Case Studies and bedtime stories

The EMBABE Diaries

How To Fail at Parenting – in Four Easy Steps

Failure is really trendy these days. Whether it’s business, work, everyday life or spirituality, everyone’s harping on about it and its supposed virtues: Silicon Valley has its “fail fast” mantra and countless companies now give out “heroic failure” or “best new mistake” awards. Pema Chödrön (Buddhist nun and world-famous meditation teacher who is meant to be super-awesome but whose teachings I have repeatedly tried and failed – which I guess is a good thing, because it’s failure, right? – to read / listen to / practice) just wrote a book called “Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better”. I haven’t read it, of course, I’m still recovering from trying to read a previous book of hers. I guess I’m not that spiritual yet, but I’m working on it, I just need those cool prayer beads like the men have in Greece, in a deep shade of orange if possible, and then I’ll be all set for enlightenment. It’s a process, people. I’m on it. Watch this space for amazing, deep wisdom at some point in the near future.

Even my beloved Brené Brown is on the failure bandwagon – but thankfully her “Rising Strong” (awesome awesome awesome, am totally making it this year’s staple Christmas gift) is about how to recover from failing rather than purely about failing. Just like Brené to write something that’s actually helpful. Gotta love her. Will go back and re-read her book and apply it to my failure to read Pema Chödrön. Except that Brené quotes Pema Chödrön quite a bit, which is kind of awkward. But I digress. Back to other types of failure.

By which I mean the one type of failure for which you’re never likely to get a “best new mistake” award: parenting failure. (Ok, you’re probably also very unlikely to get a “best new mistake” award for failures of nuclear security or food safety, but I’m trying to make a dramatic point here, so bear with me.)  Thing is, parenting failure is at the same time socially unacceptable, personally crushing and impossible to avoid because, as we all know, almost anything you do is a parenting failure according to one theory or another. It’s a killer combo. And, if you’re really honest with yourself (I won’t tell anyone, relax), there are times when you find yourself doing at least one thing every day that is a parenting failure according to all theories.

Much like my son’s first weeks of school, for example. I never did get the hang of hashtags (hope the habit becomes obsolete soon so I can be spared figuring it out), but these have been weeks destined to be hashtagged – if we see hashtagging as the cries of my inner parenting gremlins making sure no shade of guilt was left unexplored, which I believe is the generally accepted use, right?

First there was my son’s first ever note from a teacher. His art teacher. It did not say “Your son makes wonderful use of colour and he will be the next Miro”. It said, in capitals, “PLEASE BRING WATERCOLOURS!”. Shoot shoot shoot. Yes, they did mention watercolours at that parent teacher meeting, which would have helped if I hadn’t forgotten that they said it, or the fact that the kid even has art classes on Tuesday (although saying I’d forgotten that he has art classes on Tuesdays would imply that I ever knew it, which would imply that by this point I had even checked his schedule, which would sadly be incorrect). Bizarrely, no other parents seem to have had the same problem – or so my son says. #parentingfail #poorkid #theymustthinkweretheworst #nowonderhehatesart #itsallyourfault.

The next day, my son’s long-suffering chess tutor (The kid loves chess for some reason. If he didn’t make a habit of forgetting to put his socks on in the morning, I’d wonder if he was really mine) quit. By email. Turns out I had (and not for the first time, I must confess) failed to ensure that my son was aware of, and prepared for, his weekly chess lesson. And what was I doing when I received that fateful email? Well, I was at a friend’s house, learning to meditate (is this a good time to blame Pema Chödrön?) The email was short and the tone restrained, but it was drafted with a keen awareness of how to push those mum guilt buttons (or maybe those guilt buttons are so sensitive that anything will push them, the jury’s still out). It mentioned that the teacher simply could not operate under the circumstances, and wished my son every success because he really had what it takes to become a great chess player. #parentingfailbigtime #shamestorm #heloveschessandiruinedit #howcouldyounotbehome #whatiswrongwithyou?!? And yes, of course the nanny knew the time of the lesson – as did he – and of course I had even written it on the calendar so they don’t forget, but I still stormed out of my friend’s apartment, cried my eyes out on the way home (bad idea on a bicycle, btw), and generally felt like a sorry excuse for a human being.*

Then that was that time when I forgot to set the alarm and we got woken up by the school bus driver ringing at the door. #parentingfail #badhairdaytoo #noweveryoneknows. On the bright side, we did get two kids ready for school in under 10 minutes, that’s got to be worth something, right?

