Journeying into the business world... one undiscovered culture at a time

Welcome to [Per]Suit of Anthropology, a blog dedicated to the exploration of modern business trends and perspectives from the view of anthropologist. This blog is a way for me to connect two sides of my professional self that I see in constant dialogue. Though the business world and the anthropological world may not believe it - they have more in common and more to learn from one another than readily acknowledged. Topics covered include: Western business practices and the impact of those decisions on socio-cultural institutions worldwide, issues of tourism and its impacts on culture, invisible disabilities, and common human capital practices in private industry and government.

Living Well With Epilepsy


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Epilepsy Stigma Blog Relay: When Work/Life Balance isn't a balance - it is a necessity

This post is part of the Epilepsy Stigma Blog Relay which will run from June 1 through June 30. Follow along and add comments to posts that inspire you!
Last summer the internet was a buzz with Anne-Marie Slaughter's article "Why Women Still Can't Have it All." In her piece, she talked about the role of women in society and how it is really impossible, without a lot of help to be that super woman. The backlash, the social media stories, the tweets, and everything that has come out since has fallen on both sides of the argument. But what gets me is still this pervasive thought that when you want something bad enough, you can do it all... but in my case that hasn't always been true. 

I say add on a case of epilepsy and it is very difficult to be a super woman. I have had epilepsy since I was a junior in high school when I had a grand mal seizure before class one day. And while I've only had three seizures in my life, each one has forced me to come face to face with my very real, and sometimes incredibly frustrating limitations. 
Living on the edge... well within reason of course!

The common thread that ties all my seizures together are periods of extended stress... the first in high school, the second early in my career as a consultant, and the third just seven months ago following an incredibly stressful period of time at work...

Just before my second seizure, I was up for promotion at a major consulting firm. I was working long hours, traveling, and loving my job. I was active in groups in Washington, D.C., taking on leadership positions, and doing all the things that a young twenty something, single woman is supposed to do. The seizure up-ended my world. My neurologist told me in no uncertain terms that I could not work the hours I had been keeping and still stay healthy. what was something that was a background in my life, all of a sudden became a defining point in my career. 

I immediately set about to the Herculean task of trying to change the culture of my company to be more aware of, and responsive to the needs of individuals with invisible disabilities. While I couldn't work 60 or 70 hours a week, I made bargains with my bosses that "I can do in 40 hours what others can do in 50." And for a few years it worked. It worked so well that I was even invited to a highly selective Leadership Development program where I was able to research the latest trends in cognitive technologies in team and organization management. But as I climbed the corporate ladder, slowly I saw my days becoming longer, my stress levels rising, and my exhaustion becoming more prevalent. At the conclusion of my fellowship I made the agonizing decision to leave my job... a job I was successful at, a job in which I had a future, a great paycheck, and opportunities opening before my eyes. My friends and colleagues thought I was crazy, passing up on such an opportunity. So why did I do it? 

Because I knew I couldn't cut it.  I knew enough about my body to know when I was starting to push it too much. Because my epilepsy wasn't visible, the firm seemed to be growing tired of my so-called "excuses" for working less hours. They kept on wondering when I would be able to work "normal" hours; when I could take on more responsibilities; and how much I would be willing to do for the good of the firm.  I knew that I would soon be expected to maintain higher hours, even more responsibility, and I knew that my body would not keep up the pace. And so I took another job.

Fast forward another two years, and to my newest employer ...  Really one of the few places that puts their money where their mouth is when it comes to the health of their workforce (seriously senior staffers will question why you are at the office after 6pm). And still my epilepsy caught up with me. After a period of long days and weekends writing a paper (a culmination of a year's worth of work), I had my third grand mal seizure, during which I suffered a horrible concussion. I was on cognitive rest for a few months, was not able to work, and at the very early onset was told not to think. For a research analyst at a think tank being told not to think - this caused a huge crisis of identity. Who was I without my brains and my intellect? Who was I, if my increased dosage of my medications made me slow and sluggish... What would happen if the side effects never went away? My bosses already saw my  lack of concentration as laziness, or a lack of interest in my work. My vocabulary blanks were associated with me not being able to "think through situations" as opposed to my nerves misfiring... my very performance at my job was totally out of my control. 
Punting at my Alma Mater

So what have I done? I have had to learn the lesson that work-life balance for me isn't a choice, but a necessity. And that at one time, what work life balance meant (i.e .going from 60 to 40 hours a week), now means something different (working at most 40 hours a week, taking multiple brain breaks throughout the day, doing no communication after hours, etc.). And it is difficult. I have to be patient with myself. In a high powered city like DC where everyone is connected, and everyone is on the up and up, I feel like I am on the bleachers watching a game that once I could play, but can no longer. 

