This summer, one of my dearest friends (let’s call her Jennifer) fulfilled her dream of moving from Paris to Annecy, where she can ski to her heart’s content for almost half the year. Ex-pats get used to having friends come and go – it is part of the job description. I have many overseas friends with whom I am just as close now as when they were in Paris. With others, contact is patchier but pleasing, and with some, we have mutually accepted that our friendship was specific to a certain time. Jennifer is in another category altogether, though. She’s one of those friends who makes you feel like you’re truly travelling through life together. She calls so I can sympathise the first time her optometrist suggests bifocals. I ring her to share something hilarious my four-year-old said at supper. She’s spent Christmases with my family. My kids call her Auntie. Yes, she’s that friend. So, while I still have other great friends here and I know we’ll still speak frequently, her departure is a real loss.
Shortly after Jennifer left, I went on holiday with my family, so it’s actually only now that I’m really feeling her absence. We’ll be moving into the autumn soon and, as I anticipate the leaves falling from the trees, I can’t help but feel the last decade has been somewhat autumnal in tone in general. It has been a time when several ex-pat friends have returned to their native lands, native pals have married and moved to other bits of France, and still others have had babies and retreated into a little family bubble for the cocooning years. That this exodus coincided with me leaving a salaried job to set up my own business, moving to the suburbs, and having two children myself only exacerbated my “end of an era” feeling. Hence why I have been heard to compare my situation with that of a tree in autumn, losing its trusty, long-loved blanket of foliage to reveal slightly sad and wintry boughs.
It sounds slightly morose, I know, but in truth I rather love the autumn, and I also love the metaphor it offers for perpetual change and the hope of renewal. Because the reason trees lose their leaves is so that they can concentrate their stores of energy to survive the cold months and burst forth in springtime, greener and stronger than ever. Nature cannot create newness before first stripping back what was. And so it is with our human experience. When we go through major change, between the life we used to lead and the building of a new life, there must be a void. Just as between autumn and spring, there must be winter. When one chapter of life ends, there must be a time of emptiness before we can write a new chapter, allowing new connections, hobbies, traditions, friends, projects and job opportunities to emerge.
And they will emerge. Nature abhors a vacuum, as they say. I – indeed, we all – know that deep down, but it’s slightly cold comfort when it’s the bleak midwinter and there’s not a snowdrop in sight. So what does help? Well, transition rituals are definitely a good idea. Taking the time to say goodbye is healthy. Despite the fact that Jennifer and I will still talk several times a week, I gave her a leaving gift and we had a “last” fun Parisian night out to mark the change. I think it also helps to realise that external and internal change don’t necessarily happen at the same time. In his 1980 book Transitions, William Bridges explains how the mental and emotional transitions we feel when we experience major external change – whether good or bad – can happen weeks, months or years after the fact. The knowledge that feelings of loss and bewilderment (for a job we left, a house we sold, a friend who moved away, a lifestyle that ended) can hit much later, when we think we’ve moved on, will not lessen the sadness but will make us better prepared to welcome our feelings and take care of ourselves.
In the workplace, acknowledging that even happy transitions can be challenging is crucial. That might mean providing better support for staff who are promoted or who change jobs. It is important to mark the transition (celebrate a promotion, properly announce a shift in job remit) and ensure there is a clear moment when they change role. So often, internal position changes come with an inevitable period during which the employee manages both old and new role at the same time. The more companies can create a clear demarcation, the easier it is for people to say goodbye, close a chapter, and embrace a new one.
What to do in winter?
I also think that simply accepting the void before the rebirth – making peace with that limbo land between the end of an era and the beginning of a new one – can save us pain an energy. This is counter-intuitive for me, as I’m someone who wants to roll up her sleeves and “fix” things, but it’s a waste of energy. Some feelings just have to be felt and waited out – like when your husband convinces you to try Space Mountain despite the fact that you hate rollercoasters and you realise after a few seconds that a) it’s just as horrific as you had imagined, and b) you cannot get off and this must be what people mean when they say, “the only way out is through”. Sometimes, you just have to ride the rollercoaster, all the while staying curious about your experience, emotions and processes.
