Friends won’t forget

Yesterday I was at a friend’s housewarming party. Invited were a couple of dozen people. Many of the guests belonged to the same group that started studying industrial management at the university nearly ten years ago. When I entered the apartment with some friends, also from our class of industrial engineers, I was mildly amazed to see all the familiar faces. Having been abroad for so long I hadn’t kept contact with most of my friends at the university. Somehow I didn’t think that so many of them would be there, but apparently they have kept well in touch. Now I saw many of them for the first time in years, yet they had hardly changed at all: same young faces, each with their recognizable character and familiar voice.

Starting a discussion with each of my old study pals was easy, just as I hadn’t been away at all. The topics were various and centered around topics different than ten years ago, but the feeling was the same. I was happy to see them and they seemed glad to see me and hear the latest news. Those who weren’t yet aware of my starting studying physics congratulated me.

The evening was pleasant and I was happy to feel and also demonstrate from my side how camaraderie and friendships are hard to forget.

People are nice

The day before yesterday I had my belongings packed and taken by the moving company. During that morning, when the packing took place, an elderly woman approached me as I and the moving men were outside at the truck packing some furniture in.

The woman greeted me and asked whether I was leaving Switzerland. After my saying yes she explained being the neighbor in the next building, and how she found it a pity that I was moving away. I did not know the woman at all, I still don’t, and had at most said the occasional “good morning” or “hello” to her during the past three and a half years. Yet, she came to greet me and wish me all the best in the future, finally handing me some Swiss chocolate to take home. From my astonishment I could barely thank her and also wish her all the best.

Sometimes there are people observing us, while we have no idea, and sometimes there are also people watching over us without our knowing.

Me – More thoughts and feelings in the middle of a big change

End of May, as I had already made the decision to resign and start university studies, I asked a colleague of mine whether she would like to do a hike to Säntis, something we had talked about briefly the other day. After having shortly talked about it around mid-May, I proposed her end of May doing the hike mid-June. She happily agreed and was surely as excited as I was, so we set the date on June 18th. The main difference between us obviously was that I was planning the trip with the idea of soon leaving the company and my colleagues, including her, so for me it would be a kind of a farewell trip.

Now, on June 2nd, I am thinking how she will react and what she will think when she hears a few days before our trip, on June 14th in our monthly team meeting, that I will leave the company soon. Knowing her, I am sure it will not change her fundamental attitude towards me, but I am sure that the news will have an impact. Actually I think that the impact might eventually be a positive one, since we will likely end up discussing my decision to leave the company and my motives for doing it. Since I have decided to share my story with anyone who wants to hear it, I am more than happy to discuss it; if my story and example can prevent someone from taking decisions out of wrong reasons, arrogance, fear of being disapproved by others or fear of pursuing one’s own passion, I have achieved my goal.

This blog post was originally written on June 2nd and finalized on June 5th 2017.

Career change and observations on my passions and personality

Since August of 2016, I have been looking for a new career in the field of research of development. Having been worked in procurement two and a half years by then, and over a year in procuring R&D services, I had come to realize that I wanted to work in the field of natural sciences, their applications and development of new technologies. In this process of self-discovery the writing of this blog and self-experimentation, as promoted by Live Your Legend, played a large role. I also used the book What Color Is Your Parachute from Dick Bolles to guide me in my search. Below I describe briefly how the decision to change the direction of my career matured, and in a following series of blog entries, I will describe the process and result in more detail.

By the end of summer 2016, I had decided to pursue career R&D, but had some doubts leaving my current procurement job behind. My initial plan was to change to another position inside my current company and at the same location, so physically the move wouldn’t have been that large. But unlike when starting at procurement two and a half years earlier, now I had something I would be leaving behind. When I joined my colleagues at procurement in January 2014, I was fresh out of university and was starting at my first full-time job after graduation. I was more than happy to take the first offer that allowed me to move abroad, do interesting work, work with nice people in a good company and earn a good salary. Moving to R&D would be different: I already had a nice work environment at procurement with great colleagues. I had something I would have to give up in order to move to R&D.

As I had learned from doing some exercises on introspection and learning to know myself, moving to R&D would be the right move, even if it meant leaving valued colleagues behind. I like to think that even unpleasant tasks are not so bad when you do them in good company, but in the long term, you should really be doing the things you are passionate about. As I had come to realize, my passion did not lie by procurement, so moving on would be the right choice.

