Women’s History Month and the Monoculture of Success

Foto von Mirko Fabian auf Unsplash
This March, a lot of things that I have recently learned about feminism, diversity, equity and inclusion as well as climate change started coming together. I would like to share my thinking with you.

Many people think that the feminist movement has realized its goals. Women in many countries of the world can wear trousers, vote, or pursue a career. It is widely accepted that a woman may behave similarly to a man. But we are still not in a place, where behaviors and values traditionally associated with females, are ranked highly. A man wearing a skirt, pushing a pram, or doing house work risks being ridiculed – the more visible, the riskier. Am I painting too dark a picture? I don’t think so. I recently read, that  articles about father’s concerns are predominantly read by women. Fathers taking a career break is still an exception to the rule and it is more likely to induce shame and anxiety than boost their self-confidence. 

I call this the monoculture of success. In the monoculture of success, everyone seems to be striving to be the alpha male. I don’t mean to be rude. Let me remind you that mammals are hierarchical animals and human beings are mammals. Needless to say in mammal groups the alpha male gets to eat first, has the right to reproduction etc. You may protest and say, our societies don’t work like that. And you are right. After all, we are the only species with combustion engines and smart phones. 

All joking aside, what I am claiming is that we are the only species able to negotiate our heritage, but in doing so, we must reflect. Above all the difference between being able to fulfill basic needs in a better way and enjoying the abundance that surrounds us in the first world, is to say the least, substantial. All the more troubling is the fact, that there is little evidence that we are able to free ourselves from the hegemony of abundance.

So I asked myself, is there any other model of success possible. And I am happy to say, that I was able to think of one very different one.
Yesterday, I was looking at Hakas in context of the play that I am currently (still) working on. Having been in New Zealand on a student exchange, I know hakas from that experience. They are rituals, which the Maoris perform on various occasions. They can be quite scary, even when they are celebrating something positive. They have an aggressive element to them.

Thinking about the hakas led me to reflect on the time when white men arrived on the land of indigenious people. I then assumed that quite a number of indigenious people resented and cursed the invaders. What then, I continued thinking, if the current situation of climate change, was the result of all these curses? I let the thought sink in. If so, all of a sudden, indegenious people would be triumphing over modern society with its colonial roots. 
I then argued with myself, that if we accept the curse as real, the indigenious people back in the day had conjured a difficult situation which was particularly harsh for their decendants in the global south. The success of their curses must taste bitter, would they witness it. Would they have been able to solve it? Would their approaches, if transferred to the present, have a chance to turn climate change around? Can they offer us a model different from the pattern of going crazy with activisim?
My imagination led me to expect, that indegenious people would observe nature more closely (forgive me, this may be another stereotype). What lessons are there in nature? I am aware of scientists thinking about how to turn carbondioxide into something else, which is exactly, what trees do. So observing nature may in fact be a desirable behavior that can bring us closer to something that we as human kind want and need.

Of course, any new definition of success can only make a significant difference, if a substancial part of society buys into it. Until then, it is just an exercise in thinking in/or out of the box. 

When I try to apply the same thinking to the gendered behavior set out above, I am still stuck. I cannot help thinking that we are not close enough to extinction as a species to make caring behaviors among men and women generally and genuninly desirable. Unfortunately, for a broad swathe of people we are not close enough yet to climate collapse to invest seriously in radical change.
Some examples o Hakas from Sports

Think Inside the Box

As we are designing a new training initiative at work, a colleague thanked me for my creative ideas. While it is very flattering to be called creative, I would prefer to call my thinking connecting. For example, there may be a business rationale, of not making people travel long distances for a meeting of 2 hours. Or people have grown used to consume well-designed training content, so they can stay inside their comfort design, so how does the new initiative fit to these expectations?

What I want to point out, is that seeing and naming the obvious, seems to be so unfashionable, that those, who do it, can win extra points. 

You may have heard about the out-of-the box thinking. As Keith Johnstone says in this little video, people are too preoccupied with the out-of-the-box-thinking, they cannot see the obvious anymore. Yes. Thanks to improvisation theatre, I have learned to overcome that judging voice that tells me about the result before anything has happened, which keeps me from being in the present moment. Since I have started being OK with not knowing what the result will be, I can first of all identify the box for any given situation, then to explore the box carefully, so that I can find - what? Ways out of the box, ways to re-design the box, or to enlargen the box, or find that there was no box in the first place.