If you are a manager, supporting your team during a rocky period at work, for example during a restructure, can feel disempowering. You may not have any power over seismic changes taking place in the company, but you can help your staff by acknowledging that times are tough and encouraging open discussion of both what’s going on and how they are feeling during team meetings. You might begin by admitting that you are not enjoying the rollercoaster much yourself. You may not be able to fix the problem but you can make sure your team feels seen and heard to help them feel less alone during a professional winter of discontent, perhaps.
Celebrating the spring
When you’re waiting for the spring – whether you’re prospecting for a new business and hoping for your first client, keeping an eye out for social opportunities after moving to a new town, or biding your time until a new normal emerges after the arrival of a baby – I have found the key is to find ease. Metaphors about not being a salmon swimming against the current, and Buddhism-inspired notions of non-attachment to specific outcomes immediately spring to mind.
When one chapter of your life ends, it is easy to start viewing it through rose-tinted glasses but, while memories are precious, it’s important not to forget that the new chapter about to be written will bring its own joy. I’m still talking to Jennifer (and many of my other far-flung friends) regularly, and I’m already planning a trip to see her the weekend of Annecy’s annual apple and honey festival (It’s straight out of Gilmore Girls, right? Talk about a silver lining to her move!). But I’m also staying open to the new connections I have begun making – through suburban life, the children’s school, my growing business. Because the old adage is right – change really is the only constant. And the more you can behave like that tree – allowing its leaves to fall, safe in the knowledge that it has enough inner resources to wait out the winter and sure that the spring will bring new life – the more gracefully, easefully, and happily you will face the ever-changing seasons of your life.
Are you struggling with a tough transition? Do you want to make life changes but fear the unknown? You needn’t go through it alone. Working with an understanding, supportive and experienced coach can help you embrace change as you take one step at a time towards a life and career built with purpose and on purpose. Contact me to find out how we can work together.
5 books in the personal development genre to feed your mind and soul this summer
Four Thousand Weeks
Oliver Burkeman is my find of the year. I gobbled up his latest offering, Four Thousand Weeks – Time Management for Mortals, then proceeded to read through his entire oeuvre. The title refers to the fact that the average human lives for 4,000 weeks and that no matter what we do to lengthen it, pack more in, and be more efficient, in the end we get the time we get.
This book is the antidote to time management, productivity and organisation advice, seeking rather to realign our relationship with time. Interestingly, Burkeman spent years writing “This Column will Change Your Life” for The Guardian, testing all the concepts he is now rather debunking. He has a chatty and often humorous style that makes it an easy read while imparting great wisdom that – I found – changed my relationship to my to-do list instantly.
Social worker and shame researcher Brené Brown is the personal development expert to read or watch at the moment. She is everywhere, with TED Talks, a one-off show on Netflix, and a recent new book release. While I haven’t read her latest yet, this year I did read her classic Daring Greatly, which explores how the courage to be vulnerable can transform our lives. The title is inspired by a speech made by Theodore Roosevelt in which he said:
“It is not the critic who counts ; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles… The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena… who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”
While the quotation alone is worth reading in full, the book is full of the warmth and wisdom for which Brené is known and loved.
The Paradox of Choice – Why More Is Less
Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice was first published in 2004, but I only heard of it this year. It’s a brilliant exploration of the ways in which having too many options, possibilities and choices can create anxiety, stress, disappointment and – in some cases – depression.
While it takes the example of shopping as its jumping off point, Schwartz extends his argument to examine the entire gamut of decisions we make every day – from internet provider to romantic partner and career. But luckily, he doesn’t stop there, the book ends with a whole chapter on how to counter the negative effects of having too much choice in life with some practical advice that can be applied straight away. Full of examples that bring his arguments to life plus a healthy dose of humour, this is a thought-provoking page-turner that will definitely get you thinking next time you’re in the supermarket.
Following up on The Little Book of Hygge (also a fun read), Meik Wiking – founder of Copenhagen’s Happiness Research Institute – published Happy Moments: How to Create Experiences You’ll Remember for a Lifetime in 2019. The book delves into research about both what makes us happy and how memory works to offer insights into how to fill our lives with happy moments and also how to commit those moments to our long-term memories. Wiking has an informal, chatty style that makes the book a pleasure to read and belies the thoroughly research-based information he is sharing. I enjoyed the theoretical parts of the book, but got even more out of the very practical tips Wiking offers for making specific moments more memorable and have been able to implement some of his suggestions – to great effect!
