The 2021 Christmas Card

A short history of my love of getting and sending mail

My fondness for correspondence began at primary school in my English writing class.  At the beginning of the term, each student was assigned a pen pal from another “sister” school abroad in the same age group. Students addressed their letters to their peers using the schools’ addresses, and at the end of the term both students had to fill a form to indicate if they would like to continue their correspondence privately, along with parental consent.  

As an adult, I’ve come to appreciate the intention of this component and the brilliance of its simplicity. It helped young students apply skills that went beyond writing itself, including presentation (drawing personal letterheads, for example) and conversation (appropriate conversation topics were also taught at my strict and old-fashioned school). This correspondence portion of the class also required students to adhere to the “publishing” schedule, so there was a disciplinary aspect to this fun activity. I suspect this gave students as they grew older the confidence to network and establish a connection with strangers in various professional and social settings. 

I freaking love mail

At present, the number of personal correspondence I receive by mail is minimal, usually around Christmas and my birthday. I have two friends who still exchange letters with me, but I’m hoping that there will be a gradual return to written personal correspondence that falls outside the digital sphere. I say this fully aware of the irony of my profession as a digital communications and marketing expert. It is precisely because of my study of the science of attention and virtual limitations of affection that I appreciate physical communiques. It takes time to think about what one could write that is insightful, personal, and genuine. To me, emails and texts, however personal they may be, fail at stirring the same emotion that the sight of a handwritten and personal scribble may cause.  

I told you all this because

For the last few years, I’ve been sending friends and colleagues Christmas cards that carry my illustrations and often have a calendar at the back. For the most part, the illustrations highlight something memorable from the passing year, or are simply holiday themed. 

So for the 2021 card

I started with an illustration of a cottage nestled in a wintery scene. The idea was to share something uplifting. As I was preparing to ship it off to the printers, I realized that it did not acknowledge momentous disruptions of 2020. So I went back to the drawing board (haha) to illustrate something that reflected shared experiences and poked fun of the one thing we had all come to love and loathe at once: ZOOM!

Ta-da

I give you the year in review illustration of 2020: Woodland creatures on a Zoom call.

Front of the 2021 Christmas card
Christmas card 2021

You know these people

The illustration features many Zoom user stereotypes. Starting at the top with the hedgehog and going clockwise towards centre, I give you:

The multitasker (hedgehog)
This user is listening attentively and engaging, but has a side project on the go (usually knitting). Good on them for doing two things at once and pulling it off with no disrespect. You find yourself busy trying to make out the titles of the books in their backgrounds.

The one always late to the call
There is always that one friend or colleague who never joins a call on time, or hasn’t accepted the reality of needing a high-speed connection. They’ve missed half the call, but that’s okay, A for eventually showing up. 

The “on a walk/still figuring this out” (owl)
This close talker is joining the call while walking, offering you a chance to experience mild nausea as you watch them bop up and down on screen. They may also be the friend who doesn’t pay attention to the camera angle, and occasionally reminds everyone that they’re still “getting used to all this.” Consider yourself lucky if you’re not staring at their nostrils the entire time.

The distant participants (deer and rabbit)
This lot is likely preparing dinner, ironing, or busy with some other chore. Their webcam is at a fixed position, so for the most part you find yourself watching either a second-rate reality show featuring arguments about cooking instructions or staring into a well-decorated room.

The bored one (fox)
This is your friend who doesn’t want to decline the call because they want to maintain the connection, but are exhausted/disinterested in whatever y’all are discussing. They sit there, smiling and nodding, but you know they’re completely checked out and that’s okay with everyone. 

The serial virtual background artist (moose)
Green screens are a revelation to this one. They can’t believe the AMAZING things you can do with virtual backgrounds, and as such, take every opportunity to change their Zoom background to better reflect the mood/season/or artistic flair. Some of their limbs vanish when they move, and you’re not entirely sure if the lower part of their body is clothed. #PantsOptional

The elderly couple still figuring out how this all works (otter and beaver)
“Are we connected? Can you hear us?”
This couple needs to find their glasses first to join the call and see who’s on screen. They will spend a few minutes looking for the earphones their grandkids bought them so they can “call you on the camera.” It’s smooth sailing for everyone after the “tech support” portion is done. They have the latest info on the pandemic’s numbers, and will share with you newly-acquired “facts” that were shared by their Facebook friends. 

