Overthinker’s Friday Drinks

I’m still here, despite the inappropriately long break from blogging. I’ve been struggling to put together a proper routine, is all. I thought that achieving daily routine-perfection à la Paltrow would catapult me to the top of human race but I was so wrong: Mark Wahlberg ruined my well-laid plans by taking things to the next level.

Mark Wahlberg published his daily routine on Instagram in order to make the rest of the world look like slackers. He wakes up at 2:30am, has a half an hour prayer starting at 2:45am and then breakfast at 3:15, which consists of nothing less than steel oats, peanut butter, blueberries and eggs, followed by protein shake — Performance Inspired Nutrition Vanilla Latte Shake — three turkey burgers and five pieces of sweet potato. Then off to the gym for an hour and half of exercise. Back for post-workout brekkie at 5:30am. I remember seeing the daily tic-toc of an American politician about million years ago when he was in Europe for a congress. I was in awe at his waking up at 5:30am and then proceeding to exercise and having reading time while most of his European colleagues were still idly dipping their ​pains au chocolat in their cappuccinos in the hotel breakfast room. Conclusion: American military routines on civilians only work when one is actually American.

Since it’s September in the Capital of Europe, people are back from all corners of the continent and so are therentrée drinks. I took part in one edition this Friday. Given that Brussels is a banquet of networking events (there’s never a need to purchase alcoholic drinks or finger-food in this city – there’s always an event somewhere where these things are being served for free) and I should thus have plenty practise on the networking-front, for some reason they’ve never quite grown on me. To quote Hannah Gadsby, my favourite sound in the whole world is the sound of a teacup finding its place on a saucer. 

Maybe it was the summer break, who knows, but last Friday’s drinks kind of became the new benchmark for awkwardness. I did not know what to say to the merry people! I spent so much time mulling over what to say (Can I ask about work or is it lame? Did I already ask this colleague earlier at work what he did on his holiday? If I ask about her holiday, do I risk having to explain about my holiday? I actually have nothing to say to this person! Does “Busy in the office again, huh?” sound as stupid as it feels in my head? Can I ask for another cigarette or is it becoming rude?) that I ended up not saying anything much, and I can report to you that there are very few people who consider standing in awkward silence, drink in hand, to be comfortable. (While the daily routines of Americans clearly are a bit far-flung to my tastes, I could possibly learn a thing or two about small talk.) 

I am aware that I should probably just lighten up about this – it’s not like people expect cocktail chit-chat to be Brontë-sisters-deep analysis of anything. As it happens, mostly I’m just absolutely fresh out of things to say after a day in the office. I don’t like talking very much, which is a bit perverse given it’s kind of my profession. Or possibly precisely because of that. 

I used to train myself for social gatherings by RSVP:ing for networking receptions, then going alone and talking to people I didn’t know once there. It was useful shock therapy for an introvert like me. It was also exhausting. Going to events is only ever useful if there’s actual follow up with the new contacts. I felt like such a random paste-head at most gatherings that getting in touch with anyone afterwards was not really an option.

Then I read somewhere that introverts are actually very good networkers because they nurture the small circle of contacts they have, instead of manically collecting people’s business cards and being all “Oh I know everyone” and in the end not really knowing anyone. The key here really is keeping in touch with people already in one’s network so as to build meaningful contacts instead of just names in a Rolodex. I firmly want to believe in this theory, because I do get anxious about the whole “One must network and meet new people!  Like ALL THE TIME! One must know everybody in this universe to be relevant! Be your best self! Live, laugh, love!” –school of thought.

I have, since my self-inflicted shock-therapy, introduced some rules as regards these gatherings, and I will (generally speaking) only make an appearance should the event meet at least one of the following criteria:

– It is something that I have to do because of my work. Ideally there will be something that will be useful for my work (a contact, a presentation, an inspiration, anything).

– It is something that I want to do for myself (a contact, a presentation, an inspiration, anything)

– I know there to be some interesting people present.

– I know there to be some fun people present.

– I know a friend will be there and we’ll have dinner after and gossip about people in alphabetical order.

– All of the above, plus I am starving and the food is supposed to be very good and the venue is within walking distance.