And though it sounds as though I regret it, I too have come to know my strengths. In a world that is always 'on' and always plugged in to some type of device, I have learned how to savor the slow moments. How to make time for meditation and prayer every day, how to be kind to my body through good exercise without going overboard, and ultimately how to be proud of myself for who I am even with these struggles. And quite honestly, to recognize all that I have been able to accomplish, and the great blessing that has been my life. During my time with epilepsy I was accepted into some of the world's top universities for my undergraduate and graduate degrees, and graduated with honors. I've traveled to Tibet, China, Lithuania, France, and Norway; camped out overnight with over 2 million people in crowded fields in Rome and Madrid, backpacked across northern Spain on the Camino de Santiago, done study abroad programs in Japan, and learned a few languages along the way. I moved to (and survived in) a foreign country and then a large city on my own, navigated the world of corporate consulting, met my husband, and finally realized before many of my peers when it was time to stop the rat race. And all this before I was 35!
Post Marathon Finish!

While I am still frustrated with my latest go-round after my last seizure and injury, I too know that this is temporary, and that many of the habits (good sleep, low alcohol consumption, stable diet, and routine) are ones that will serve me later on in life. 

And I realized I am not alone. This past fall, I was honored to Run the Marine Corps Marathon, raising over $1,600 in the National Epilepsy Foundation's Athletes vs. Epilepsy Campaign. With every step I took, I heard the clanging of my medical ID necklace - constant reminder of my limitations... but with every step I took, I also grew stronger and more determined to cross that finish line. And was surrounded by others, just like me, who were taking it one step at a time, one day at a time. And that determination, really, has been what has gotten me through. 
 
Looking out at all the possibilities life has to offer
So maybe my goal of a PhD may take a little longer; maybe being an adviser to the President, or an Ambassador to the UN won't happen by the time I am 40...or 50... or even 60... maybe being a good wife, friend and (God-willing) a mother will take all the energy I have. Because I know my dreams will happen, and in ways I cannot even imagine... I just have to be patient with myself and know that I am exactly where I am meant to be. And that means proud of all of who I am, all that I have accomplished, and living well with epilepsy. 
NEXT UP: Be sure to check out Amanda Filippone's post on Epilepsy Stigma.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

"How Fascinating!" A detail oriented person and a big picture thinker agree on one thing

I was talking to a friend earlier this week. We were discussing, of all things, things we had heard at our jobs that we needed to work on. He said he was encouraged to work on thinking big ideas, taking initiative, and the next step. I said mine was, as always, attention to detail.

We then got into a bit of a philosophical discussion about how we thought that the skills we've been told we were lacking are, in our own separate opinions, what is necessary for success. I told him that I've always thought that "detail oriented" people have better job promotion potential because they see all the little things that employers tend to like. He told me he had the opposite view, that he feels that he is capped out at his level unless he can really take his ideas to the next level, learn to speak up, lead, etc.

I remarked how fascinating it was that we both thought exactly the opposite. As my one mentor said, whenever in doubt at work, or a professional situation, you always respond with "how interesting!" I suppose it is the adult version of "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!" - which by the way I do want to figure out how to work into a real life situation.

I digress - I thought that in the current business world, there is an expectation that we are all things to everyone. And I wondered how smart of an idea is that, really. For example, take my friend the detail oriented person. As he progresses he will be expected to go into management, a role he may or may not be suited for. Who knows, this person may be comfortable in a more technical environment.

As for the big picture thinker, I am all well and good, until I forget a detail. I can have a lot of good things at work about performance, but one small mistake and that is all I hear. Both of us are at a disadvantage as current business practices of acceptable performance and management systems are set up for one person to be good at everything, especially as you rise in seniority.

If you examine most organizations as you progress you automatically get into management situations, sometimes with no training. Now for some this may present an exciting new opportunity, but for others annoyance ar not  doing what you enjoy, to fear of leading. Likewise, some people who have the penchant for leading may not have the opportunity to do so as they have not "proven" themselves in a particular position, or in certain tasks required of them.