The chatterbox on mute (squirrel)
This one is invested completely in the conversation and has many opinions to offer… if they can only remember to unmute themselves. 90% of the interaction with them focuses on reminding them to “please unmute” and using a broad range of hand gestures to indicate “we can’t hear you!”

The all-in speaker (raccoon)
This one is talking to you just like they would in person: with their entire body. Their hands are telling half the story, their emotions and voice fluctuations handle the rest. They’re occupying the entire Zoom square and fully command your attention. Good on them, they’ve mastered this digital medium.

I’ll leave the double (triple?) entendre tagline for you to decipher.

Side note: I have received a few requests to produce cards for sale ahead of Christmas 2021/2022. At this point, I haven’t decided if I’ll offer that, so stay tuned and follow Instagram for more info.

Remote management: Advice from a career flex worker

In the last few days, I’ve seen a lot of excellent advice for first-time teleworkers, from online tool recommendations to suggested actions and behaviours, to ensure maximum productivity.

What I didn’t see much of are tips on managing remote workers. So I wanted to share some of the practices I’ve collected over the years, as I’ve been a “flex worker” in one form or another since 2009: a part-time remote worker, a digital nomad, a gig worker, and a manager responsible for remote workers (while doing it remotely myself sometimes).

These points may be particularly useful for first-time managers who may have found themselves in the midst of a management style that requires as much flexibility as network bandwidth.

Establish a list of activities or expected deliverables you would like to get from your teleworker for each day.

This may seem like micromanagement, but it is not. It lays out expectations ahead of time, and allows both parties to agree on what is reasonable and attainable without the need for constant check-ins over emails, project management tools, etc. This also helps you understand what the team will be delivering at the end of each week, so you can brief up as needed.

I usually ask my team to provide me with the list of things they’d like to deliver on the day before they’re teleworking (if it’s a daily arrangement). This allows me to see if their priorities are aligned with the team’s or the organization’s, and I can course-correct ahead of time. At the end of the day, I usually know what they were able to do, and can also measure the effectiveness of the teleworking arrangement over time. The same approach applies to long-term remote workers, except it tends to be more of a weekly list, with milestone deliverables on certain days.

The other benefit to this approach is that each employee is taking ownership of their productivity, and is responsible for what’s on the list they’ve provided. It’s been my experience that those who believe they are responsible for their work tend to deliver on time, and feel personally responsible for the quality of the work they are producing.

Do not send emails or schedule calls at lunch, or after stated working hours.

I know from my own personal experience that plowing through something to get it done feels much better than pausing for a break and picking up the work later. But when you’re managing others, it’s very important to set healthy boundaries and stick to them. Your team may feel the need to stay behind and respond to each message right away, and in doing so, they forego their own lunch hour or breaks. I learned from one of my former teams that I caused undue stress by bombarding their mailboxes on my telework day. They felt a needless sense of urgency as I did not communicate that I was simply going through my list, and there is no expectation for immediate responses. Now, I schedule emails to go out either after lunch or the next day. I’m also clear on what is something they need to respond to soon, and what can wait.

If you’re managing a whole team remotely, do a morning check-in with everyone.

Managing a few employees remotely for a short period of time is quite different from having a whole team that works remotely. Taking the pulse of the group in the morning helps you better plan the day based on the fresh data you are able to gather in those first few minutes. This is especially important at times like these, where our own personal anxiety is present and sits right next to us. This quick virtual gathering (which can also be done through texts or chat) is also a signal that you are available to discuss any issue that may have surfaced overnight, because you are allocating the first part of your working hour to your team’s needs.

Check your personal biases at the door.

You may have previously worked in environments where telework is uncommon. You may have also been discouraged from asking for remote working opportunities because it wasn’t a “serious move”, or the company culture considered teleworkers “low performers on vacation.” Of course, the last few years have provided us with enough studies and data to know that remote workers are more productive, and cost less in overhead.