My last recommendation is a real heavy-hitter. The Choice is Hungarian Jewish psychologist Dr Edith Eger’s account of her experience of the Holocaust, from the time leading up to her deportation to Auschwitz right through to her return to Germany years later to give a talk at Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s former retreat in Bavaria. The book is part autobiography, part self-analysis, part advice and insight, and it is incredibly powerful. While it obviously contains distressing passages, Eger’s vibrant and unbreakable spirit elevates the writing beyond history or memoir. Its ultimate message is one of hope and healing, with kindness and wisdom in every sentence. Drawing on her work as a psychologist, Eger uses her experience and expertise to offer the reader insights that are applicable to us all about how to endure, develop resilience and choose hope, even at the darkest of times.
Two fish are cruising around their tank one day when they pass an older fish coming from the other direction. “How’s the water?” asks the solo swimmer. “What water?” reply the young sprats. That’s culture. It’s the water we’re swimming around in that we do not even realise is there.
Well, not until we leave the country we grew up in to move to, say, Paris, France, and notice – with a queasy mixture of horror and excitement – that we’re not in Kansas (or Kensington, Ko Samui or Kingston) anymore and people do things differently here.
Intercultural adaptation: step by step
The cultural sociologist Milton Bennet developed a model of intercultural sensitivity that identified the six standard ways in which people experience, interpret, and interact across cultural differences. On one end of the scale, we have denial: the state of not even realising that other cultures might do things differently. Not many of us are here given today’s globalised economy, but little details can creep up on you. I nearly fell off my chair when I was told that people drink port as an aperitif in France, not as a postprandial that gets passed to the left.
Then comes defence.
We all know this one: it rises to the surface any time I go to the post office in France and usually takes the form of “What do these people think they’re doing? Why can’t they just do things the way we do back home? It’s so much more organised!”
Thirdly, minimisation – that state of mind in which we are convinced that our cultural differences are insignificant and mainly focused on our countries’ differing relationships with cheese. When we get past these, we reach the last three stages of acceptance, adaptation and integration. A sort of Holy Grail Trinity, if you’ll excuse a shamelessly mixed metaphor.
The shock of culture
Culture shock is a heady mix of the first three states of being. It’s that crashing realisation that not only do differences exist, but they are far from minimal and that our own culture has not necessarily got it right, indeed that – whisper it – perhaps there is no right. It comes to us all and can leave even the hardiest of ex-pats breathlessly running for the nearest little slice of home they can find (for me, it’s always the WHSmith bookshop on rue de Rivoli).
Culture shock is about the loss of the familiar, it’s about feeling like you’re swimming in ambiguity and the unknown.
At its deepest level, it’s a feeling of loss of identity and having one’s values questioned simply by living among people who do not share them. Culture shock can be brutal and – in my experience of nearly 19 years in Paris – can strike at any time since new cultural differences come to the fore as we advance through the various stages of life.
What are you saying?
However inevitable culture shock may be though, it can be anticipated, alleviated and managed. To go back to our fish joke, the first step towards managing culture shock is taking a look at the water in which you are swimming – figuring out the values that underpin the society that shaped you. One portal into decoding your country’s values is its treasury of proverbs and sayings. These often carry deeply held beliefs and messages. Numerous American business coaching clients have told me that the question they apply when assessing potential suppliers is “What have you done for me lately?” This speaks to a value of performance and productivity, and not resting on your laurels. The Mexican saying “Mi casa su casa” reveals values around hospitality, openness and inclusion. What sayings does your culture use?
Nuance is crucial, of course. Every individual is different, and here we are talking in broad brushstrokes. So why not think a little about your own personal values? They will influence how you experience other cultures too. So, think of a time in your life when you felt fantastic, like you were functioning at 100% and exactly where you needed to be. What were you doing, who was involved, what impact was made? Alternatively, think of a time when you were angrier than you ever thought possible. Often, anger is a result of a strongly held value being violated in some way. For each memory, consider what’s at stake and what makes it so vivid.