There’s still time to get ready for the cruellest social season of all – that of Christmas drinks. Not because there’s anything wrong with a bit of mulled wine and assorted cheeses, but because it lasts for two bloody months. 

The White House Diaries

Ever wondered why there hasn’t been a European Union version of the West Wing? This is why:

Director: So who do we have to play the Press Secretary? Like CJ in the West Wing?

Casting director: We would need three. At least.

Director: You’re joking, right?

Casting director: No, I’m not. One for the Commission, one for the Council and…

Director: Oh, the European Parliament?

Casting director: Er, no, but now that you mention them, yes, for the Parliament and…

Director: The Foreign Affairs chief? Really?

Casting director: Um, yes, actually you’re right, add that to your list, but then we need another for the…

Director: YES?

Casting director: (whispers) … the rotating Presidency…

The EU does not work for drama, which is a shame because there’s plenty of it. The White House, in contrary, is a logistical no-brainer, full of intrigue and we love it (exhibit: The House of Cards). Therefore it’s no wonder that so many ex- White House staffers have published their memoirs. I have not read the oeuvre related to the current administration because I cannot, but did read three books by women who worked close to former US Presidents.

Before presenting the books, a few general remarks:

– Men never reveal how starstruck and beyond themselves they are when they work for princes or presidents. There’s none of the “I couldn’t believe this was now my life” or “I’d lay in bed in the evening and cry happy tears while wondering how little ol’ me ended up flying with Air Force One” that frequently come up in female staffers’ memoirs. With men it’s more like “I was born to rule”. Also the men don’t really work for the president. They work with the president. 

– Political memoirs rarely make for good literature. At best the text is well written and edited, it’s not all me-me-me and there are some actual insights (this is always promised on the back cover, but there are rarely any real insights). Surely memoirs are a category of their own and not to be compared with literary fiction, but it really is a rare skill to write a decent, interesting memoir if you are not a former politician (and even if, ahem, you are). Basically you’d have to have worked in the White House with enough access to POTUS in order to have any clout outside Washington D.C. and/or your immediate family and circle of friends.

– The threshold to write memoirs seems to be whole lot lower for men than it is for women. It would be interesting to know what role demand and supply play. Especially male journalists are terribly keen on sharing their experiences in literary form. 

– Memoirs by politicians, journalists or staffers are an acquired taste and only interesting for those who come across these species in their daily lives. One must be able to relate to the protagonist, otherwise there’s no point. Therefore it has been a delight to see some new memoirs pop up by women who have spent their youths running on the corridors of power. I have been holed up in a military base in the middle of Bosnia and Herzegovina while the mother of all periods suddenly attacked and there was no change of clothes and/or access to sanitary pads/tampons  and/or painkillers anywhere near anything until the talks finished and the cars whisked everybody back to the hotel and since you’re a curious lot: the talks did drag on. A lot. So yes, while reading about somebody else’s menstrual cramps while on a work trip does not exactly alleviate any situations in the real life, it still is comforting to know you’re not quite alone in this world in these situations.

​Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? by Alyssa Mastromonaco

Mastromonaco was Obama’s deputy Chief of Staff and the memoir is her open account of what your life becomes when you work so close to POTUS (spoiler: you will have absolutely no life). The book is intended for younger audience which gives it a nice older sisterly touch. Mastromonaco is candid about her contemplations also with non-work related issues, such as starting a family, problems with conceiving and what it feels like to leave an experience like that behind: When I left the White House, I was so worried: that I would never be successful on my own, that I had given up the one thing that made me who I was. (…) Although I have no idea what will happen next, I do know that it would be denial of everything I learned working for Barack Obama to give up or opt out. Politics will always be a twinkle in my eye – the thing that makes me say “What if?”

(Note: Relinquishing power is often as painful for the staffers as it is for the actual politicians. Sometimes even more so.