And then there was this kiddie party I went to the other day. I think kiddie parties are only marginally less stressful than conferences, and conferences (on a good day!) make me feel like a 12-year old social outcast. I swear I was doing a good job, interacting socially and being pleasant and everything, until this other mum sat down in front of me and started explaining about how she was doing so much homework with her daughters, even if the school didn’t ask for it, and they were working from three different books, and even the one who was still in kindergarten had (mum-imposed, not school-imposed) homework every day, and all that was making her so, so, so tired, but still she persevered…and I leaned over the table and, much to my horror, heard myself blurting out: “Excuse me, but…why? Why do you do that?”. Which was clearly not the response she’d been expected, because I got (a) a blank stare, (b) “We do it because we do it” and (c) the quiet certainty (hopefully) that she would never ever want to arrange a playdate with my kids. #parentingandsocialfail #footinmouthdisease #nomorepartiesforyou (which was actually comforting!) and, most frighteningly, #whatifshesright.

What. If. She’s. Right. What if I’m actually wrong not to do three hours of homework with my four-year-old every day? What if I chose the wrong parenting path? What if, despite wanting all the very best for my kids, I will fail them? Well, that’s an easy “what if”. I will fail them. We all will. Partly because nobody really knows the “right” way to parent, despite (or precisely because) of how much is written on the topic, but mostly because we’re all just human. Having kids does all sorts of things to people, but it doesn’t make them saints and it doesn’t make them perfect. Somehow, someday, in all probability fairly often, we will fail our kids. And the best we can hope for is that all of our failings will be small and forgivable – which, by the way, won’t prevent our kids from obsessing about them with their therapists 20 years from now. So the best I can hope for is that, 20 years from now, my son’s greatest trauma will be that time when he was the only kid in class who hadn’t brought watercolours. In the meantime, I will love my babies as best I can, take care of them the best way I can figure out (which will involve even more failing), and probably continue to worry my head off about them and whether I’m doing it right – something which, strangely, I never fail at. Maybe that’s a good place to start this failure embracing trend everyone’s talking about. What was that Pema Chödrön book called again?

*For those who are now worried sick about my son’s future as a chess master – rest assured, he still plays chess, under professional supervision, two times a week. It’s fine, really.

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Power Vs Passion – a Tale of Two Books

Can’t believe it’s been more than a year already. We’re well into our electives and two more streams of EMBAs have started since we did. I’m right in the middle of six weeks away from school and let me tell you, it feels weird and I miss everyone! (Speaking of which, in case you didn’t know, one side effect of an EMBA, especially right after the end of core courses, is rampant sentimentalism, even from people you would never expect! It’s really quite sweet.)

As I said, we’re now in electives season, which brings me to the topic of the day – two books I read in parallel during a fairly awful week when Mishka and Masha* both caught this horrible cold that’s making the rounds in Romania and I ended up having to check into hospital with Mishka for a few days. Everyone doing brilliantly now, no worries.

The first book was required reading for our Paths to Power elective, taught by Gabe Adams, Assistant Professor of Organisation Behaviour (and yet another amazing Woman of LBS), whose research focuses on why people help or harm others (how cool is that?). The book is “Power – Why Some People Have It – And Others Don’t” and was written by Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, who has been teaching a course on power since 1979. This is a guy who knows a thing or two about power, and what he has to say is pretty sobering. In short: “politics often trumps performance”; if you want to succeed, you need to stop believing that the world is “a just and fair place and that everyone gets what he or she deserves” and get focused on achieving and maintaining power – and there are some scientifically proven ways to do that. This book made for some uncomfortable reading. I mean, it makes perfect sense, it’s very realistic and grown up, and I definitely recommend it (plus Gabe’s course is awesome so do get on it!), but…something was amiss.