When I joined a more skeptical environment a few years ago, I made a point of collecting data about my own productivity for two years to quantitatively gauge how much work I was doing. My average rate of performance was 140% more than my regular output on any given day (I used numbers of emails, phone calls, and plans or content developed as my performance indicators). That put a stop to some of the commentaries on telework.

Let me say that again, for the cheap seats in the back: check your biases at the door. If you don’t, you are not going to be an effective remote manager.

I still encounter modern-day skeptics who equate telework with an opportunity to binge watch Netflix. And after a few minutes of conversation, it becomes apparent that their previous working experiences included a manager or a culture that was against telework, so they learned the behaviour and inherited the bias.

Let me be clear, it’s not your job to defend your remote workers or telework itself all the time, but it may be part of your work to document what is working and what isn’t, and help push for slight tweaks in culture. I once gave up an office to prove a point about remote work.

Build in the mechanism to address unproductive remote workers.

This is a difficult one, and is not applicable in times like this, but it is worth remembering for the future. You need to create a process or policy for remote work that allows you to pull the plug on telework arrangements that are unproductive for your organization or team. In most of the cases I’ve encountered, it comes down to an employee who does not know their own working patterns, is unable to cultivate better remote work habits or mimic their office tempo, and needs your help because they are drowning. Remote work — that doesn’t arrive because of extraordinary circumstances like the current one — is not for every personality. Having a mechanism to talk through expectations, work on milestones, and end an ineffective telework arrangement is the best thing you can do for your team and your organization.

Ultimately, managing remote workers is a matter of trust. They need to trust your ability to communicate priorities and expectations clearly, see that you are open to emerging tools and workflows, and believe that you are available to them when they need help. You need to demonstrate trust in your team’s ability to do the work, and know when to spot an issue and have tough conversations about shortcomings (yours or theirs).

Stop cheerleading, talk plainly, and get out of the office: What a marketing vagabond will tell you about leadership

This is a work-related piece that was published a while ago, and I’m reposting it in its entirety here for those interested in the subject.

Marketing is a profession that requires its practitioners to be fluid and nimble. The constant pursuit of new ideas and hot trends, and the ability to work with and adapt to various industries are essential traits. Oh sure, sometimes we marketers can get carried away by new gadgets and shiny tools. But we know that our value rests in the ability to spot behaviour patterns in any group (or demographic) and act quickly on any opportunities.

In my case, acquiring practical marketing skills meant working with businesses in a variety of industries, in the private and public sectors, here and abroad. In addition to focused professional development, this exposure to a broad spectrum of corporate cultures and business practices gave me insights into what makes entities successful.

Strong leaders do not apologize for a vision or an ideology

Reluctant leaders, or those who do not explicitly-state their raison d’être, cannot generate the passion needed to fuel their employees. Knowledge workers rely on inspiration as a source of energy to work on endeavors that may never see the light of day. This is why TED talks are so popular, and why cubeland is speckled with black and white printouts of Steve Jobs quotes. The absence of drive and charisma in a leader has real effects on productivity and morale.

Whether you’re in a position commanding five or 500 employees, it’s crucial that you communicate the ideas and feelings that make you work as hard as you do. If we can look up to someone who genuinely believes in the significance of the work they do, we are less likely to be cynical about our own output.

Poor communication buries great ideas

I have seen many interesting initiatives go belly-up because of poor communication. Objectives were unclear, goals were excessive in jargon, and calls for action were absent. Worse, I’ve seen fantastic campaigns flop almost immediately because of the seemingly impersonal and flat communication delivered from those meant to lead the charge.

It is not up for one individual or group to take the blame for poor communication, rather, we should collectively admit that over the last few years we have moved away from personable communication tactics. As a result, our sentiments are unclear, our intentions misunderstood, and our efforts wasted. It’s a bad habit, and we need to break it.

It will take some time to move away from the detached tones and passive voices, but once you learn to speak with people using any medium of your choice, you’ll start receiving exactly what you’ve asked for, and then some.

Write in the manner you want to be written to; state your intention clearly, reveal your vulnerabilities readily, and add your own personal style and tone that communicate what you stand for. Your words have the power to leave an impression that lasts long after you’ve left the building.