My largest doubts about the career change were, as already mentioned, leaving valued colleagues behind. In procurement, I had such great colleagues, both as private persons and professionally, that parting with them felt already a bit painful, even in my thoughts only. A bit like when we have a feeling comparable to physical pain when are wrong (in The Guardian on February 28th 2016), I had an uncomfortable feeling, even felt anxiety when thinking about leaving my current colleagues and joining a new team. But I was also happy for having these feelings since it showed me two things. One, my colleagues must be great persons for me to have these feelings towards them. Second, I must be somewhat of a people person, more concerned about people than things and possessions. The comparison is clumsy, but one could think a career move as an investment: you give up something to gain something else. As an analogy, when you invest your money into something, you forego the possibility of using it on something else. Interestingly, I don’t recall ever having such strong feelings of giving up something else when having done monetary investment decisions, although some of them were of significant value to me. Yet, the cost of giving up current colleagues when starting into a new career path felt very tangible.

In the end of my introspections, I then additionally came to the conclusion that I care more about people than money, a thing that we often like to think is true but might find hard to prove. In my case, the loosening of ties to current colleagues elicited in me a stronger feeling of loss than the opportunity cost of a financial investment. This was another, somewhat re-assuring lesson for me, and it made itself appear rather unexpectedly.

As a summary, I had little doubts that changing to R&D would be the right step for me, and I was determined to make that step, even if it meant giving up some existing relationships in order to pursue my passion.

In want of importance

The second weekend of October, I attended the 50-year anniversary of my student guild at the university. With one thousand guests present, I met a lot of old acquaintances and saw many people I had never seen before, the eldest having started their studies over fifty years ago. In the discussions with closer friends and more distant ones two things caught my attention:

  1. Understanding what everyone does in their daily work seemed quite difficult.
  2. In describing what they do, professionally and in their free time, people seemed to be very competitive.

When describing my current life and professional pursuits to others I tried to give a short and very tangible description, something like: “I work in strategic procurement, buying R&D services from external engineering companies. Among other things I look for suitable providers and negotiate and close the contracts with them.” I don’t recall mentioning my title even once, since “Project Manager” hardly tells anyone, what I do.

When asking others what they do, the answers were, to tell the truth, difficult to understand and memorize. Should I be asked now to repeat those descriptions, I might recall, very vaguely, a few of the maybe ten occupations and task descriptions I heard during the party. I remember someone mentioning: “I work a lot with Excel tables”, which was easy enough to understand. And I would bet, that the majority of us work with Excel tables and PowerPoint presentations, either creating them, seeing them presented or both. But those two are just tools, so the exact content behind the work does not become any clearer. So the main question, based on my two observations is, whether work is that complicated or whether we just want to make it look like that.

It’s complicated, it’s important and so am I

My conclusion, after some pondering, was that today’s work, having become increasingly specialized, is difficult to be described to or be understood by an outsider, even if they work in a neighboring field or have similar education. Another factor might be, relating to my observation number two, that we want to give a polished picture of ourselves, seeming to be more successful and important than we really are. After all, everybody wants to feel important.

A further thought on my observation number two was, how intentional this competitiveness and bragging might be? In the discussions at the party, I tried to avoid exaggerating my current job or personal life. But if many people appear to me as bragging when telling about their lives and jobs, is it just my observation, are they doing it unintentionally or are they really trying to show off?

If it’s just my observation, than maybe I am feeling inferior or jealous because my job or life does not feel that important in comparison to theirs. If people are bragging, they might be doing it unintentionally, which is actually again more dependent on the listener’s subjective view. However, if people are really bragging, omitting here the question of how to measure “real, intentional bragging”, they might be feeling inferior or feel the need to underline their own importance. In each case, the question is, whether the parties in conversation perceive themselves as “equally important”, and consequently adjust their wordings and interpretation of the spoken words.

I suppose the essential message here is that bragging is very subjective and situation dependent, and that work has not really become that complicated although tasks have become more specialized. While more specialized, each task is also limited in scope and therefore not necessarily complicated, but just not readily accessible to others who are not familiar with the very field. However, each or most of the tasks and jobs would still be understandable and accessible to many people, had they just chosen to engage that very field. It’s our need to feel ourselves important that makes us overcomplicate things when describing our lives and achievements.

Many of us, me included, live our lives with daily routines. These routines might sound boring to someone, but if I enjoy them and want to adhere to them, as I mostly do, I should not be ashamed to tell about my life without any grandiose vacuities.

All you need is friends, a view and some good cognac

Here a couple of pictures I have been meaning to post for a while now. In the summer of 2013 two friends visited me while I was writing my master’s thesis in Switzerland. We did a trip to central Switzerland including some light hiking. Before departing we bought a small bottle of cognac by the liter at a small store in Zürich’s old town to be consumed on a good spot.

Below you see one of my friends and me sitting and enjoying the view. The bottle is not in sight, but it is there somewhere, maybe between us. My other friend was the camera man. A big thank-you to both of them; it was a great trip with good experiences and memories, including Lars the llama, a very fatty Swiss sausage and disproportionate salad portions at the university cafeteria.