The second book I read that week was “The Monk and the Riddle” by Randy Komisar, which I got from my super-cool EMBA friend Komal Joshi, founder of Planned Departure. (Check her stuff out – trust me, you need it!) The book is a bit of an entrepreneur / venture capitalist love story (favourite quote: “it’s the romance, not the finance, that makes business worth pursuing” – and yes, he meant metaphorically; oh, and spoiler alert – the zany entrepreneur does get financing at the end!) and it actually has a lot of interesting stuff about VC in it. “The Monk” is, however, not really about how to get financing for your start-up; it’s about what Komisar calls “creating a life while making a living”. It warns against living on the “Deferred Life Plan” – i.e. doing what you feel you have to do, no matter how little you enjoy it, on the assumption that once you’ve – fill in the blanks – got enough money, put the kids through college, paid the mortgage, retired, etc etc etc, you’ll finally be able to do what you want. The advice is not that we should all quit our jobs and follow our wild teenage dreams, or give up having goals; instead, we should make sure that whatever we’re doing is something we feel enough passion for that we could imagine ourselves doing it for the rest of our lives – the old “the journey is as important as the destination”, I guess. And, as I read it, I think yeah, I’m all for that, and it definitely sounds better than “your task is to know how to prevail in the political battles you will face”.

So as I’m sitting in the hospital room reading a few pages from one book and then a few from the other (I am an admittedly disorganised reader), I look at my four-year-old, who by this time has discovered the remote control for his bed and is having the time of his life, and I do my usual “does all this business school stuff relate to raising children in some way?” And I guess one reason why “Power” was so difficult for me to accept is that it ties in with this discussion I keep having with other parents: are we meant to raise our children so they can get by and get in front in an unfair, “survival of the fittest” world? Or are we meant to raise them so the world becomes a little less unfair?  And then I realise that framing this as an exclusive choice is as counterproductive as trying to choose between these two books I’m reading; just like “The Monk” says that it’s “not about how, but about why“, “Power” is only about how. They go together: getting your why straight will help you use the how responsibly, plus achieving the why can get pretty difficult if you’re clueless about the how. So, while I can definitely hope that the world my children live in will be fairer and more just, and encourage them to find their passion and make the world better, I guess I’ll have to also make sure that they’ve got all this “power stuff” in their arsenal so they can face the real world as they follow their passion. Time to get Masha to work on her warmth / competence balance, I guess… (you’ll have to read the book to get that, it’s actually fascinating stuff!).

* as some of you may know, I refer to my children in this blog using the names of their (currently) favourite cartoons. These days, we love love love Masha and The Bear, a fabulous Russian series we watch on YouTube. Don’t worry if you don’t speak Russian – neither do we and we’re still hooked!

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Introverts and Parenting. The Final Frontier.

Maybe it’s just me (i.e. some sort of self-confirmation bias or something similar that I should remember from my OB classes) but it seems that there’s more and more talk about introverts since Susan Cain published her book “Quiet” in 2012. The book, by the way, is still, according to Amazon.co.uk, the no. 1 best seller in their “Personalities” category (whatever that means) and it was voted the best non-fiction book of 2012 by goodreads.com. It’s a great read – but, as with most famous books these days, if you don’t feel like reading it you can always watch the TED talk to get the gist of it in 20 minutes or less.

In the past month alone, two articles about introversion have landed on my Facebook feed from unexpected sources: one, in The Good Men Project (have I already mentioned how much I love this website?), is a quick “user’s guide” to introverts (top tip: “Write letters. Email. We love it”). The other, which I saw on HBR’s blog network today, is called “Personal Branding for Introverts” and includes advice such as using social media and connecting to people one person at a time – very helpful and encouraging stuff.