To have honest conversations, leave the office

Taking someone out of their comfortable space and introducing them to an external environment naturally causes them to change their behaviour. The absence of their familiar surroundings (like furniture, cubicle spaces, and such) temporarily removes the difference in rank, making the power balance less visible. In a coffee shop, for example, you are both paying customers who are equal in the eyes of everyone else around

This little time away from the office will lead — with time — to an exchange of direct feedback and valuable insights that could make a difference for your business.

Sometimes, the best way to let progress happen is to step aside

A friend once remarked that a leader’s role is not that of a cheerleader for change and innovation. They’re too busy and expensive for this. Instead, a leader’s duty is to consciously avoid becoming a barrier.

In large enough organizations, there is a surplus of fresh ideas and approaches that could make the business more efficient, decrease costs, or improve morale. Take a step back and observe the clusters that have the motivation and willingness to try new ideas and generate change and innovation naturally. Provide your insights on how to best align these endeavours with business goals or objectives, and share the risks and hesitations you may have openly before too much work has gone into any one initiative, then pull back.

This is also important: don’t try to get everyone else in the organization on all these new experiments and outbursts of creativity. Laggards will arrive eventually, and naysayers may be entirely out of reach. Which brings me to …

Some people just don’t care, and there ain’t nothing you can do about that

People accept employment offers for a large number of reasons. Some want to change the world, others want a steady paycheque and a good dental plan.

Any group is guaranteed to have employees who are invested in the 9 to 5 stretch only. Their ideas, hopes, aspirations and passions lay elsewhere, and that’s absolutely fine. These are the steady doers who can be relied upon to deliver constantly, without any drama. If you chase after them to join every new initiative in the organization, you may lose them entirely. Or, you could generate a wave of dislike and negativity that will hurt your efforts in the long run. This group keeps operations going while the ideologists are busy creating new work streams.

On creativity

We need to dispose of the notion that divides people into those who are born creative and those who are not.

Creativity, like beauty, is subjective. It is not a profession, or a personality trait found among one group. It is also a duplicitous concept, seeking to flatter originality while cautioning against unorthodoxy.

No industry has the monopoly on creativity. I know this first-hand, having worked with a wide variety of people: be it artists, researchers, musicians, exporters, importers, art directors, diplomats, bureaucrats, scientists, cooks, accountants, tech founders, educators, sheep herders, writers, actors, economists, mixologists, professors, chocolatiers, farmers, code developers, policy wonks, lawyers, surgeons, or tailors. All were deeply creative, yet many were reluctant to describe their work as such, instead relegating that adjective to select professions – like mine (marketing). But a skilled butcher is just as fascinating to watch as an orchestra conductor, a traffic warden, a teacher in a classroom, or a nurse at work.

We are all born creative; we create when we translate our thoughts from internal monologues and feelings to ideas or expressions that can be detected by those around us. A string of running code can have a profound impact on the viewer, as could a kaleidoscope of pigmented oil strewn across a canvas, a hypothesis proposed, or a complex ledger that beautifully concludes with a single number. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.

If you’re curious, my experiences tell me the least creative individuals are those who parrot stereotypes, and believe an industry, sector, geographic region, office layout, or attire is indicative of the flow of creativity that can be expected.

The point is: You are creative – regardless of what you do, where you live, how you dress, or what you say. You greatly enrich the human condition with anything you do, even if you don’t see that yet.  Don’t follow a painfully limiting way of defining creativity, it does damage to yourself as well as the future of many professions. Plus, it’s more than likely that an advertiser was responsible for that definition in the first place.

From and Towards: A Matter of Perspective

There are moments in life when we find ourselves running away from something or someone as a solution to an undesirable situation. We take new jobs to replace horrible bosses, orchestrate dates with the next available distraction, occupy ourselves by being in a constant state of “busy.” That way, we don’t have to stand up and face the ugliness that is disappointment, heartbreak, frustration, rejection…

On the one hand, to run away from the disagreeable or uncomfortable is to surrender control over your life choices, to open the door to regret and disenchantment. It solves nothing, merely delays the inevitable but necessary pain of dealing with the unpleasant.

On the other, running towards an idea, a job, a person, a calling, a dream… is an entirely different matter. It’s a leap forward that is driven by hope, excitement, and passion. It’s the sensation of your heart skipping a beat, the tingling feeling of butterflies in your stomach, the energy you feel when all you see before you is a world full of saturated colours and delicious scents.