And the Good News Is…  by Dana Perino

Perino was the White House Press Secretary for George W. Bush and the first Republican woman to work in such position. It’s funny to read her write about how she dealt with all the criticism that poured on her at the time (she covered 9/11) – how times have changed… I found Perino’s book an easy-read for policy-nerds. She devotes one paragraph for explaining why she’s a conservative, and has a 10-page Q & A in the end to reply to readers’ questions. This is how she describes the reception held to the outgoing and incoming staffers in the White House the day Obama took office: 

“Again that day I learned the lesson to which I have constantly returned – that projecting my own anxieties onto what others will think of me is always much more negative than reality. The good news is that people aren’t necessarily as partisan as you might think they are. For an event I really didn’t want to go, it sure holds a spot as one of the most memorable days of my life. And I will always appreciate the civility shown to the entire Bush team that day.”

​From the Corner of the Oval Office by Beck Dorey-Stein

This nicely brings me to the description by Dorey-Stein, an Obama-stenographer, of the Obama/Trump -changeover in the White House:

“I watch the Napoleonic clowns swagger through the West Wing in bad suits. I watch the female contortionists, who believe bending over in a miniskirt and stilettos is a good idea but a woman’s right to choose isn’t. I watch Stephen Miller smirk like a demonic Pee-wee Herman as he cracks jokes about gender equality in a van full of women who are active-duty members of the military. I watch all of it. I force myself to look up so that I can write it all down.”

I liked Dorey-Stein’s White House diary. She was 26 years when she started her White House career so the book is also kind of her coming of age -story. It’s a bit like nerdy versions of “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Sex And the City” got a baby, but it’s actually also quite addictive and the writing does not make you squirm. And there’s lots of dish. Lots. Affairs with colleagues, surviving on pills and alcohol, “ensuring that POTUS looked good wherever he went, all the rest of us looked increasingly like shit” (again: no life outside work). 

And who knew – there’s a movie in the making!

I hope to see the day when there’s a movie made about one of the European Commission transcribers.

Smoke/Mirrors

Patriarchal dominance is not just about someone grabbing your breasts on a daily basis. It’s more about who takes the space in public debate or who is offered that space.  I’m quoting Finnish author Saara Turunenwhose interview I read this morning.

First, I agree with Turunen. Second, I’m happy that newspapers publish interviews where these issues are discussed. Third, I fear I’ve contributed to this bias by having spent a huge chunk of my life speculating the life, career and future of men I often don’t really even know.

I call it an occupational hazard of working in politics. Your life becomes living the life of your political masters by proxy. The future of your boss will often determine your own professional future. Changes in governments can have a sweeping effect all the way to the civil service. Thus I kind of need to have my other eye firmly on whatever is happening in the political space outside my office. Considering that the political space tends to be very male, it means I am thinking about lots of men.

I’ve written earlier how much of the public debate is about understanding the pains of white, angry men. There’s always something that throws them off-kilter and must be addressed in media. Women getting the right to have abortions recently gave many men the impulse to vent in public how hurt and offended they were by this outrageous ask. 

We are also told, often in very blunt terms, how many of the ills of this world (Brexit, trade wars, migration, populism, racism and sexism) would actually disappear and/or reverse if we would just understand men a bit better. There’s no shortage of material – a quick scroll of my twitter-feed gives me a solid 360° of men in various positions of power sharing daily how they feel about any given situation in the world.

As much as I complain about men dominating the public space, I fear I have also let them invade my privatespace. An innocent session of a couple of bottles glasses of rosé and assiette mixte with girlfriends very often turns into a speculation-fest of finding suitable jobs for male politicians/top civil servants. I sometimes ask myself whether any of these men have ever spent a second contemplating my future

Yes, I’m fully aware that this is what people do. These bubbles exist in all fields, not just politics. No need to turn this into an artificial feminist issue, I get it. Yet what we speak about in private also eventually becomes public. You know, like the wing of a butterfly -effect. 

We need to move on from the “oh, but it’s merit-based” to an actual shift in our thinking, which needs to start at the terrace-table near you (and me), dear reader. While hyperventilating about politics is a hobby inseparable from my actual job, and even though the periodical musical chairs can directly have an effect also on me, I shall seriously reconsider spending any further time toying with job opportunities for male politicians. 

Herewith my pledge: in all future speculation-fests there needs to be a 50:50 gender balance on the objects of speculation, or any conversation is null and void. 

(I’m seeing fabulous possibilities for turning this into a drinking-game once the European elections mayhem properly starts.)