More than a slogan
Now you can turn your attention to the culture of your host country. What does this nation hold dear? What truths seem self-evident to its citizens? What are its major proverbs? Does it have a slogan? The easiest way to start in France is with the classic liberté, égalité, fraternité – these are far more than just aspirational words in my experience. They truly underpin the way the society is structured and run. I see liberté in the “lack” (to a British mind) of school uniform. I see égalité in the country’s healthcare and social security systems. I see fraternité in the very strong (again, from a British perspective) unions and workers’ groups.
Seeing values behind behaviour
Seeing the values that a country is upholding in its way of organising and doing things can help you to see its innocence or neutrality. This can in turn help with culture shock. Faced with behaviour that we find odd, a reply we consider rude, or a process that seems twisted, it can truly help to look for the value that is being honoured.
When my daughter started school, I complained to my husband that the list of required fournitures scolaires was ridiculously specific. We couldn’t just get notebooks; the school specified the size, number of pages, and even how big the little squares that covered each page had to be. To my British mind, this was some kind of nanny state on crack; to my husband, it was simply a way of ensuring that – to the extent possible – every child started school with the same stuff, the same possibilities, in other words, égalité.
Becoming more aware of your own culture and decoding the beliefs and values underpinning the culture of your host country will not necessarily change how you think or feel. But it will make you more tolerant and better equipped to deal with clashes and misunderstandings when they arise. Knowing where your culture and that of your host country might be at odds can help you anticipate difference and – literally – be less shocked by it.
Cultural awareness can get you a step closer to operating like an anthropologist, which is a perspective and way of functioning that I think every ex-pat should cultivate since it is a position from which we can observe and be fascinated by our subject while also being able to see it for what it is – not better or worse than us, just different.
Source : www.inspirelle.com
- Greet everyone. Taking the time to say good morning to your team and close colleagues goes a long way to fostering a sense of appreciation and respect. At the very least, it acknowledges people’s presence and contribution, and beyond that it shows you are approachable and happy to reach out to them. With so many of us working from home now, a first-thing team coffee break or walk round the office to say good morning can be replaced by regular lunches on days when people are in the office, or calls to check in and ensure everyone is well.
- Deliver praise. While we often congratulate people on a job well done in a one-to-one meeting or by email, delivering praise for team members during group meetings is a great way to boost morale and give everyone a chance to congratulate their colleagues and celebrate the team’s successes. Don’t wait for annual reviews to pat people on the back – recognition is like vitamin C. We need it in regular doses to stay motivated and feel appreciated.
- Delegate with trust. No-one likes being micro-managed. It is stressful, infantilising and disempowering. So when you choose to lighten your to-do list (see this month’s blog) by delegating a task or project, do so with trust. Make sure you brief the person taking on the task thoroughly, making it clear that you are available to help if they need, and, depending on their seniority, schedule in some check-in meetings to follow progress, then let it go. Showing you trust your team will help them trust themselves, each other, and you.
What does your to-do list look like today? Is it long, short, detailed, written down, in your head? I generally have two going at any one time – one for personal tasks (on a post-it), the other for work-related items (currently experimenting with Trello). I love lists in general, as I find they give me a sense of order and control. To-do lists, in particular, are helpful when I feel overwhelmed. I find making a structured list of the apparently million things I have to do makes me feel less dispersed, disorganised and fearful of forgetting things.
However, the list also has a dark side. Like with smartphones and social media, it can be very easy to let the tool we have created to help order our life start to order us about. To-do lists, for many people, can become a source of anxiety, guilt, frustration and overwhelm. This is often the case when the list gets too long, or when we get too attached to finishing the list, or when we feel the list is not of our own making but filled with tasks dictated by our friends, family, the boss, society, or indeed our own inner perfectionist.
Keeping the list in its rightful place – a useful tool, not a stick to beat yourself with – can be achieved, however, with a few mental adjustments and some simple re-organisation techniques. Here are some ideas for ensuring the list serves you and not the other way round!
Any re-thinking of your relationship with the to-do list must start with relinquishing the idea that the to-do list will ever be empty. One of my personal gurus, Richard Carlson, reminds readers in his bestselling Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, “that when you die, your “in basket” won’t be empty” and that this is, in fact, a good thing. Having stuff on your to-do list means you’re alive and active, that you have projects on the go, that people rely on you. Once you accept that the to-do list will never be blank, you can release the idea of having a perfect day when you finally get it all done and clear the decks. That is simply not possible, nor is it what life should be about.