Thus I think the business world needs to get out of the mindset that rising in ones career naturally means you enter management. Such is not always the case nor should it be. This is where I think the government has a good example. They have senior levels of expertise (GS 14/15s) as well as the Senior Executive Service, which gets into the more senior posted requiring a very high amount of management skills. While the system is not without its own flaws, organizations should look to this and a possible model for how to manage different types of thinkers. 

Again just a thought...  In the meantime I recommend checking out Dan Pink's book, "A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future." He speaks of the history of why certain skills, namely those of the left-brained, are what is desired in current businesses. His theory is that the more creative types will soon have the edge when it comes to business, but first we have to make our way and achieve success in a logic-oriented world....

A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future

A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future

Friday, December 26, 2014

Cognitive disability in a knowledge economy world...

About two months ago, I had a grand mal seizure, during which I lost conciousness and fell to the tile floor in my kitchen. I hit my head so hard, my glasses snapped giving me a large gash on my head, injuring my shoulder, and suffering a very serious concussion, and thus a TBI diagnosis.

Upon discharge from the ER, I was given strict instructions to be on cognitive rest. For two weeks I was not to watch TV, read, or use the computer. In fact, I was told to not really do much of anything that required thought. In a world that is constantly connected, online, and in one where I, as a research analyst, am required to spend long periods of my day on the computer, reading and writing... what was I to do?

Once I was out of the two week period, I was told to only gradually increase the amount of computer usage, reading, and thinking I do. Beginning with 2 hours per day for two weeks, then 4 hours per day for two weeks, until I gradually hit the 8 hour/day mark. As a result, my job and I worked out that I would be on medical leave from my work, as it is very difficult to only be in the office 2-4 hours a day.

At any rate, over the past two months I have had extreme difficult concentrating, have not been able to read anything very difficult (I can read a newspaper in print in small chunks before I start to get headaches), and have had difficulty finding words... like refrigerator. This happened on Christmas Eve when my mother asked where she should put some leftover salad and I responded... in the... in the ... thing that you put food in that is cold... My spelling has become atrocious (the spell-checker has had more use lately than ever before); and all in all it has been a frustrating and frankly terrifying few months.

All of this has had me thinking what, exactly, will happen as our knowledge economy grows. The world still has much to learn on the subject of physical disabilities more broadly, but what about those disabilities that one cannot see - that are invisible?  What happens when a colleague, through no fault of their own, experiences lapses in concentration, memory, vocabulary, or even has mood swings as a side effect of medication or even as a result of a disease?  

Our society, in short, is not ready to deal with this fact. When I was in the consulting world I (having been diagnosed with Epilepsy - an invisible disability) worked hard to try to change the culture of the firm, to make it easier for those with similar disabilities to have the work life balance so desperately needed by those trying to manage a chronic condition. I ultimately left the firm as I was no longer able to do the job well, at the level of performance that I desired, without putting my body at physical risk due to the demands of being a consultant.

In a world where everyone is plugged in, and much emphasis is put on cognitive skills, and even more is being researched to try to figure out how people think, what types of programs are being put in place to help knowledge workers who find themselves temporarily or permanently without the facilities of their minds? The answer is none.  Most managerssee many of the above symptoms as signs of an individual not having the discipline to concentrate; or not having proper attention to detail; or just plain laziness.

What, then, should we do?

The first part is raising awareness. The NFL, and football programs nationwide, have begun a conversation about the impact of concussions on athletes - but what about the rest of us? PTSD, and similar disorders, have been written about at length by multiple authors - but what about those of us who experience similar symptoms due to underlying issues?

It is an important issue that requires attention today. At the very least organizations should conduct training for their mangers in invisible disabilities and how to help colleagues who struggle with cognitive issues. Managers should also be willing to embrace alternative work schedules and telework opportunities to help those who work actively to balance the needs of their health with a knowledge workplace. A word of caution however: for those of us who struggle in this area the ability to always be online or have the ability to telework can, in some cases, lead to situations where employees are never truly off the clock. I think managers should be wise to declare email few periods for their teams, be it no email or work on the weekend or taking one night a week to be email free, as Boston Consulting Group has done to great success. (https://hbr.org/2009/10/making-time-off-predictable-and-required

As we continue to expand our knowledge of how the mind works and how employees think this issue will become ever more prevalent and, hopefully, better understood as people work through the reality of having invisible disabilities and the impact of traumatic brain injury. 