This is a question of exercise, and we all exercise it as kids, when we play. But at some point, we grow smart and loose the connection to the obvious and to the moment. Want to go back? Find a place to play. Or find an improvisation theatre class. And don't forget that this is fun!

The Perfect Presentation

©Brett Jourdan on Unsplash
These days I met with a highly motivated young facilitator who had put all his effort into giving a perfect presentation. He was quite a bit disappointed, when I said that we should not concentrate on the slides anymore, but look at crafting the message better. I assume he was also a bit confused as to what I ment. This made me remember my own confusion, when I did my best to give the perfect stage production only to hear from my teachers that it had been boring.

If you, too, are wondering, why an imperfect presentation is better to engage the audience than the perfect one, here is a little (imperfect) explanation:

Gestalt psychology has found that the human mind gets active, if a figure is not complete. If you look at the picture to the left, you see one letter missing, but you can read the word nevertheless. The mind fills the gap. And the mind likes filling the gap. If there is a perfect presentation, there is no gap. The audience may relax and simply watch. You have done the thinking for them, the "gestalt" is complete. 

In facilitation, you want the audience to think with you. If something is not perfect and you accept them filling in for the gap, you have a great buy-in that they will follow you to the end. While this sounds easy, it is sometimes so hard, because we don't want to look incompetent. I would argue that the more skilled a facilitator is, the more they are able to identify the right gaps for a given audience.

Want to try it? I recommend experimenting in a space where seeming incompetent is not as threatening. Can you think of a simple joke that made you laugh? If so, try to tell this joke to other people. Observe, in which cases you can get people to laugh. Are you using questions? How can a simple break before giving away the point help you? 

Lost in Logic

These days, I had the great opportunity to facilitate virtual improvisation workshops for colleagues. If you have looked at my bio, you may not be surprised to read that I love using impro for theatre and training alike. In training, it enables openly exchanging experiences and learning from one another beyond the cognitive space.

During the training, I invited colleagues to ask and answer silly questions. The questions are silly enough for this exercise, if there is no logical answer. My favorite question out of the series of workshops raised by a colleague was  "why do ducks hold umbrellas?".  Silly questions should make it very simple for colleagues to answer them, because the question of right and wrong should not come to anyone's mind. In other words, it should be easy to go with the first thing that comes to your mind.

However, one colleague admitted that he was having issues to let go of logic and simply follow the first idea. In impro such a behavior is called censoring yourself. Everyone of us does it to some degree and it can be quite frustrating, when you are experimenting with impro. 

So what if you are lost in logic? After recognizing and acknowledging that you have a hard time with letting go without accusing yourself, try start tricking yourself out of that well-defined space as often as you can. 

I recommend deliberatly opening your focus whenever possible. This is a question of practice, so if things don't work out right away, don't get hung up on yourself. You can try seeing things, which are on the edges of your gaze without moving the eyes. Go for physical movement, if you are trying to solve a logical task, and go for logical challenges, while you are exercising. 

You may find over time that you can solve tasks with more easy, react quicker and more spontaneously.Most important of all: Make it fun. If you can laugh at your failures - fantastic! 

I find no rule in impro as liberating and as challenging as this one: Fail. Fail again. Fail better. And be ready for the next round of this.
©Mark König on Unsplash

Is it OK to analyze relationships?

©Everton Vila on Unsplash
Thursday night I had a  conversation that made me reflect deeply on the way we experience relationships. 

The lady I was talking to was concerned to rationally analyze the emotional bondages involved in a relationship. She had just been shown a model that served as an eye-opener to her, but also made her feel guilty.

On Friday I happened to read in Martin Buber's book "Me and You" about the two foundational experiences. He argued that the situation in which I am in the "Me and You" state is a state without reflection, only presence. However, this state inevitably needs to transform into other situations, where I experience the other, I reflect upon them etc. The lady I talked to may have been concerned about transitioning between the feeling whole in the first situation and cognitively reflecting, i.e. leaving this wholeness.

Taking a step back to analyse relationships may feel very strange, even like committing sin, because as a kid, relationships form the foundation on which we grow. Even if a child grows up in a dysfunctional family, it will not question the parents. Analysing relationships is therefore something that does not come naturally to us. 

