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.

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.


Monday, March 25, 2013

SxSW: The most fascinating mix of human connectedness

Coming to you live from Austin, TX!  I am presently attending the SxSW Interactive Conference at Austin over the next few days.  I come down here under a number of auspices - the first of which is just pure curiosity.  I've heard of this thing called SxSW and always wondered what it was.  To this Midwesterner - Texas seems like a foreign land.

Err...scratch all that above. I had hoped to live-blog from SxSW,but the schedule was just too crazy for my mind to have time to decompress each evening, without my body screaming out for the comfort of a bed; my legs having put in miles on a daily basis.

Instead I write this reflection ona flight from Austin to Chicago and it is a virtual fly-catching scene. I just got up to use the restroom and every seat finds scene with a mouth agape, heads down on the tray, finally resting.

I understand why. For me, SxSW was the first time since college that I have been around so many people genuinely excited about exploring new ideas, and looking at technologies and theories that would make the world a better place. It was typified by a session i attended with Jason Silva, whose online videos leave you with a "mind-gasm" as he called it; an idea I think many academics have, where for instant the subject you are intently studying begins to find links to the broader world giving the person just a glimpse into the greater meaning of the cosmos...

For some, this meant showing off a new app in the expo. Some of the most interesting ones, anthropologically, were ones that helped people to put arguments or questions online, and enabled the web community to argue for or against a stand -literally creating an online community-based method for conflict resolution.

For others, SxSW was about artistic expression. From the keynote speaker on the last day, Matthew Inman,  whose website, theoatmeal.com has gone viral; to the excited artist I met the first night at one of the plentiful parties, whose 4 minute short film was making its debut.  For all of the other people who I never even met - but just shared air with, the festival is an opportunity to be known on the world stage.

For yet others, it was about sharing lessons learned. This of course came in the keynote sessions, Steve Case, Elon Musk, Al Gore, and many others doling out lessons learned, and reflecting on their experiences. They had mentor sessions every day where budding Entrepreneurs and artists could meet with mentors, and gain candid feedback on their ideas.


For more, it was overwhelming. A true SxsW newbie, I spent most of my days there in a daze, trying to comprehend what I had just heard, or else moving though the hustle and bustle to the next session. And while many people who don't attend may think it is nothing but a crazy liberal get together (Rachel Maddow compared it to a cross between a political convention and Lollapalooza), I think it was a celebration of great hope. That in a world where money reigns supreme, and ideological battles seem to be everywhere, the human instinct to create, and explore is alive and well. It gave me hope that even as our world changes, and the lines between academia and the real world of business blur, there is still hope for wonder, awe, inspiration, and if you are lucky...you may just be onto the next big thing.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Of K-Cups, Coffee Pots, and their impact on the exchange of ideas

Over the holidays I drank way too much coffee.  It seems a bit counter-intuitive.  I had the chance to sleep in, I was visiting with family and friends, and just enjoying the happiness of the season.  So why the need to caffeinate more than I do during work?

The answer has nothing to do with being sleepy or worn down, but rather has to do with a social phenomenon that is quickly disappearing: brewing a pot of coffee and drinking with others. In my own family, with roots in the Midwest, always seem to have a pot of coffee on. Relatives always just popping by, sometimes with a call to let us know, but usually just a knock on the door. Coffee was made, snacks are set out and conversation ensues, even if just for a half hour.

From speaking with my parents, it seems that up until recently breaks rooms in places of work served the same purpose. I remember visiting my mom, who worked at a high school. In her department there was a little break room, withs fridge, microwave, and yes a coffee pot. Usually whoever wanted coffee would out on the pot to brew, my mother often being the one to do so. However, once the aroma permeated the office, nearly everyone would pop by, taking a break and chatting about the business of the day, or even nothing at all.

The social phenomenon of the coffee pot break is not limited to just coffee, either. It's counterpart, still alive and well in the UK is the notion of 'tea time.'While pursuing my graduate studies in England I recall my college had tea-times, one at eleven and the other at half past two if I am not mistaken.

While I often missed the morning tea time due to classes, I was often back in college for the afternoon break. It, for me and many others, came to be a much looked forward to time where we could all, even if for fifteen minutes, could break the monotony of the day, come up for air and rejuvenate our minds and bodies with tea and a few chocolate covered cookies!

So why the nostalgia for communal coffee pots and tea pots. I was thinking about this when reading an article in St. Anthony Messenger's December issue about the rise in the individual serve cups, or even the permeation of coffees hops and Starbuck's all designed around the purpose to make coffee "just the way you like it.". But what, the article asks, are we loosing at the cost of the individual coffee, the single serve automatic, convenience?

Well think about it, if your workplace has one of these single serve coffee pots, when was the last time you took a break with another, just to have a few moments respite? When you refill your coffee, and head back to your desk, you may speak to someone, but it's always back to work, cup of coffee in hand. The one thing missing as we lose the idea of the break room, or the tea time, is a space where it is culturally acceptable for employees to stop, chat and have a bit of coffee before going on their way. What is missing is the exchange of ideas that occur when people come together for dedicated time each day to replenish their bodies and awaken their minds.