Don’t wait for things to get bad before you decide to leave. Don’t run away from your own life when parts of it feel broken or scattered. Stand tall and look towards the future, your future. One minute from now, five months, a year. Think about where you want to be. And then go forward, towards.

The Case for Win Walls

A while ago in a dark and windowless office, I printed off a few emails and collected post-it notes containing words of gratitude that clients had sent my way when I worked on their projects. I stuck the collection to the back of my door and called it a “win wall.”

Little by little, these post-its multiplied, the print-outs stacked on top of one another, and passersby began to ask questions about this colourful wall of paper. With time, my colleagues started adding their own win-filled notes until our win wall could no longer be contained to my door. It moved into the hallway and continued to take off from there from there.

More than a wall: it’s a state of mind

I’ve started several win walls since then, and have observed similar behaviours happening each time. Win walls became central gathering points for a team, sparking positive conversations and lifting overall morale. They acted as a barometer for an office’s emotional well being, helping both managers and employees see tangible indicators of how people were feeling week to week.

These win walls were the unofficial cheerleader of the office: they helped us emphasize the positive things in life and build a sense of momentum, an effect that was especially valuable when project deadlines seemed impossible, tempers flew high or motivation was low. Seeing the wins on the wall helped decrease the sense of powerlessness and frustration one might have felt on a particularly challenging day.

The post-it notes with words of gratitude and positivity served as a physical way to remind us to try to keep perspective and put effort into recognizing and sharing these daily positive moments. Overall, the presence of the win walls helped us remember that even on the toughest day the office is not necessarily as dire a place as it can sometimes seem.

The ripple effect of wins and positive thoughts 

So, could something as simple as a win wall help people feel better about their workplace, experience less stress, think more positively, and perhaps even live longer?

It’s not a farfetched hypothesis. Positivity has a physiological effect on our minds and bodies. These “wins” capture a memorable moment for someone; something so memorable that they took the time to intentionally put it out into the world. The contributors did not stop at the simple act of thinking about a positive moment: they decided to take visible action by physically committing the memory to a piece of paper and posting it on the wall. Given that there are studies that show taking a positive action (as opposed to thinking alone) can improve one’s outlook and subsequently behaviour, it’s no wonder that I’ve found win walls to have such a positive impact in a workplace.

Here is the best part: it’s very easy and inexpensive to try out your very own win wall for next few months and examine the effects yourself. Would you like to see how a few post-its can build a happy work environment?

Ready to make your own win wall? Here’s how

  1. Find some big paper and put it up
    Find tracing or drafting paper, or use jumbo sketch pad sheets to create the base for your wall. I usually buy 18 x 24” sketch pads (newspaper grade that usually come in 50 or 100 sheets) at the local art store that cost about $4. Tack it onto a cubicle wall or tape it to the wall (read on for tips on selecting the perfect wall).
  2. Optional but recommended: Write a short description and decorate
    Your colleagues may need some help understanding the purpose behind the wall and some encouragement for them to participate. I’ve included a sample of the text I use at the very bottom of this page.
  3. Make it stand out: Add colours, arrows, drawings, or anything else that you think will draw attention to the wall.
  4. Place supplies within reach: Make it as easy as possible for anyone to contribute by having markers and post-it notes available as close to the win wall as possible. Most of the notes I’ve seen posted were spur-of-the-moment additions contributed on-the-go as people walked by and saw the wall, since they didn’t need to walk back to their desks for something to write on or forget their win before having a chance to add it to the wall.
  5. Promote the wall: Spread the word about your win wall to encourage participation for those around you. Talk about the win wall at your next team meeting, explaining its use and benefits to your colleagues. There may be a few odd looks around the table, but with time the effects of the win wall will become clear to those who may have doubted it. Even if you don’t feel comfortable promoting it with your whole team, try telling one or two close colleagues about it.

Tips for a winning win wall

Having started a few walls in various office environments, I’ve found the following points to be key factors in how successful and active a win wall can be.