However, analysing may be another way to help us grow. I think that good relationships will change naturally over time. Others may be good in a specific situation but may start limiting us. Having some tools to see ourselves from different perspectives can empower us to take on roles that we want to and disengage from roles that limit us. Mind you, I don't mean to say that the other party is willingly holding us back. Sometimes it is unhealthy patterns that emerge in relationships, sometimes the perspective of the other holds us down, but I guess, most frequently it is ourselves that hinder us from achiving our own potential or the potential of the relationship. 

What do I mean? If I hold the belief that grandma should not be alone over the holidays, I may be serving my image of  myself as the loving grandchild. If I don't take my assumption for granted, but instead, ask grandma what she wants to do over the holidays and then voice what I would like to do, I may arrive at a new level of interaction. There may be some conflict in there, too, but there is a chance that grandma and myself have a very different conversation. 

I am saying this to advocate for self-care and for empowerment. If I cannot take care of my needs, how should I be able to truly take care of the needs of someone else's? I also don't think that analysing relationships inevitably means that you are cold-blooded and calculating. Of course, you can distort the analysis into that direction. But if you also put the interest and well-being of your counterpart as well as affected others into your considerations, and do not rush to conclusions, you may arrive healthily and steadily at making new, positive discoveries in your connections.

Tipping points 2 – escapes and saving strategies

®Jakub Kriz on Unsplash
After writing about the tipping point, where a personal principle for success turns into a self-limitation, I could not help reflecting on the things we do, to avoid realizing that we are at a tipping point.

The first strategy is to allow exeptions from the rule. To take a simple example, the principle "I don't eat sweets". This may be a very helpful principle for eating healthy or keeping weight. But let`s imagine a hike on which your healthy snack stayed safely at home. The only thing your hiking partner has to offer is a bar of chocolate. Trivial? Maybe. But the point is not the single exeption. The point is that over time you may get so many exeptions to the rule that the principle gets to be only an abstract ideal, whereas your everyday behavior is directed by the exeptions. Storytellers love this discrepency, normal people hate it.

The second strategy is to escape from having to examining a principle. Let`s take "the customer is always right". But what if your customer tells you that your company will not make it to market with the new technology you are developing? The simplest escape is to drive to the conversation to safer grounds (escape). But what if your customer insists?  You may start having second thoughts, you may be wondering, how much the customer really knows about the new technology. All the while you may have discussed the weather, melting glaciers, cats on trees and god knows what, because you are trying to save your customer and yourself from the fact that - "customers can be awfully wrong". 

If you don't have sweaty palms after reading through this, congratulations. Either you are pretty tolerant for cognitive dissonance (this is what psychologists call it, when there is a gap between your ideal and the real situation). Or you are experienced enough to navigate between several prinicples.

If you feel a little uncomfortable, great. No, seriously. In storytellers' words you are feeling tension. And a story without tension is - no story. 

What I wanted to illustrate here is that principles (self-beliefs), tipping points and strategies to avoid realizing tipping points are the true material for storytellers. So, if you are going through a difficult situation, reassure yourself that you will be having a story to tell afterwards. And don't give up, just because giving up is the easiest way!

Where is the Tipping Point?

Recently, I had a very good conversation about self-beliefs that make people successful. The idea is that people strive to be consistent with the self-belief, so that it actually transforms into behavior and from behavior into habits. For example, if the self-belief is "I am a reliable person", this individual may find it important to be on time and work towards being on time. So this is a self-belief, that can make the person successful. Of course, the environment needs to value the self-belief, too.

In that conversation, we also talked about mini-stressors. These are little things, like wondering, if you should have taken a different route to avoid traffic, if you could have influenced a person into a different direction, if your babysitter will be on time and so on. The more mini-stressors you have during a day, the more exhausting your day will be.

Without having done any research on this, I assume that a self-belief can turn into a mini-stressor. So, if you take the example of being on time as being an important self-belief, any external factor that keeps you from being on time (traffic, late babysitter), will stress you way more than if you don't hold that self-belief. 

Is this a catch-22? It certainly can be. But it can be also an opportunity to identify the next self-belief that you may need to revise and fine-tune.

And, by the way, moments, when you need to change your course of action, are the ones that make up stories. So, in my case, if I get to a point that challenges my beliefs and it may be very unconfortable, I console myself by telling me that some day in the future the pain will have passed and I will have a good story to tell.