P.S. I am listening “Guilty Pleasures” -playlist on Spotify while writing this post. Just noticed. I’m talking Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch  -guilty.  Weirdly goes with the topic.

Warning: Women at Work

Three white, privileged and rich women have recently taken to writing books about how they have made it to the top either by leaning in, leaning out or  by “being so good they wouldn’t be ignored”. Enter Sheryl Sandberg, Helena Morrissey and Megyn Kelly. Always a sucker for good advise, I sat down to read their thoughts in “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead“, “A Good Time to be a Girl” and “Settle for More” respectively (I wrote about Kelly’s “Settle for More” earlier).

While American Sandberg and Kelly are more or less household names by now, those of you who do not read the British Vogue as religiously as I do, might have skipped the recent introduction of Helena Morrissey, one of the few female top bankers (former CEO of Newton) in the City of London, an inspirational equality activist and, rather surprisingly, a pro-Brexiteer.

Sandberg, a Harvard University alumna and responsible for, ahem, making Facebook turn more profit via advertising as the company’s COO (though she surely is not solely responsible for the rather awkward situation facing the Facebook HQ at the moment), wrote “Lean In” in 2013 which quickly became one of the top women at work -bibles of the 2010s. Sandberg encouraged women to ditch the barriers that stood between them and career advancement and to lean in to positions of power. So far so good.

Megyn Kelly also gave career advise, mainly in the vein of “dontcha worry if your (male) boss regularly goes our for drinks with your (male) colleagues and does not invite you – turn this into a fabulous opportunity to work your arse off in the meanwhile so that you become so good that they cannot ignore your anymore and then you will get promoted”. This, also, is very straightforward.

Morrissey states it flat out on the cover of her book: don’t lean in. No, what we must do is to change the system. She explains the setting up of the “30% Club” – business initiative that she founded in the UK a couple of years ago, the aim being to have more gender-balanced company boards. The initiative has gotten traction in the UK and counts many businesses as members. Morrissey herself does not advocate gender quotas through legislation, but is basically pushing for a quota via voluntary measures. Fantastic if this works out. Morrissey is big on involving men at all levels of her work – she says repeatedly that women talking exclusively to other women will not get us anywhere. 

Morrissey’s husband is a stay-at-home-husband (they have nine kids) who also gets his say in the book. I find this relevant to her story, because her family has turned the traditional gender roles upside down on many levels (let’s not forget that Morrissey not only is the breadwinner but also works in a highly male-dominated industry). As befits the 4th wave feminism, she also writes about diversity more generally, not just from a male-female point of view. 

What I like about all three –  Sheryl, Megyn and Helena –  is that they sat down and wrote these books. It’s important for us mere mortals to be able to read their stories, even though some of the advise does appear relevant only at the point where one actually has become the COO of Facebook. There are enough women who reach superstardom during their careers and at that point stop rooting for other women, possibly because they feel they never got any sisterly help themselves. 

However, I cannot help but think how interesting it would be to see more books for men about changing the system, as Morrissey calls it. It’s tricky for us women to change everything on our own, though we’ll get there this way, too, it will just take much more time. We tell each others at the same time to play by the rules (to be one of the guys), to change the system, to lean in and to lean out. Nobody tells the men what to do to change the system to have more balance (I liked the bit where Morrissey wrote how often she needs to justify the business case of having more  diverse management. Funnily there has never been any business case to have 100% male boards and company managements). 

While none of the three books are meant to be feminist manifests and shouldn’t be read as such, they remain very shy about really making a big effin’ deal about gender imbalances on company management and executive boards, and rather push the responsibility to women. For anyone who asks why we should give a flying fuck whether there are a few more overpaid female company execs on boards or not – yes, we should and it does matter. Company rules for maternity- and parental leaves, promotions, salaries etc are decided by the management boards. That’s why women must sit on them.

In matters of advice on life it’s often useful to check the privilege (including my own) and it applies here as well. I think all three books are actually good in their niche, and while the authors are white, privileged and rich, I suppose their target audience are women working in the same industries, ie. tech, media and banking, and who identify with Sheryl, Megan and Helena. There could be far worse idols and career totem animals than these three. 