But the latest in my own “introverts vs the world” saga isn’t business-related: both my kids are starting new pre-schools these days, which means meeting lots and lots of new people – for all of us. My two-year old, thankfully, is quite the social butterfly, so all I need to worry about is getting her to come back home at lunch time. My four-year old, however, seems to share my feelings about big crowds of people he doesn’t know (his first thoughts about preschool – “too many kids and too much noise”; I couldn’t agree more). I, for one, will take the advice of HBR & Co – connect to the mothers one at a time and send my husband to the big Parents’ Evening gathering (yes, the technical term for that is “chicken out”, but I’m a grown-up now so I can do it). As for my son, since I promised myself to stop reading parenting books (it’s a nasty vice, I tell you), I have no choice but to use HBR as my guide there too, so we’ll be having lots of playdates, with one kid at a time. Further suggestions – for either of us 🙂 – are of course welcome.

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Postcard from the trenches of real life

I have so much I want to write about and my brain is buzzing with ideas that I really need to get down to paper (maybe on that long flight to the India international assignment – oh, I have to tell you about that too sometime!). Unfortunately, this is just not the week to do that, what with a deal signing, a Macroeconomics take-home exam still untouched and both kids at home failing to grasp why Mummy locks herself in the study all day and then gets really cross when they manage to come in and want to join the conference call. So here’s my postcard to you:

    • a little follow up on my last post about the likeability gap: an HBR article about “unseen barriers” to women in the workplace (mersi, Raluca!). Their term of choice is “competence-likability trade-off”, which I guess is a bit clearer than likeability gap, but seems to designate the same concept. One of the authors, Herminia Ibarra,  is an Insead OB professor and author of this great book called Working Identity that I heartily recommend, as well as this little gem of an article about how parents should go to the office late and leave early. Of course, I totally love her. She’s on Twitter, too, just in case you were wondering.
    • …plus (and then I really need to go) I have been reading Brene Brown’s books and I think she’s really on to something! I have a ton of highlighted quotes I want to share (copyright law permitting, of course) but no time, so just watch this video until I get to it – I promise you it’s a good use of 20 minutes!
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My return on investment

Me at a conference...I wish!

Me at a conference…I wish!

So I went to this conference yesterday. As some of you (and definitely my study group) already know, I am terrified of conferences. I love the bit about sitting there and listening to (hopefully) interesting people speak, but as I have been told countless times by well-meaning others, that’s not the point of conferences – networking is. Conference networking – the dreaded combo. Even writing about it raises my pulse (no, seriously!). I usually dread it even more because, as a lawyer, I am by definition fairly low on most people’s list of “who I would like to talk to” at conferences: usually right below the person serving the finger food.

In short, I feel about networking at conferences the way most people seem to feel about public speaking – “No no no, please, not me. Make the other guy do it.” Except, it turns out, I kind of have to do it. A lot. So as tempted as I was yesterday to bury my nose in my macroeconomics book over the various breaks, I pushed myself to go out there and talk to people I didn’t know. My first attempt was not encouraging: the two people I joined greeted me warmly in Romanian, then proceeded to continue their conversation in Hungarian (no, I don’t speak it, thanks for asking). They then left the table without even saying goodbye. Sad as it is, I must admit I was secretly relieved. Over the next two breaks, however, I met quite a few people who would actually talk to me.

Nobody seemed terribly excited about the fact that I was a lawyer, but everyone was very curious about my EMBA. And the one question everyone had was, of course, “But is it worth the investment”? Which to me, especially when it comes to an EMBA, is similar to somebody asking you if it’s worth having kids. The price is fairly obvious and easy to measure: increased costs from tuition fees and travel, time away from your friends and family plus lack of sleep in one case; increased costs from diapers, clothes, child care, education, toys etc etc etc, time away from your friends and, at least initially, any semblance of a social life plus lack of sleep in the other case.