Can you optimize your brain to remember more?

This is the podcast that I recently listened to and can highly recommend
Here is an illustration that helps understand how you can use locations to remember more
Sometimes I get asked, how I managed to remember so much text during my career as an actress. The simple answer I tend to give is, that I did not remember the text. People get stunned. What I mean to say, is that plays are never purely text to me and I don't remember them as such. I rather remember a whole sequence of where to move when, which emotions occur, things you are trying to do with your partners and how the character develops during the play.

Already with the first encounter with a text, which is typically the moment when the whole crew gets together and reads a text out loud, is a moment where you start looking for the things that speak to you, for emotions the text evokes, for images concerning the environment. After that, you typically need time to memorize text, some actors more than others. Next, you would rehearse with the text. You would put the pieces together with your partner(s) in space and time to tell the story. I have found that without rehearsing, I would loose the memorized text after two days. But once you are in the process of rehearsing you are starting to craft the line of development through space and time of a given play. And it is the whole performance that my memory was able to pull up pretty easily for months to years.

How can you use this for a life outside of theatre? To the left is the link to a podcast and a graphic on the side that I found insightful. And here are some tips on learning and memorizing out of my own experience:
1) Use timing: Don't expect yourself to remember text. Help your brain with creating a network of logical sequences instead. After A comes B, after B follows C, and then, surprisingly, F is happening, which transforms A. Not everything you are learning may follow the line of a narration, but as our brains love structures of narrations, this can help you in other domains, too.
2) Use imagination: Try to see a picture in your mind of what you are reading about. Reading slowly will help your mind to develop such a picture.
3) Use space: Using gestures to memorize what you are learning can be helpful, as if you were talking to yourself. Also, dedicating a certain places in your surroundings to prompt you to remember things you wanted to learn. 
4) Use your voice: Reading silently only involves the eyes. Reading out loud already adds your listening sense to the visual input
5) Think of application: As you are going through the learning process try to think of situations that your current learning may help you with. Make it as specific as possible - who will be there, how may they react, how is that different to what you have done before. It is important that you can see some benefit in your learning. Otherwise, it will be just too much brain effort without rewards, so not likely that you can pursue it for long.
6) Use your emotions: Emotions are markers to remember something. Any emotion can be a marker, if it is disbelief, joy or the famous aha-moment. The important part is to realize what you are feeling. Sometimes you can reconstruct a situation by remembering a feeling and then re-constructing what caused the feeling.
7) Use play: You can use two pens to have a dialogue about the subject you are trying to remember. Or you can use your kitchen equipment to map out a full process. Any analogy or similarity between your subject of learning and the things you already know, will help you with remembering what you wanted to learn.
8) Accept failure: Regardless of all the techniques that you are able to apply, there may be days when nothing seems to work. Remember that learning is not a linear process where you brain will retain the same amount of information every day. Stay away from blaming yourself. Try again next time.
9) Practice. Don't expect any learning to stick with you if you don't repeat it, put it into your own words or apply it. 

I hope you feel a little curious about your personal learning. Some of these tips may feel like stating the obvious to you, others may be a little awkward. I encourage you to experiment and maybe even come up with your own tips. 

Why can’t I be more quick-witted?

Just this morning I saw an article in a German newspaper around how to become more quick-witted. How teutonic, I thought, and, here we go again - I have been seeing this topic come up so many times befoe.

Why do I think that being quick-witted is so particularly important to German-speaking (or Teutonic) people? Well, when I searched for it in English, I landed on German native speakers selling their skills in English. But with all joking aside:
I have been asked this question quite a bit in my past as a facilitator - how can I become more quick-witted. And I cannot count the occasions when as a kid, I returned home from school and told my mum about something that happened. She always knew, what the right answer would have been, and we sometimes laughed at the witty things, she suggested. What had been painful to me in the moment turned into something funny. When it came to it, of course, I was never able to think of a good, spontaneous answer and would typically blame myself for not being wittier.