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

99 problems, and age ain't one!

I sit here, watching the rain come down in cold grey sheets, and wonder, "How many times has she seen the rain fall? How many times has she sipped a cup of coffee while reading the newspaper, like I am now, shaking her head at what the world has come to." She has had no lack of interesting times: World War I and prohibition shaped her childhood, she came of age during the depression, she started a family during World War II, and raised them while seeing the rise of communism, and the fall of her homeland of Lithuania. She saw grandchildren born over a period of 20+ years that spanned the cold war, rejoiced upon the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the liberation of Lithuania, saw her children and grandchildren visit her parent's homeland, witnessed not one, but two attacks on American soil (Pearl Harbor and 9/11), and even was able to vote in an election where the winner was our first African-American president.

I am speaking of my grandmother, who today celebrates her 99th birthday. Though her age has taken her eyesight, and some mobility, she is in incredible shape for her age. I cannot imagine how much she has seen in those 99 years. One experience, in particular, has stuck with me.

When I was little, my grandmother spoke about how she would get dressed up with her mother (stockings, dress, hat, gloves) to go into town to make a telephone call. Yet only a few years ago, while sitting with my mom in DC, we were able to call her on an I-Pad, and chat with her face to face. Her look of surprise, wonder, and even confusion were apparent. She said, in amazement, how incredible it was to see us talking - she almost didn't believe it was truly us.

But not just the advances in technology, but the changes in culture, and perceptions. When I was in high school, I had the chance to go to Japan on an exchange trip. I remember telling my grandmother, and she was so proud. In her lifetime, the Japanese were the enemy - and here her granddaughter was about to go on a trip to promote goodwill, better understanding, and friendship.

It honestly gives me hope - so many people today wonder what our world is coming to, how will we adapt, and how will what we hold dear ever survive. I am sure that throughout her life, my grandmother had those same exact thoughts. And yet, here she is 99 years young, with dozens of grandchildren, and great grandchildren who are out there doing some pretty amazing things... It goes to show that time really does help heal all types of wounds, both for our selves, and for our world. I am trying to sum up this post with some type of poignant words of reflection, but all I have is amazement. When you think about all my grandmother has seen - it is truly a wonder...

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Starting afresh

My apologies there has been nothing on this post for well over a year. I think the best thing to tell you is that I have been using the past year to dive deep into my new "field site" - that is my new job. As anyone will tell you, it often takes well over a year to feel as though you've fully become a part of a new organization, or a new school, or even a new culture (people often wonder why anthropologists' field experiences are so long).

In the past year I dove deep into a new world of government policy, practices and theory. I've had to learn about new actors, new languages (each agency seems to have their own unique way of saying the same thing), and new ways of researching and writing. It has kept me quite busy.

In the meantime, I've had the fantastic opportunity to do a bit of publishing on my own, having submitted an article (Forays of an Anthropologist in Management Consulting: How Anthropology Brings Needed Diversity of Thought to Companies and Clients) to a special edition of  Practicing Anthropology, and also having the honor to present at last year's Society for Applied Anthropology meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I will definitely reflect more on that later. And finally, I've even been having fun trying my hand at a wine blog, called "Wine for the Rest of us." (though you will see there is not a whole lot of writing there either).

Of course I have every intention of dedicating more time here, but as we all know life has a way of surprising us!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The freedom to pursue passions

Hi everyone,

Sorry for the long absence on blogging here - things have been busy on my end.  It is amazing how, once out of the corporate world, new experiences open up to you in a way you didn't even realize you were missing.  Since getting a new job, I now have more time to devote to things I truly enjoy doing - including researching and writing about anthropology and business.

In that vein, I was recently featured in an interview on the blog, Anthropologizing.  The act of reflecting on my experience in the corporate consulting world has been incredibly eye-opening.  There is so much potential for those of us with anthropology backgrounds to provide to business - the key is sharing with each other the ways we have used our skills out in the workplace, and teaching others how to market themselves accordingly.  In that spirit,   I have also been asked by the bloggers of Anthropologizing to write a journal article on my experiences in the corporate sector, for which I am incredibly honored and excited. So things have been busy!  I promise there will be more reflection on this blog as soon as some more writing has been done on my end.

Until then!

Friday, May 10, 2013

The cultural implications of time

In a decision that has taken a long time coming, I decided to hang up my suit, leave my previous place of employment at a Big Four consulting firm and start anew in the world of non-profit research.