  • Location is key: Place your win wall in a high-traffic area where lots of colleagues will pass by at least once per day. Entrances to main areas and those around the kitchen or near the printer tend to get more traffic from what I’ve observed.
  • Make it difficult to miss: Use colours, photos, or any other visual element that will help attract attention to the win wall. You want people to notice it, stop for a moment to take in what others have contributed, and ideally add their own wins, helping the wall grow beyond a one-person initiative.
  • Anonymity is perfect: Don’t discourage anonymous notes. Each person has a certain level of comfort when it comes to sharing emotions in the workplace. The point of the wall is to elevate morale, and if some feel the need to be anonymous to be honest, so be it.
  • Physical win walls win: I have tried to replicate win walls online with my virtual colleagues without much luck. I suspect that it has to do with the physical sense of community that builds around physical walls. If you’ve had more success on this front, I would love to hear about it!
  • Life wins and work wins: Successful win walls tend to be a mix of professional and personal wins. I suggest pointing this out to those adding wins to the wall so people don’t necessarily fixate on work-related wins. This is particularly important for longer-term projects that may not have daily milestones.
    The glass is half full, with post-its

Ranting and putting out negativity into the world after a hard day at the office is easy. However, by investing a few dollars and minutes into setting up a win wall, you can make sharing positive moments and building a healthier work environment even easier than defaulting to rants when looking for collegial support.

For some, the sunrise can be the first win of the day; for others, it may be the sunset marking the end of a long troublesome one. Both of these things, as well as a million others both big and small each day, are wins worth celebrating. Why not post them and let the rest of us in on your wins so we can all benefit from a little positive thinking?

If you start a win wall, I’d love to hear about your experience!

Have a few minutes? Watch the videos below on the effect that expressing gratitude has on us and those around us.

The Science of Happiness – An Experiment in Gratitude

The Science of Happiness – Look on the Bright Side

On self-worth: Pulitzers, yardsticks, and underreporting the value of you

In the pursuit of understanding one’s purpose in life, we often assign meaning and value to our work based on popularized and widely accepted definitions of worth and success. As a result, goals often end up being things like eradicating hunger, disease and injustice, being recognized as the best in our field, or earning a top-figure income.

Measures of success like those send a message: our work needs to have a big, significant, and visible impact to matter. Otherwise, we’re underdeveloped and haven’t reached our potential – we set the bar too low. The message is that when we fall short of those goals, we must keep going forward and (hopefully) upward.

Or does it?

Maybe what we need to do instead is acknowledge that our actions, every day, have a ripple effect not only on those immediately around us, but on our communities, cities, and environments. When we chase absolute successes (like getting bought out by Facebook or winning a Pulitzer), we define our purpose in life by scales that fail to value the small-but-mighty micro-influences we can and do have.

You don’t need to wait for accolades from your idols to feel proud of your work, or for overt acts of gratitude to feel valuable. We’re too often blind to the true positive impact we have on those we interact with for one minute, one year, one lifetime. Our lofty goals left unachieved, we underreport our value to ourselves and those around us because we missed the mark on the yardstick – never mind the progress we made.

Maybe that’s what we need to change.

To begin fully understanding our true value to ourselves and those around us, we need to reflect on the moments, however grand or little, that were meaningful to us each day. We should also share these reflections with those who helped create such moments with or for us, because what is more powerful than hearing that your presence has made a difference for someone?

Power, business, and the female lottery

Today is International Women’s Day.

As my business grows and I meet new people, I get asked about the role gender plays in running a business, and the difficulties and obstacles I face as a woman in the workplace.

The answer I usually offer is that when it comes to business, I don’t want to define my entire work philosophy around my being a woman. I focus on my work as an individual who gets compared to peers regardless of sex. That said, my gender has a profound effect on how and why I make decisions, personally and professionally – specifically in terms of luck and power.

 

I won the female lottery

I was born into an environment that raised individuals, not girls. I grew up around ideas of equality, financial independence, and freedom of choice. I was surrounded by strong female role models in my family: business owners, professionals, and war heroines. I knew women were capable of doing absolutely anything by watching my mom raise two children in foreign countries on her own.
nelly and lilo
By virtue of travel, good education, and exposure to unusual childhood experiences, I knew very well that I was among the privileged group of women who possessed an education, had access to proper health care, and consequently the chance of having a prosperous future.