To conclude I’ll give you a soundbite from Morrissey’s book that I liked – though am fully aware that it can also be interpreted as being supercharged with wealthy privilege. Even still, here you are: Leap before you look.

The picture below is taken of a photography artwork by Jenny Boot called “Ode to Vermeer” that was displayed at the Affordable Art Fair in Brussels a few weeks ago. More information: www.publichouseofart.com 

On the Art of Speaking Out

Exactly one year ago the world witnessed an inauguration that marked the beginning of a new day, a new dawn and a new life, but many of us were not left feeling good. Since then millions of women (and not just women) have marched, campaigned, rallied, written books and articles, organised events and held speeches. Countless women have used their creativity for the good cause: lyrics, poems, embroidered sweaters, T-shirts emblazoned with slogans, pins, badges, pussy hats – almost anything to make the world know what they have to say. 

While the message is always the most important thing, especially when we talk about a human rights movement that can only be described as if a pressure cooker had just burst open, there are a few things about delivery I wanted to share with you. Public speaking may be difficult, but it can be learned. Even those branded as natural born public speaking superstars (oh, how we love to love these gurus!) have often spent countless hours in honing their performances. 

I was the kid who was always the first to volunteer for speaking in front of the class, who tirelessly wrote plays for school’s Christmas parties (obviously scripting the most stage time pour moi-même) and generally took the floor ad nauseam whenever the slightest chance arose. Therefore it comes as no surprise that my job today is public speaking, on and off camera. What might be surprising, though, is that I am very uncomfortable being centre stage once I leave my professional hat in the office. For me public speaking is an act. I play the role of a great public speaker during the day and spend the rest of the time observing people rather than drawing attention to myself. I can get completely lost if I’m expected to talk about myself in a crowd of people, but weirdly enough have no problem to climb the stage and perform to any crowd. 

Up North public speaking was never considered an art form. In high-school I remember kids getting exemptions from holding presentations because they were too terrified by the thought of standing in front of the class. Even today it is not uncommon to witness a professional presentation where the (Nordic) speaker reluctantly shuffles towards the podium, clearly wanting to make him/herself invisible, starts with an apologetic “I was asked to speak to you about…” before reaching the pulpit and then holding onto it as if his/her life depended on it. At work I watch politicians from across Europe deliver speeches daily, and the cultural differences of oration are very clear, indeed. In addition to the individual and cultural characteristics and temperaments comes the perception of a public voice. The benchmark is very often male.

Expertise, assertiveness and authority are associated as male qualities – this is demonstrated by the countless all male panels and -seminars taking place everywhere (let’s keep an alert eye on how the World Economic Forum next week in Davos fares in this regard). In the world of public speaking,  female voices are often still the exception (speaking of voices, many female politicians openly admit that they have been voice-coached to speak in a lower register when speaking in public. In other words: to be more masculine in order to be more convincing). The gospel of TED-talks, the McDonald’s of public speaking, spreads like wildfire because the style fits our perception of a great performance: an entertaining, snappy talk delivered with the energy, gusto and force of an athlete and the enthusiasm of a manic stand-up comedian. Close your eyes, imagine such a speaker and I bet most of you were thinking of a man. 

We don’t have to possess Oprah’s majestic presence (and, ahem, speechwriters) or become messianic, masculine crowd instigators in order to get the office presentations out of the way,  but becoming an assertive public speaker who is comfortable enough on stage is worth investing in. I attended a public speaking coaching last week, which was organised for women and specifically targeted the issues I listed above: women are often seen as weak, shy and unconvincing public speakers*. As important as it is to acknowledge and address these shortcomings, it is equally important not to make masculine qualities the norm. Women are needed on public arena, but as women, not as women-pretending-to-be-men. 

If you are one of the few people in the world who have not yet read Chris Anderson’s “TED Talks” guide to public speaking, have a look. It has some very good advise, but don’t let it intimidate you and also I would not consider it a bible. You don’t have to strive to deliver a bombastic TED Talk – spectacle the next time you’re giving a presentation (unless it’s your thing, of course!). Just have a few tricks up your sleeve for how to react to possible manterrupting, mansplaining and  the “let me interrupt your expertise by my confidence” -situations! 