Do I know for sure that the EMBA will result in an increase in income, as compared to the “base case” (no EMBA) sufficient to offset the investment? Not really, not least because I can’t determine the base case without setting up two different universes, one in which I go to LBS and one in which I don’t (guess what, I learned that in my macroeconomics class last week – it was in the context of GDP growth, but the same principles apply). Do I know for sure that I will be happier with kids than I would have been without? Not really – in fact, according to Harvard happiness guru Daniel Gilbert, the happiest people are those with “approximately zero offspring”.

Why then, am I sure that I made the right decision about both kids and the EMBA? That’s not quite as easy to explain to people who are keen to weigh the pros and cons objectively. The way my daughter purses her lips when she tries to pronounce her brother’s name. The whole new understanding of the world that I already have, barely four months into the EMBA, and how the various courses I take complement each other and make me feel like my brain is expanding every second. Watching my son sleep. Being surrounded by incredibly accomplished people who inspire me to be better and at the same time make me feel like they’re all rooting for me to succeed. Her arms around my neck when I get home. Feeling energised after a weekend at school, even when it ends with an 8 am flight out of Luton. My son asking if it’s always summer on Tuesdays. Experimenting, safely for once, with different ways to work and lead. Knowing that it’s impossible to love someone more. These are the things that make it all worth it for me. That and, of course, that both the EMBA and kids give you something to talk about with random people at conferences.

 

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A Cloudy Nap

I really truly should be revising right now – and I really truly will do that just as soon as I finish writing this, but I wanted to let you know that I have added a couple of new things: my very own cloud atlas (I’m a cloud watcher; it’s sad, I know) and an updated Mum’s the Word in the EMBABE’s Survival Kit.

Walk on clouds,

Alex

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Sunk costs and updates to the website

Ok, so what’s the deal with sunk costs? And first of all, what are they? According to our faithful friend Wikipedia, sunk costs are “costs that have already been incurred and cannot be recovered”. Pretty depressing so far, but wait: the great thing about sunk costs is that, because there’s nothing you can do about them, you should just ignore them in your decision-making. What does that have to do with happiness, you ask? Everything, if you are an (ever so slightly) guilt-ridden mother of two who is commuting to London for three days every two weeks. Ever since I first came across sunk costs in session two of ME (Managerial Economics, but we MBA types lurrve our acronyms), it hit me how relevant this concept is to my life. I have agreed to not see my children for six days a month for the next year and a half. It’s done, that time away from my kids its a sunk cost – I’ve incurred it and I can’t recover it. Which means I should just ignore it, let go of this stupid, useless guilt and make the best of every second I spend in London. And that, my friends, is very much what I intend to do. Long live sunk costs!

Before I forget – I’ve updated most of the EMBABE’s Survival Kit, so please have a look at the new tips and let me know how you like them!

And…[drums]…we have our first EMBABE of the Month, Elizabeth Bramson-Boudreau! Read her answers to the EMBABE questionnaire and get inspired.

As always, I welcome your comments, suggestions and contributions. Happy spring everyone!

Source: mariedesbons.canalblog.com via Alexandra on Pinterest

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Two months to go

Ok, so here I am, honing a skill that will undoubtedly come in handy over the next couple of years – waking up ridiculously early in the morning (thank you, teething Holley, thank you, Finn for sneaking into our bed at 4 am, doing a loud pretend snore and then asking for water. Your combined efforts to deprive your mother of sleep have yet again proven successful. Hurray, team work!)

Two months to go to orientation week and I am beyond excited. I’m also a little anxious – no, make that terrified – thinking about all the juggling work (and actual work!) coming up and I do sometimes wonder whether I actually realise what I have gotten myself into and whether I will truly be able to manage it all. Guess this disqualifies me from the race for “fearless female of the year” but, as Mark Twain put it, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear” or, in my mother’s no less eloquent words “Ever since you were a little girl, it’s the same old story. You always say that you’re not going to manage and then you always do, so can you please stop it? You’ll be fine”. And deep down, despite all the worrying, I know I will.

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