Unfortunately, I do not see workplaces going back to the notion of pots of coffee...it's not cost effective. Nor do I see US workplaces having a tea time, since it is not quite a part of culture here as it is in the UK. But within my household, friends are always welcome for a pot of coffee... No invitation, no texts, no call needed. Just some water, coffee, milk and sugar, stories and ideas. That gets me through the day.

Monday, January 7, 2013

What can Yoga teach us about work-life balance?

This evening, for the first time in about two years, I entered my Unity Woods yoga studio to take a class. I was so nervous that I misread the time and arrived nearly an hour early. I shyly introduced myself to the teacher, notably the same person I had two years ago, who asked, "Are you certain Level II is ok for you?". Not wanting to admit maybe I was a tad rusty, I quickly replied yes. I am rarely one who back down from a challenge anyway.

I entered the dressing room where piece by piece I took off the strippings of corporate life. I replaced my hair piece and jewelry for an unadorned ponytail, my skirt and blouse for a simple T-shirt and shorts, and my heels for bare, slightly chipped painted toenails and feet. As I walked into the studio, I breathed deeply, feeling incredibly grounded and connected to the world around me as my feet softly padded through the dimly lit space.

"Om!"...the words escaped my lips as the memory of the days work slowly faded into the background. I slowly progressed through the poses, surprised at both how difficult the simple stances were, yet slightly surprised that my body remembered the movements from the past decade of on and off again Iyengar yoga practice.

At the end of the session, while meditating in in shivasana pose, I started to recognize the lessons anyone can lean from yoga that relate to work life balance. It seems that with the prevalence of new technologies and ways of working there are an incredible amount of articles dedicated to the idea of work-life balance. On one end you have more traditional persons decrying how people being connected at all times is causing serious detriment to not just our work, but our society as a whole as we forget how to relate to one another I face to face conversations. On the other hand people argue that the ability to connect remotely allows people to have more time at home, as they have time with family and friends and can still get on the computer at various times to complete work.

For the record I tend, to the consternation of my fellow colleagues in the Millennial generation, to go for the more traditional route that we all need time to unplug everyday. And here's why...

Yoga is based, from my limited understanding, on two principles: strength and flexibility. Today at my first practice in two years, I saw both principles in stark reality. To begin, the first ten minutes or so of the class today was focused on deep forward bends. For this runner's body, the stretches were a harsh reminder of how inflexible I can be. Both literally and in how I segment my day. As my muscles loosened I reflected on how regimented I had been in the course of my workday; and how that regimentation may have prevented me from a conversation or insight into a problem I had.

During my experiences of flexible work arrangements I have been so protective of what little time in the office I have that I have been accused of being cold, snobby, or overtly professional. This is not the way to be... But that feeds into the second yoga principle of strength.

Did I mention that i went to a Level 2 class today? That meant that in today's class we were already doing head and hand stands. As I lifted my legs up to the wall to do a modified hand stand, I could not believe how much my arms started to shake, and my knees felt weak. I just ran 10 miles this weekend... And a simple yoga pose was kicking my butt! That was when I realized that though yoga seems to outsiders as a flimsy thing for a bunch of hippies to do on a weeknight, holding some of the inverted (upside down) poses requires incredible strength of the entire body. And when it comes to work life balance the same is needed. It is not easy to leave work early to attend to a health issue; it is not easy to be the one person who does not answer emails because you are taking care of your kids; it requires incredible strength to stand up to a boss or a client and let them know their demand are just plain crazy.

And what is more is that this strength doesn't just happen. It is the result of months, if not years of careful reflection and study. There is no way I could do a free standing hand stand today... In fact it could take me years to master the pose. The same is true for mastering the politics of a flexible work arrangement. It takes a lot of time, patience, discipline and practice to get it "right ".

And that brings me to a final thought about yoga. It is different for everyone who practices. Some people can bend over and touch their toes immediately. Others can balance on one foot with their hands up in the air. And still others can tie themselves in a pretzel knot and still carry on a conversation. But only the very rare can do all three.

The same is true for work life balance. Not all of us can do everything. Ok yes there are the rare individuals who seem to be the energizer bunny, for whom three hours of sleep a night is plenty, who can be the best parent ever and the best worker, oh yes and who can run a foundation in their "free time," but for most of us the reality is somewhere in between.

So go ahead and let the practice meet you where you are. Don't focus on what others around you are doing, just practice within your limits. Don't force your body or kind to bend in ways in which you are not ready. If you do, you could wind up getting hurt.... Both literally and mentally. Like yoga, recognize the place where the stillness of the mind meets the action of the body, and recognize you are exactly where you are meant to be

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Movie review of 洗澡 (Shower - 1999)

Greetings all!  My apologies for the delay in posting.  My mind was officially full after the AAA Conference, and I needed a few minutes to wrap my mind around all that I learned.   In the meantime, for my Chinese class, I watched the movie 洗澡, translated as "Shower."