I am optimistic that the ongoing change means that there will be more and more women on the public domain speaking their minds. Be ready when it’s your turn. Good luck.

P.S. Blood oranges are in season. As are mimosas. Spring is officially upon us. 

*For anyone living in Belgium and interested in such coaching, I can warmly recommend Montis Public speaking, which is run by Elizabeth Van Den Bergh. And for the record: I am not getting anything for this recommendation! I found Elizabeth really good and easy to approach. If you are a professional who maybe needs the extra boost for an important presentation, job interview etc, she’s your woman! 

The One With the Bullet Journal

I am a person who writes lists. Everywhere and about every conceivable subject. I have, at any given time, about half a dozen notebooks in handbags, in office and at home, each of them an absolute, non-curated mess of lists, quotes, anecdotes and notes to self. I am also a person who needs to have a paper calendar to write things down. I have to use the electronic outlook-version for work-stuff, but I find it unreliable, frequently out of sync and I don’t seem to get the necessary overview of things. Therefore I also haul around a calendar. In 2018 all this is about to change (I also have a sense of drama).

I came across the concept of bullet journal already some time ago, but didn’t pay that close an attention given that I was quite content with my Smythson and the herd of other notebooks. Last December I decided that I might as well give bullet journaling a try come January 2018, given that it was hailed as the solution for all people who are obsessive list-makers, who like stationery and love planners and want to keep track of different sorts of things (I was sold when I saw that someone had made a monthly tracker for all the vitamins and supplements she was taking. How genius! Who doesn’t want to read old diaries just to check whether vitamin D was taken every day in March 2005!). I bought a hardcover Leuchtturm -bullet journal, got my stash of pens (finally there seemed to be some purpose for the gazillions of pens I had been hoarding for years!) (this isn’t the full truth: I also bought new pens just for this exercise) and set to work, with the help of special bullet journal websites that walk you through it.

What I found out very soon in the process was that putting together a bullet journal is no free-styling with fancy pens and Japanese washi-tapes. No, the bullet journal- directive is all about different logs, indexing and various signifiers. You have to get this bit right in the beginning to have the correct set-up for the rest of the journal, otherwise, apparently, your year will be a miserable mess. I foolishly thought that the creation of the wee little signifiers for tasks and their eventual migration (in case you don’t accomplish them the day/week you were supposed to)  cannot really be that complicated. I still have no idea how it works. I also don’t like reading instructions, which might explain this part.

It’s my fourth day of bullet journaling, and my relationship with the Leuchtturm (below) is hostile at best. I torture myself by visiting bullet journal websites to marvel at the stationery-porn of absolutely stunning journals that people have created out of blank notebooks.  I look a bit closer, see the peculiar little signifiers next to the various tasks they have written down, and cannot get my head round why these are needed and why I don’t get them.Then I return to my own miserable Leuchtturm and stare at the only entry on page 18 (all pages in a bullet journal are numbered for easy reference) that says “Wednesday: Pick up dry-cleaning”. It’s Thursday today and I did not pick up dry-cleaning yesterday, so I should have migrated the task by using a special signifier for this eventuality, except that I don’t know how those little b****rds work.

bulletjournal1

Are there any good sides to bullet journals? Well, I’m extremely fussy about journals and diaries, and the standard versions never seem to have enough space for my own writing. I cannot deal with diaries that have one day per view, because they make it maddeningly difficult to visualise a week. On the other hand they would have plenty of space to write things down. See, fussy. In the past the (ultimate first world) problem has been that in  addition to the main journal/calendar I still needed various other notebooks to contain all the lists that do not fit in the main journal/calendar. I thought bullet journal would be my jam precisely because I could have everything in there, as I’m the editorial executive of the 247 pages. 

I realise I’m making a bit of a mountain out of a notebook so I shall leave the rant at this. Not being a quitter I shall give my Leuchtturm another chance (I’m thinking end of January – I’ll try get the hang of the bloody signifiers by then, and if not, it’s still not too late to get another Smythson for the rest of the year). I will report back. And if there are any bullet journaling aficionados among you, please let me know if there’s hope. Please.