Once you’ve got your head round that, there are numerous ways to restructure or reorganise your to-do list to make it feel more manageable.
Turn your to-do list into a plan
There is an old saying that coaches love which states that a goal without a plan is just a wish. The same idea can work for The List. The idea is that, wherever possible, instead of adding items to your to-do list, you open your diary and schedule in a slot for doing the task. So, for example, if you have to prepare a PowerPoint for a meeting in two weeks’ time, don’t just write it on the list. Instead, block three hour-long slots in your Outlook planner. You can now mentally take it off the to-do list as the task has been allotted time and scheduled. I do this with a page-a-day diary that serves as my to-do list notebook (yes, I’m completely analogue with these things). This avoids me having one massive to-do list that I have to prioritise every day and gives me short, daily lists so each morning I just look at what I’ve planned for myself and get on with it. When I don’t get everything done, I simply move remaining tasks to another list, depending on when I have time in my schedule. Not every task on the to-do list can be planned in this way, but by working like this for as many as I can, I find that my floating “get that done at some point” list stays very short. Some days – whisper it – I even eliminate it altogether!
Change the title
When I was interviewing for university, a literature fellow had me analyse a poem then asked the slightly sadistic question, “How would this poem be different if it were called Ten Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead?” Given that it was a love poem about Anne Boleyn by 16th-century writer Thomas Wyatt, even my jaw-achingly nervous 17-year old self was able to recognise and articulate that the title change would make a world of difference to the reader’s expectations of the text and its meaning.
Changing the title of your to-do list can have a similarly huge impact on how you relate to it. What happens when you change “To do” into “Could do”, or “Might do”? How does that alter the way you look at the list? Clients who put this into practice tell me that, even though the importance or necessity of the tasks on the list has not changed, this new title makes them feel lighter and less beholden to the tyranny of the list. The linguistic shift turns obligation into possibility.
This is a particularly powerful tool if you have a “should do” list that you run in parallel to your to-do list. That one’s particularly pernicious. A client taking a sabbatical year to retrain while her wife continues working told me recently, “I feel like I should be making dinner every night”. When she reframed that to “I could now make dinner every night”, what felt like a guilt-provoking obligation became simple one of many options. She also remembered that she actually enjoys making supper, but by “shoulding” on herself about it, she had turned it into a chore. So, another alternative is to re-name your list the “I want to” list, or the “I get to” list. This takes it a step further and turns obligation into a pleasure. This works for me when it comes to particularly tedious tasks. “Book my daughter a dentist appointment” becomes “I want to take care of my daughter’s teeth and am lucky to be able to do so”. “I have to do my tax declaration” becomes “I get to declare taxes for money made doing work I love”. It sounds slightly Pollyanna-ish, perhaps, but much of the time, it truly does help re-frame the list and my relationship to it.
Create more lists
In parallel to the to-do list, it can be helpful to create a couple of extra lists that take the load off. How would it feel to make a “Things I am going to delegate” list? Being able to delegate to your team or even your colleagues is an important skill. There is no glory in doing everything yourself, in fact it can often give staff the feeling you do not trust them, and having an overflowing inbox makes you look disorganised and incompetent. Knowing how and when to delegate crosses items off the to-do list and puts you in a position of overseeing projects and tasks. In your personal life, it is important – especially for women, I find – to let go of control, and with it responsibility, and allow other family members do their bit. Other lists might be “Tasks I need help with”, or “Tasks that will take under five minutes” (once you’ve written that, enjoy taking an hour or two to blast through them all).
In the end, how you deal with your to-do list matters much less than your relationship to it. However you choose to keep, manage and complete the to-do list, just make sure it is serving you – helping you to ensure your life runs according to your wishes – rather than the other way round.
Managing your time and tasks better starts with some deep, inner work around letting go, relinquishing control, and prioritising your real goals and deepest values. Working with a dynamic and experienced coach to rethink how you structure your personal and professional activities can help you find greater purpose and free up time to create a life and career built with purpose and on purpose. Contact me for your free introductory coaching session.