Case Studies and bedtime stories

The EMBABE Diaries

Simple Is Complicated

The dream of simple living. Man, how I’ve loved that dream. And, by all accounts, I am not alone – I googled “simple living” and got 113 million results in 0.28 seconds, as well as an intro to the differences between minimalism and simple living. It turns out that the living may be simple, but the theory is complicated, so I don’t quite know if my simplicity cravings mean I’m a wannabe simple lifer or a wannabe minimalist. I’ve just always wanted things – material things, as well as life in general –  to be simple, clean and organised. You know, like a Kinfolk magazine cover or a Muji store display. I imagine that life within these spaces has a crisp quality about it; no fuzzy edges, clearly defined areas, space to breathe in between. Colours always matching.

The latest issue of Kinfolk magazine - on my floor, waiting to be read.

The latest issue of Kinfolk magazine, on my floor. Just look at those clean lines…

I have a clear memory of being in high school, pacing the hallway in my parents’ apartment (my favourite thinking place) and pondering (as one does, right?) whether I had space in my life for a boyfriend: “No no no, really, no way, I have my life so neatly organised with everything in its own little drawer, and this guy, oh no, he doesn’t fit in any drawer. Better not.” I no longer remember what, at 16, I had going on in my life to need all those drawers for, especially since this was during that brief period in my life when I had temporarily stopped being full-on nerdy, so I don’t even think I was particularly busy studying. And, as it happened, the boy did make it into my life eventually  (the drawers put up a mighty fight, so it took a while), which was complicated, and messy, and heartbreaking – all of those things that my drawers were protecting me from. It was also exhilarating, laugh-out-loud funny, exciting, a little crazy, and life-affirming – all of those things that my drawers were protecting me from.

I still crave calm and organised spaces, so much so that I count reading books about organisation and de-cluttering among my chief guilty pleasures and I get a lot more excited about buying pretty boxes in Ikea than I ever do about buying shoes (I know, I know. Judge away, don’t hold back). I’m constantly trying to create routines and habits; they’re my version of benevolent spirits, watching over me to make sure I stay on the right path without having to struggle too much. And yet, my physical spaces, my mental space and my schedule will always, slowly but surely, become full to the brink, threatening to overflow and swallow me up. And then I start again – shedding the unnecessary, taking everything else and organising it, placing every little thing in its own little drawer. Until the next time.

All of which can be taken as meaning that I haven’t evolved much in the past twenty years. But I’ve changed – not with a deafening cry of rebellion, but with a quiet reassuring whisper, an “it’s ok, darling, I know this makes you feel safe so we’ll keep doing it, but how about changing it just a bit?”. And – I guess in the same vein of keeping things incremental and safe – the way I’m learning to let go of my quest for perfect organisation relies on lessons I’ve learned from my much-loved organising books (whose ideas I may have adapted and potentially perverted in the process, but hey, whatever works).

The first lesson comes courtesy of Marie Kondo, a Japanese professional organiser who wrote a bestselling book called “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” (you may laugh, but don’t diss it till you’ve read it). She says there’s only one question you should consider when deciding what to keep and what to throw or give away – not whether the object in question is functional or not, not how expensive it was, not who gave it to you, but simply and only “Does it bring you joy?”. I love this principle. That flowery cushion cover that does nothing but collect dust and ruin any chance of my living room being Kinfolk-worthy? It stays, because my heart does a little dance whenever I look at it. (As an aside, I think embracing that principle makes me more of a wannabe “simple lifer” than a wannabe minimalist, but trying to figure it out sounds exhausting.)

And then there’s the junk drawer. The organising books say you should have a junk drawer and they mean it literally, but I think this principle can be expanded to an entire life. In my version of things, a junk drawer is home to all the things you don’t want to let go of, even if they can’t be categorised, labelled and filed. It’s where the magic happens – creative solutions, unexpected connections, chance encounters, joy for the sake of joy.

From my junk drawer, this week

The sky this morning

The sky this morning

Autumn yellow - the brightest, happiest colour I know

Autumn yellow – the brightest, happiest colour I know

Fairy lights - anywhere, anytime

Fairy lights – anywhere, anytime

That’s why many people feel that their space, and maybe even their life, need to be like one huge junk drawer; they’re worried that any boundaries, restrictions, labels and folders will make it impossible for them to access the magic, will strangle their creativity. And that may be true if you get so carried away with filing and sorting that you forget about keeping a junk drawer altogether; but if you hold on to it tight, never let go of those things that bring you joy but can’t be classified and organised (i.e. the things that make you, you), then having everything else fairly neat will mean that you have space and time to go rummage through your junk drawer from time to time and tinker with your treasures. At least that’s what I hope, as I feel another bout of organising fever approaching. I’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime, I leave you with this quote from “Sweet Caress”, William Boyd’s latest novel:

“My life has been complicated, true, very complicated, and it seems to be entering another realm of complexity. But, then again, isn’t everybody’s and won’t everybody’s be just as complicated? Any life of reasonable length throws up all manner of complications, just as intricate as mine have been. […] Yes, my life has been very complicated but, I realise, it’s the complications that have engaged me and made me feel alive.”