The philosophers
The philosophers
The travelers
The travelers

About trust, yoga and economics

In my last blog post I wrote about fear and trusting each other to build a better future. Pretty quickly I almost fell prey to that very fear and mistrust.

During the holidays I checked when my yoga studio would continue with the regular Saturday sessions after the holiday season.  I saw that they would be open right after New Year’s. Reading a bit further, I also noted that they had increased their prices by a few percent. On seeing the new prices, which were still on par with the market, I instinctively took a defensive stance and started thinking about the impact on me and my consumption behavior: Why were the prices increased? Should I reduce my visits accordingly to keep my spend on yoga constant? Should I reduce my visits to imply that I disapprove of the price increase?

Having had a few days to think about it before the first yoga session last weekend, I noticed that I was fearful and mistrusting. I was afraid that the price increase would have a negative impact on my well-being, though I am far from living at the subsistence minimum. I was also mistrusting me yoga instructor on increasing the prices for “the wrong motives”, although the content of such motives were not quite clear to myself either.

Taking my thinking a bit further I realized that such fears may also be a significant factor for the lagging economy in Europe. If we do not trust each other, or ourselves for that matter, we become paralyzed. We do not dare to take action, but prefer to evaluate and mitigate all possible risks and drawbacks. If we mistrust each other, cooperating becomes difficult, because we will be concentrating on outwitting each other, or at least avoid being outwitted, instead of concentrating on the future and our goals.

The economic problems in Europe are certainly more complex than this, but I think that not seldom more action and less analyzing would be of benefit. If we want to avoid the wrong step, we will not take even the first one.

I’d like you to meet…

Last week we had our annual company Christmas party: lots of people, friendly atmosphere, good program and tasty food. A perfect venue to practice networking one might say. I have written before how the word networking and my perception of the concept make me uncomfortable. Yet, in the mentioned party I suddenly found myself not only networking, but also enjoying it.

During the last six months I have got to know many new colleagues at work. Being a quieter person, it’s not always that easy for me to take contact, start a conversation and keep one alive. I have heard and read that those are skills one can learn but quite honestly, I have never had enough practice to be a master in those skills. At our company Christmas party I just suddenly realized that I had made progress in all of those areas and that I was enjoying mingling and introducing people to each other.

Help others broaden their network

I think that introducing people to each other is at least as important as getting introduced yourself. When you bring people you know together, you strengthen your social network by creating new connections between existing nodes. This helps strengthen also your personal relationships to those people since they become deeper embedded in your social sphere. Again, I  have to mention that for me it is not about building a network for my own purposes. It is about bringing other people together, people who benefit from those new connections: e.g. introducing an intern to different people in you organization might help that intern find a job later on, and people looking for employees might find the right candidate to hire. Helping others this way is what makes this type of networking enjoyable for me.

Introduction = Name, affiliation and follow-up

Introducing people to each other over and over again during the company Christmas party helped me develop a kind of elevator speech for introducing people to one another. I am sure this is nothing new, but I have hardly ever practiced these skills this intensively before so I had a good learning experience when I introduced people to each other on four or five occasions during the evening. I learned that in introducing strangers to each other the following formula is a good general approach:

  • Mention the names of all present and how they are affiliated to you.
  • Make an anecdote on something you have just experienced with one of the persons being introduced. If you can mention some “fun fact” about one of the persons, it’s easier for others to grab  on it and start a conversation.
  • If no conversation emerges right away, ask one of those present a follow-up question on which they can give a more elaborate answer. This will give others some material to pursue the conversation further.

As an example, introducing person A and B to each other at the mentioned Christmas party could have gone along the following lines (and actually did on one occasion):

  • Me: (approaching A with B) “Hi A, this is B, a colleague of mine. He also has the same name as I do (“fun fact”), so you do not have to learn that many new ones this evening.”
  • A and B: (shake hands, greet each other)
  • A: “Yeah, it’s easier for me not having to learn any new names at this hour.”
  • (silence)
  • Me: “B is actually an intern at department ZX and this is his last work day so he is going out with a bang.”
  • A: “Oh, that’s nice. So B, you are flying tomorrow?”
  • B: “No, actually next week. I still want to have a couple of days free here.”

The example above shows that you may not need to mention your affiliation in detail to all parties present. In the example I do not mention my affiliation to A, although mentioning it would help B get a better picture of the person to whom he is talking. I would recommend saying a word or two on A in the next sentence. Another point is that the follow-up question can come from one of the persons being introduced. In the example I prepared the field for A to present the follow-up question: whether B was flying the following day. A third point worth mentioning is that staying on the initial track (talking about B, for example) might be helpful in breaking the initial silent moments, since the discussion stays on the same direction and participants are receiving more material for the initial discussion. When the discussion has been going on for a bit longer time, it is easier for everyone to take the discussion on to new tracks, when they have a good basis and a common theme has already been established.