My reasons were many, the least of which was that a unique opportunity to run research projects in the area of Federal workforce management - an upcoming niche area of interest for me.  The major reason, however, I left my corporate job was due to time.  Or more importantly the lack of time. Or even more specifically it was a question of whose value of time.

Much like any other organization, mine was one where hours billed to a client resulted in revenue for my organization (much like a lawyer).  We had "utilization" targets we had to meet, and upon which our performance was based.  What resulted was a culture where time was measured down to exact increments - and determined to be profit earning or not. In addition during after hours we were not to spend time on any activity that could "compromise the integrity of the work" - as in we were not supposed to volunteer extensively, or hold a part time job, or do anything that would impede us from coming into the office at 10pm at night on the will of a customer demanding turnaround of a product for the next morning's 8am briefing.  We furthermore, were expected to make up any PTO that negatively impacted our utilization.  In short, for the past five years my time has not been my own - either during or after work. 

Compare that to my current situation where I work a set of core hours, but my productivity is not measured in minutes - rather outcome.  And more importantly the after-hours time is my own to do with what I please.  The readjustment to a new cultural expectation of time, and rediscovering my own time led me to a realization:  time is a relative cultural construct. (DUH!)

I found that over the past five plus years, my personality and my own understanding of the value of time did not match with the culture of the organization in which I was rapidly ascending the corporate ladder.  I grew up in a family and an area where time at work was honored (regardless of the job), but time with one's family and friends was honored more.

There has been no shortage of discussion on this issue of time and how (or with whom) it is spent- with Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In, and the media furore over Marissa Meyer's new takes on her workplace flexibility, and telecommuting for the people of Yahoo.  But very few people seem to sense that much of what is discussed is varying cultural assumptions about time, how it is measured, and what type of time has meaning to different cultures.

When I was in Tibet, I remember that we were on a tight schedule in travelling from village to village.  Afterall, we had to reach Chengdu by a certain date to catch our flight to Beijing, and thus back to the U.S.  However, our Tibetan guides had a much different sense of time.  They would often pull over our Land Rovers for no real reason other than necessary bio-breaks, or even to gaze over the valley at the top of a mountain pass.  There were even times when one of the Land Rovers would break down and we would have to wait for them to fix it.  During these times, the students in my group would get anxious - the professors even more so. Afterall - we had a schedule!   In the meanwhile our guides were relaxed saying, "Don't worry - it is bad karma to worry.  You must be in the moment now.  We will get to our destination when karma wills it." Needless to say by the end of my time in Tibet I no longer wore a stopwatch, and my understanding of timeliness was much more fluid - and allowed for the unexpected surprises.  

In today's society, time and how much one fills it with so-called 'productive' activities seems to have taken on an even more intense nature.  As of late, I've seen a number of interesting articles replying to the question "how are you doing" with the expression "Busy!" has become a badge of pride.  Tim Kreider of the NY Times dubs it "The 'Busy' Trap."   That having so much to do and so little time has become a position of envy!!  It has even boiled down to our children, who have less and less time to just be kids and play.  Liz Goodenough, a professor at the University of Michigan released both a PBS documentary and accompanying book both detailing how children who do not have the space to play make believe and just be their own person, have less social and cognitive/creative skills.

In our over programmed, and frankly overworked world what is the implication of such strict adherence to programmed time?  Many people are quick to make any number of assumptions - but we will not fully understand the implications until we all come to accept that time, like any other social construct, is inherently a cultural phenomenon.  I am reminded of Mitch Albom's recent book, The Timekeeper, which discusses in a playful fictional tale the creation of measured time - how it started, why it started, and its implications on all of humanity.  The basic point of the book is that our own Western constructions of time, and our seeming lack of it, or need to "squeeze the most" out of it is a flawed and ultimately destructive notion. 

And what I have found two weeks out of the consulting construct of time (where every moment is measured, dissected for productivity) is that I've not been so happy in a long time.  My hours are still productive, I am still doing very similar work, but I have the time to just be.  I have the downtime to think, generate new insights, write (hey!), and even spend time with those I love.  And all of this is far better, in my opinion, than hitting numbers or metrics, or having a rating at the end of the day that "proves" I was productive.  ... which that strikes me now too - productivity as a relative term.  Ah but I will save that for another day.