Almost enough to make you discard that dream of the simple life, isn’t it?


WIB conference side effects: how Snow Patrol songs are in fact feminist* anthems

Because I was feeling all creative today, but also mainly because – as my best friend, who is occasionally wise, recently said to me – “not everything has to make sense”, I decided to pick my favourite Women in Business speakers’ tips from my last post and pair them up with some of my favourite Snow Patrol songs (click on the titles for YouTube links or, better yet, buy the albums!). Given my legal background, allow me a disclaimer: the link between the songs and the tips may be tenuous at times. Ok, most of the time.

Do what fires you up, even if that’s something truly weird such as Chasing Cars: “Forget what we’re told / Before we get too old / Show me a garden that’s bursting into life” and go do what you love. Apparently, that works even, like many of us, you “don’t know where / Confused about how as well”.

If you can, choose a supportive partner: i.e., one who would say something fabulous like “More than anything I want to see you, girl / Take a glorious bite out of the whole world”, as per You could be happy. Yes, that’s a break-up song, but I told you not everything has to make sense, plus you have to agree that those are such great lyrics it almost doesn’t matter what the rest of the song is about. And of course, who am I kidding, you’re far more likely to go for the guy who tells you “The perfect words never crossed my mind / ‘Cause there was nothing in there but you” a la Signal Fire or “I could sit for hours / Finding new ways to be awed each minute” as in Crack the Shutters, regardless of his feminist* credentials. Not to worry, as you may remember from my first WIB post, all you need to do if stuck with an unsupportive spouse is to make sure you’re successful enough to put a support system in place yourself instead of relying on him. Easy-peasy, right? I know – not really, which brings us nicely to…

Be resilient: or, in the words of Snow Patrol’s This isn’t everything you are: “Don’t keel over now / Don’t keel over / Don’t keel over now / Don’t keel over […] This isn’t everything you are […] Just take the hand that’s offered / And hold on tight/ This isn’t everything you are / There’s joy not far from here, right / I know there is / This isn’t everything you are”. Yes, this one’s originally a break-up song too, but forget that for a second and it’s also perfect to remind you that you are a multi-faceted human being during those blurry days and nights with a newborn (very helpfully, there’s also a line which goes “you’ve been up all night, and the night before”), or during any other times when one part of your life just explodes on you.

Know what you want and ask for it, as they do in Life-ning. For example, “to share what I’ve been given”, “some simple kindness” or, er… “Ireland in the World Cup”?

Take risks: yup, that’s a complete no-brainer – Just say yes.

On that happy note, I really need to start studying for my financial statement analysis exam on Sunday (by the way – awesome elective, awesome – don’t let the fact that it’s about accounting fool you, it’s fascinating stuff). Happy studying!


* for those who have an issue with the f-word: (i) what a nice surprise to see you here! Welcome! and (ii) I subscribe to the view that anyone who believes women can think for themselves is a feminist; no man hating required. More about this either here, via Huffington Post and the McGill Feminist Collective, or here, via Caitlin Moran and the Harvard University Institute of Politics.

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Bedtime story no. 1 – Where rose-flavoured macarons meet supply and demand

Once upon a time, in a faraway land called Embaland, there lived a little girl called Bea. Bea didn’t like sweets. She loved them. Love. Hearts, flowers, chubby cherubs, the works. Thankfully, she found a kindred spirit in Embaland’s Study Group 13 – a boy called Pete, who also loved sweets. United by their shared values (love of cake), Pete and Bea decided, one warm, sunny London afternoon (I told you this was a bedtime story, so don’t contradict me – it WAS sunny), to kidnap the other members of Group 13 and escape to a faraway planet to establish the Cult of Cake. They did feel slightly uneasy about having stolen the concept wholesale from the Cult of Pie that had recently been set up in Embaland, but decided that the only responsibility of a business was to generate a profit, so they went ahead and did it anyway (their ethics advisor said that this was perfectly OK, as long as they could make up an elaborate story about how they had come up with the concept themselves). They made it safely to their faraway planet only to realise that they had disregarded a rather important element – there were no cake shops there to supply the cult. Happily, Pete was an entrepreneurial spirit, so he set up the first cake factory on the planet. By now, his ethical standards had dropped so low that he decided to steal the recipe book of La Duree (if you haven’t tried their sweets, you haven’t lived – trust me on that one) and produce clones of their heavenly rose-flavoured macarons, incidentally Bea’s favourite thing ever. After a very heated debate on the relative merits of apple crumble versus berry crumble, which quickly turned nasty, Bea and Pete decided to part ways, with Pete keeping his macarons factory and Bea the Cult of Cake. Determined to become rich as quickly as possible, Pete sold macarons-making trainings to a few thousand pastry chefs on the faraway planet, while Bea rebranded the cult as “Le Cult du macaron” and recruited the remainder of the population’s planet to it.