Introduction in larger groups

The example above illustrated the case of two people being introduced to each other and assumes an ensuing conversation. In a larger group the introduction may take a bit longer and afterwards multiple smaller conversations would emerge. However, I would still see the general formula applicable also in a larger group. In such a case you would have to be more alert in providing all the participants enough material to start a discussion, since you cannot be personally taking part at each one the whole time.

Of course introductions, especially in larger groups, may also be really short without the immediate goal of an ensuing discussion between individuals. For example in a seminar it might be nice to briefly introduce the participants, but time constraints might not allow anything more than mentioning everyone’s name. Further introductions and personal discussions would take place separately.

Networking with a purpose

In short, I find introducing people to each other enjoyable. As in all your actions, you should do a introduction in order to help others. If you just want to show someone all the supposedly influential people you know, you might as well forget the whole endeavor: you are treating those influential people as trophies and the other ones as your personal admirers, to whom you want to show your trophy collection. Bringing people together should be about them and their needs, not about your showing off to satisfy your ego. Be open, be honest and friendly.

Giving everyone something that nobody wants

Christmas is approaching, being only three weeks away. Last weekend my hometown had the annual Christmas fair and market with stands where mostly local craftsmen and agricultural producers sold their products. I paid a visit, in anticipation of finding something nice for the friends and family. I was looking for nothing special but was sure that I would know when I would find the right thing. After a quick 10-minute tour I had to leave with empty hands and thinking: why did I even go looking?

But I don’t even like chocolate

For some years I have been of the opinion that no one should give or a receive a gift that was not thought through. Just giving something out of social custom, without really thinking what to give and putting your heart into it, is something I see as waste, even counter-productive to a relationship. Gift giving with all its rituals is, I think, expected to deepen relationships and show mutual commitment. However, I think that this requires the gift’s being in some way tailored for the receiver, being chosen based on his character, tastes and interests.

Just getting a box of chocolates from the general grocer, so that you could give somebody something, does not include a personal element. It just forces the gift giver to acquire something that he may not even want to buy, and it also forces the receiver to accept something he probably does not want: time and money are wasted and what’s worse, is the potential damage done to the relationship, expressed in the wordless communication between the two persons. With an apologetic face the gift giver may be thinking: “Here, I got you something I know you do not like, and I hate having wasted money on it.” Meanwhile the receiver, with an awkward smile on his face, thinks: “I see you do not really know me, or at least you did not bother to think, what I really might want. Actually, your company would have been enough anyway.” Of course, the conversation on the surface follows the traditional lines, the gift and its features being praised by both sides. Does this sound familiar? Do you enjoy such situations? Do you think they improve your relationships?

Give some time, not something

I see gifts and gift giving as a physical manifestation of our feelings and thoughts, meaning that giving gifts without deeper thought is just passing an item on to another person. In the worst case, an item that nobody ever wanted or needed. On these grounds I have for some years now abstained from getting Christmas, or any other presents to anyone, unless I feel that the gift is somehow personalized. Sure, I might give a box of chocolates, but even then I have spent time choosing the right brand, selection, pack size and package, based on the receiving person’s preferences. I have even taken plain bread from my corner bakery as souvenirs, knowing that the receiver likes this one type of bread from this one bakery. And I can assure you, the reception has each and every time been sincerely warm and grateful.

Leaving the local Christmas fair last weekend with these thoughts, I again recalled a quote from Rick Warren: “Time is your most precious gift because you only have a set amount of it….It is not enough to just say relationships are important; we must prove it by investing time in them.” I must admit that I have not read any of Mr. Warren’s books, nor am I familiar with his other work or any affiliations, but the quote I find to be true. I believe that people and relationships are among most important things in our daily lives and that investing our time in  relationships is essential for leading a good and happy life. Therefore, putting thought into gifts and investing time in selecting them shows your commitment to a relationship and is a way to nurture them.

I hope we could give a little more of our time and maybe a little less of all that garbage that gets hauled around the world especially during Christmas time. I am not against giving gifts, cheap or expensive, classical or modern, unique or mass-produced, novel or clichés. I am against giving gifts that were not chosen for a specific person and personality, but merely grabbed by a hand lacking thought only to be forwarded to another one lacking gratitude. If you cannot find a gift, maybe you can just give someone your time in its purest form: spend time with your closest ones, cook a meal with them, go for a walk. Be there and show that you care.