that as life’s journey, like you finally create the one person, bring it all together and that’s success.

But this idea – about the many voices, got me thinking, which voices of mine have gone quiet? Plenty. And I don't think I'm alone in that. Becoming a parent changes everything.

As the mother — not only do you have to change what you eat, drink and do (I basically didn’t have a drink in over four years – between pregnancy and breastfeeding), but you have this whole massive mind shift. Will anyone think I’m sexy again? Can I be fun and responsible? How can you have a social life when you're up at 6am every day? Do I have the right to expect to have a little (non-lego or craft-based) fun along the way?

And I at least, haven’t been able to make it all work – so the party animal, the entertainer, the athlete (alright, more like the 'moderately fit person'), God – even the good friend, these all seem to have taken a major backseat. In fact I’d say they are at death’s door. In their stead – there’s the professional, the mother, the daughter and granddaughter, and very little else.

And you know, at times that’s okay – it’s relevant and valuable.
But crap it can be boring!

Is it legitimate to want those voices to have some air-time? What would that look like? Would a night out be enough? Does that mean in 15 years time I’ll be one of those embarrassing L.Lo-type mothers with a skirt that’s too short trying to compete with her daughter?

And how to get the timing right… my party animal friends who were bitching about me being so boring while I was waddling around hormonal and huge, are now all pregnant themselves, just now when I feel like a bit of escape.

Yesterday - lost and found


It was a roller coaster of a day. I’d hoped it would be a day of true rest, after earlier this week finally (after three weeks of feeling rock bottom) being diagnosed with pneumonia…after. This week I’ve been in and out of doctors’ appointments (dye being injected for CT scans – left shivering in those stupid paper smocks, body being pounded by physio-therapists etc., blood tests etc – poked and prodded from every angle). The plan was the kids were going to day-care and the day stretched empty and beckoning. I could sleep. Watch TV. Bliss.

But I woke to find my 5 year-old daughter covered head to toe in red spots. I called her day-care centre – did they know of any such thing going around? No, but she and her brother certainly wouldn’t be able to attend without a certificate from the doctor confirming she wasn’t contagious. I check the books — so much to choose from: Fifth disease, Hand-foot-mouth disease, Meningitis? Rubella and chicken pox should be out – she’s been immunised (but then, my husband was the first person to get rubella post vaccination in the US and uncover a faulty vaccination batch…)? Either way, all signs point to another Dr’s appointment.

So there I am, alone (husband overseas), pneumonia and my two beautiful, rambunctious kids, and no rest in sight. Daunted, like Mum’s all around the world, I just have to get up and get on with it… I did well for a while, breakfast, kitchen clean, all dressed, me showered and dressed.

All up until 10:15 as I was leaving for one more appointment – I said to the kids, take a toy each, because we won’t be able to play with the toys at the doctors. I mean, what if she’s got something horrific and infects the other kids? So I think they’re getting their toys while I go to the bathroom.

My daughter calls out – come here, you’ve got to see this Mum… out I come and my 2.5 yr old son has lovingly covered himself, and our red leather chair head to toe in hand cream (oh, and the carpet). He works fast, I couldn’t have been gone more than 4 mins. ‘I’ve got cream mummy!’ It doesn’t sound like much, but it was enough to tip me over the edge. I burst into tears as I clean it up. Big, embarrassing heaving sobs. I kind of know I’m being pathetic, feeling super sorry for myself and should get it together. But the truth is— I do feel a bit sorry for myself!

We finally get into the car – 15 mins late for the appointment. Daughter says -- Mum, I left my book and toys in the house. ‘It’s too late now!’ I snap – ‘we’re running late and there’s no time to go back’.

So off we go, first to my physio appointment. And here’s me – super Mum (NOT!), ‘You kids, sit on the floor in the corner. Play with your bubble wrap. And here’s a mandarin each’. Poor little mites. Sitting on the floor, playing with their bubble wrap! It was too pathetic for words.

Yesterday – part 2. Rescued!

I survive the appointment. I lie there and get pounded (part of the treatment for pneumonia is to be hit repeatedly on the back to break the gunk up – I’m familiar with it, Mum used to lie me over the ironing board to do the same when I was younger battling recurrent bronchitis). I praise the mites (who are beautiful really, and so well behaved, peeling their mandarins onto their bubble wrap!). We get to the doctors for my daughter, (a random virus, keep her at home, but nothing to be too stressed about), home, lunch, son in bed. I’m coping, I’m coping!

Oh. Oh. That was too much. Suddenly overwhelmed, just can’t get enough air, and have to lie down. I can’t do it. I just can’t. Daughter wants to chat. I can’t talk. I lie very, very still. Why is it so hard to ask for help?

Finally, I can breathe. I call my husband in Singapore, tell him what’s happened. Ask him to call my Aunt and Uncle. At least now we know, the house is not full of something weird and contagious.

First time I’ve ever asked them for help, but they come and are great. I sleep. Sleep Sleep.

Yesterday – part 3. The rescue continues.

My cousin, with her three lovely children arrive – and delightful chaos ensues, as she manages to feed 5 children (and me – with dessert!), and bathe a few more. My Mum arrives, having driven 4 hours to get here too.

I lay here in my room listening to the buzz of activity and thinking how different it felt from this morning – when I felt so alone, desperate and isolated. This is how life is supposed to be. Integrated, connected.