That was luck.

 

Competence is power

I like to believe that the professional workplace is where meritocracy comes to full effect. You may say that’s naive or negligent of the statistics that prove gender equality is largely a myth. And I would be in agreement with you.

Personally, I have never been in a position where the caliber of my work was questioned because it was provided by a woman. In my opinion, competence levels the professional playing field – which is why I don’t feel intimidated or unequal when I walk into any business situation. That’s where I think my professional power – if we call it that – comes from.

 

In the wee hours of the night

Recently I attended a networking event that provided new business opportunities. At one point, I looked at the time and realized I had to start making my way home. I had a long commute ahead of me, which required walking through isolated parking lots and along poorly-lit pathways. There are alternatives that would take any worry out of the situation, but that added sense of vulnerability had a real effect on my business. I delivered the line about turning into a pumpkin at midnight, and made my exit earlier than I might have because of a small paranoid voice in my head that has me in a constant state of readiness.

I know the statistical likelihood of getting attacked by a stranger, particularly in a developed country with historically low crime rates, is extremely low. That said, I’ve been in situations where I experienced cruelty for no other reason than being a woman in the wrong place at the wrong time. Unlucky is the only way to describe it. Vulnerability is not tied with a location, time of day, physical strength, state of mind, or manner of dress. It has everything to do with power*, and the perceived loss of it.

When I find myself in an unpredictable environment, unlike the workplace, I shift from a confident and powerful individual to one who is subject to the basic instinct of self-preservation. I don’t like admitting that, but to claim otherwise is disingenuous.

 

One day that voice may go away…

Today we celebrate women, worldwide. What do we do tomorrow? How do we have a future where luck plays no role in determining a woman’s quality of life? How do we shift power from a mechanism that exploits the uneducated, disadvantaged, and vulnerable to one that allows everyone to be the best person they can be?

I strongly believe that education is and has always been the key to end social injustice.

Teach women maths and sciences as well as their reproductive choices, encourage the exploration of their sexuality and allow them to deliver on their full potential. At the same time, teach everyone alike to respect the choices that women make with their minds and what they do with their bodies, and learn to see the value of what they produce as individual free-thinkers.

Maybe then the voice would go away, and there will be no more questions about the role gender plays in and outside of business contexts.

*Susan Brownmiller’s Against our Will explores the relationship between power and vulnerability as it affects women everywhere. I strongly recommend this book for both men and women.

– – –

Pistols, protagonists and commandeering an army of one

leafy nelly

Several weeks ago, a friend was having a hard time following some personal and professional letdowns. She asked a very simple and poignant question: “How come no one fights for us?”

I had no answer for her, and a defeatist sentiment permeated my skin and sat heavy on my heart for weeks. The haunting possibility that she was right kept me awake for some nights. I started looking closely at everyone around me to see if any of them could be my “great defender” – a coworker siding vocally with my opinion, a friend arguing most vehemently on my behalf, an inamorato who won’t let me just happen. I felt despair at the absence of pistols being drawn at a moment’s notice in my honour.

So absorbed was I by the idea that the world was largely indifferent, that I didn’t think of asking an important question: why should anyone fight for us?

Without an answer in mind, I reconciled myself to the fact that we would have to do our own fighting for all the days to come. I was going to share this realization with my friend; tell her that she’d need to commandeer her army of one and fight for herself, because that’s just the way things are.

As I was writing this response to her, it dawned on me that our situation is actually great.

We grow stronger when we embrace the liberation that comes with having control and mastery over our lives, and stop worrying about finding someone to pick up our banners. If we can’t convincingly play the protagonist in our own scenario, how can we expect anyone to take note of our role?

When you stand convinced of your own actions and value, the number of people who join your ranks expands tenfold. But you have to take the first step so others can see you moving. And trust that if you stumble, they will come out of the woodwork and catch you.

The world fights for us when we fight for ourselves first. No one wants to side with a downcast individual.

Truthfully, I am a little embarrassed it took me this long to see that the broadest shoulders I lean on belong to the quiet ones, those who do not display grandiose or theatrical gestures of heroism – they simply take action and support me when and how they can.

Rather amazing things, humans.