Pete trained the cooks so that they could all produce identical, wonderful, light macarons (he may have had no ethics but his NEO* was impeccable and so he was able to lead his team to heights of macaron perfection that would make Mr La Duree kill himself in shame). However, each cook’s costs of producing the macarons was different – some had brand-new ovens and brilliant employees, while some made do with old ovens that ate up a lot of fuel and employees who stole macarons from the cookie jar. If the price was low, only the most efficient cooks could afford to produce; if the price was high, more cooks could fire up their ovens profitably and more macarons were produced. So the higher the price, the higher the production of macarons.

Figure 1 – Macaron production (in ‘000 units) as a function of price


We could call the difference between the total price of the macarons that a particular cook sold and the cost of those macarons “profit” but that would be way too clear so we’ll call it “supplier excess” to confuse the masses.

Back in La Maison Du Cult, as Bea sat on her golden throne, she dreamt of macarons. She hadn’t had dessert in months and, being a corporation, she was by now completely amoral, so she could literally kill for the incredible, mind-exploding experience of that first bite into the rose-flavoured masterpieces. However, she quickly remembered that she was an EMBA and should therefore be able to generate an exact monetary equivalent of any experience, such as, say, waiting in a line, or wanting cake so badly that she could kill for it. She instantly equated “I could kill someone to get this macaron” to “I could pay 15 pounds”. If Pete’s cooks were willing to sell that first macaron for no more than 15 pounds, she would gladly buy it. Otherwise, she would rather do something else with the 15 pounds, such as pay 0.000000001% of her EMBA fees. The first macaron she ate was all she had expected; she was practically in tears. The second was also scrumptious, but she was not quite as starved so she would have paid no more than 14.60 pounds for it. By the fifteenth, she was getting a little bit nauseous. She could still find some use for more macarons, for example in hazing rituals for the Cult, but the experience of watching terrified new Culties trying to eat 60 macarons per second was nowhere near as satisfying as eating those first few pieces herself, so each additional macaron was worth less and less to her. As all her Culties has been brainwashed to become mini-Beas, they all felt and acted exactly the same. But, of course, each macaron sold at the same price. So the higher the price, the less macarons people were likely to buy.

Figure 2 – Macaron demand (in ‘000 units) as a function of price


Pete and his cooks started to experiment with pricing and production levels. At first, things were pretty confused, because they didn’t know how much each macaron was worth to their buyers and so they were always either stuck with unsold macarons or assaulted by crazy Culties wanting more, but Pete soon managed to steal the Excel file where Bea had carefully set out the decreasing satisfaction levels that each additional macaron brings to the Cult (expressed, of course, in monetary value). He was incredibly excited: “OMG!!! I get to play with Excel!!!” Breathless, he plotted the data against his cost of supply chart, trying to find out the magic price at which the number of macarons that his cooks would be willing to supply and the number of macarons that Bea’s Culties would be willing to buy would be the same. And, a few suspense-filled seconds later….bingo!!!

Figure 3 – L’Equilibre du Macaron


At eight pounds per macaron, the cooks needed to produce at least 34,000 pieces to break even; otherwise, the total production cost would have been higher than the total price. At that same price level, the Culties would buy no more than 34,000 macarons; any additional macaron would be worth less than 8 pounds to them so nobody would ever buy it.

At this point, the cooks could produce 34,000 macarons and sell them to the Culties for 8 pounds each so that we would have a perfect market. But since we still need to go through nine more sessions of Managerial Economics, Pete and/or Bea will soon start exploiting the market in ways that we can only begin to get confused about after Session 4.


*NEO – a personality assessment test (very interesting!) that we used in our Leadership Skills class

Want your own macarons? Pete refuses to sell to non-Culties but M. La Duree is open for business.

Full disclosure: I have no business or other relationship with La Duree but man, I love those rose-flavoured macarons!

Data to generate graphs c/o Prof. David P Myatt, LBS

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