If you are interested in the Intercultural part here: I was saying Teutonic earlier, not German, because of Johan Galtung's essay on intellectual styles. He stays away from culture in a singular or defining culture by nation. Instead he looks at intellectual styles as they are formed in higher education (since intellectuals are thrilled by what other intellectuals do). He characterizes the Teutonic style with a great pyramid: One solid construct of thought that will encomprise everything that needs explanation. If you are shocked by the number of nouns that I just used, you are probably not close to the teutonic style. Using nouns instead of verbs is one of the characteristics of the teutonic style. 

If we come back to being witty again: As a kid, I felt that a truly witty answer would leave everyone else gasping for words. It would be the great pyramid, if you like, that leaves nothing unanswered. 

Ok, Alice, you may think, this may be teutonic, but still - why can't I be more quick witted? Let me ask you back: What does it mean to you to be witty and why do you want it? 

I have found, first of all, that a lot of people, who wanted to be more quick-witted were truly scared of being spontaneous. They were censoring themselves pretty scrutinously, trying to put their best self forward all the time. We all censor ourselves, because of social norms. Words related to death or sexuality are typically the ones we all try to keep to ourselves. But if we are overly conscious of ourselves - I think you already know what I am getting at. That is when you get into these conversations of fake smiles and too much nodding, where time never runs fast enough. So the first thing is to be OK with being not OK. If you feel like you need to fake a smile ask yourself why? And if you are OK with not faking a smile, you have made the first big step.

Secondly, as a kid, I found the situations calling for more wit typically pretty horrifying for my existance. Remember, as long as you find yourself in danger, your brain goes into the basic reactions of flight, fight or freeze. These are produced by the amygdala and your prefrontal cortex is blizzed out. What you can do against it is actively counting a few numbers, or reflecting on your triggers before or after a situation. Gaining a few miliseconds may be enough to get you out of pure reaction and into operation mode.

The third thing is that people, who think they are not witty, often underestimate themselves. Being spontaneous means that you voice the first thing that comes to your mind. How many times have I seen people make excuses, saying it was a stupid idea, just average, anyone would think of this - only to see them astonished at a training group laughing out loud, once they managed to voice this first thing, finally. The beautiful thing is that everyone of use has a unique build - be it DNA, upbringing or whatever experience. Once training participants managed to embrace this idea, the question of quick-wittedness moved towards the back. And the beautiful thing is that when it moves to the back, individual potential comes to the front. 

Sounds nice, but...? 
If this is too fluffy for you, you can try this brain exercise. It is called the Magic Shop and is used in Psychodrama. You can get whatever you want in this shop, but you need to trade something in that is of equal value. Finding something that is equally important to you as the thing you want is sometimes hard. It may be even harder to accept that you need to give it away. However, if you find it and you get to trading it in, it can operate like a key to unlock your potential.

Still not what you are looking for? Get to the contact page and let me know your thoughts. I will try my best to answer.

Psychological Safety or Competition?

This blog post about Psychological Safety and Improv really spoke to what I have experienced a lot with my theatre work. Looking back at times at university, I would even say that the full first year was just about getting ourselves settled with ourselves and with others. Don't hold me accountable for this number, the point I am trying to make is, that it is a lot of work to really get there.

For me, the big struggle was less to trust my fellow students in the moment, but it was the fact that there we were - 12 bright, talented students. Who of us would get one of the limited jobs after university? Today, I have a term for this - it is called a fixed mindset. Back than, I called it competition. Were we not meant to compete with each other?

I tried to appease myself, I tried to ignore this question. But it stuck there, and from the rivalries I saw flaring up during all these years, I assume, I was not the only one.

After university, I did not get a job at a fancy theatre. I was facing unconscious and conscious biases. I had short, brown hair and did not look, nor move, nor speak like someone, who just conquered Walhalla (German site for heros). It was brutal to go through this. Because I knew exactly, that it was not about me or my abilities. It was about pre-conceptions of others. I had to learn that theatre was not the place where all social norms were at disposition, but that it worked along those norms and re-inforced them as well. 

But, with this experience, I was able to let go of the rivalry, completely. Because I started being OK with not conquering Walhalla. I did not dye my hair to blond. Instead, I kept looking for people, who were not searching for the next conqueress. Or for someone to complement the conqueress. And I did find them. 

I have learned to embrace that every person is unique. There is a place for the conqueress and there is a place for me. Neither of us will always have the streets paved with gold or always find open arms with all ideas that we have. 

This led to the biggest win in psychological safety I could get. Safety within myself.