To begin the translation is not the best, as the movie actually takes place in a public bath house in Beijing.  But it was a really interesting film, discussing the themes of parental love, devotion, disabilities and also the impact of rapid modernization on people's lives.

In the movie, a young man Da returns home after a letter written by his mentally handicapped younger brother, Er Ming, indicates that his father has died.  Upon returning home and realizing his father is very much alive, Da decides to hang around when he learns that their district is slated to be torn down for a new mall and residences.

The movie is decidedly male-centric, revolving around the relationships of fathers, sons and friends - and how they are all impacted by the upcoming move by the state to take over their area and raze it to the ground to make way for more development.  I found that this theme, the underlying tension of old versus new, tradition versus modernity, values versus money to be perhaps the most moving part of the story.

When I was in an undergraduate course in Anthropology on Modern China and its roles with minorities, one of the groups we studied were the persons in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities who were displaced due to recent construction.  One book in particular, Strangers in the City, I remember distinctly as it showed the tension of persons who've lived in neighborhoods for generations being displaced to make way for more modern development.  In the case of the author's research, these people were migrants from outside Beijing who took advantage of China's increasingly lax travel restrictions to find good paying jobs in the city.  This differs from the characters in the movie, who had been in Beijing for generations, running their own businesses and developing the relationships with both the land and the people around them.

But the entire process of relocation is an interesting topic to me, especially given the greater international spotlight on it during the lead up to the 2008 Olympics.  During that time. areas the government deemed to be too old, or slums, or considered to be the "unsightly" old parts of the city were destroyed for new construction, from everything from malls, new housing complexes, and even the Olympic stadium.

Now while modern is not always a bad thing (sometimes it is preferable), what I found interesting about the whole underlying theme of the movie and of reconstruction of China in general is that often what people want to see when they visit other countries are these more 'traditional' neighborhoods.  And in destroying them, not only are lives and lifestyles uprooted and shifted, but much more cultural richness is lost.  And that was the sad part of this movie.  At the end you felt as though you were closing the book on a chapter in history - that from that time forward no one would know the stories, the struggles, the joys and the pain that once existed in that spot.

I suppose it is all just a matter of time...

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Politics of Knowledge and the Elite-ing of the Entrepreneur

My first day at the American Anthropological Association has been a complete blur.  The behemoth that they call a program guide, and the mass of anthropologists convening in the hotel lobby have left me at once breathless, amazed and, as one professor put it "bright-eyed and bushy tailed!"  So much to learn, so many people to meet, so many opportunities to expand my mind.

However, some of my earliest sessions quickly put a damper, or rather lifted the veil of ignorance/naivete that  I had on prior to attending the conference.  I went to one session early yesterday morning, with two very distinguished professors, Dr. George Mentore (UVA) and Dr. Michael Harking (U of Wyoming), both of whom are or have been editors of major Anthropological journals.  They were giving a workshop on how to get published in a peer reviewed anthropological journal.  I found what tidbits they gave to be quite interesting, and not too surprising.  For example, don't just write something because you think you ought to - write something because you believe in it.  Write something you can defend, that you have done your research on, etc.  They explained that often young writers are 'run through the gauntlet' of professional academics who will challenge their ideas and assumptions, purely because they can.  However, if you fully agree with and stand by your statement, that it is not worth sacrificing the integrity of your views, just to have a gold star of a "published author" next to your name.  

Then Dr. Mentore said a phrase that caught my attention.  He called it the "Politics of Knowledge," that is knowing who you are writing for, his or her views, and how you can state your own views to advance your own career, without pissing off the 'academic elite' (my words).  The phrase Politics of Knowledge really struck a chord with me, as a knowledge worker.  Much of what I do, or rather the consulting industry, the political industry, the media and much of what we consider white collar workers do is distribute knowledge.  Professors, too, and the education industry fall in this category as well.  As the economic trends of the 21st century have emerged and legitimized themselves, we begin to see that the economy of the future is one of knowledge (re) distribution.  The old moniker "Knowledge is Power" comes to mind.  And yet, the advent of the online medium for sharing knowledge has cast a light on the power structures within the knowledge economy.  

Bill Eggers writes in a recent article that in the new economy, workers will have to redefine themselves (and their skill sets) approximately every five years to remain relevant.  And that the knowledge one learns in college is no longer useful about five years into the professional workplace.  So then, if knowledge is power and there is a politics to knowledge, are the new social castes of the future going to be played out in who owns the knowledge, and who is seen as "gatekeepers" of the legitimacy of your knowledge?  Who will be the tenured professors of the future who, with the stroke of a pen (or a keypad) can legitimize or forever destroy ones' career?  

My theory is one that came from another talk at the AAA conference.  One by a graduate student, Leslie Mitts of University of Pennsylvania who argues that the new elite class is that of the entrepreneur - specifically those entrepreneurs who are employed within accelerator organizations.  She argues that these accelerators recruit like minded people, often from the same institutions of legitimacy as the Ivy League schools - perpetuating a an intense cycle of elitist knowledge holding and idea generation that is becoming harder and harder for the true average-joe entrepreneurs to crack.  And there is a new form of a co-presence of space in these accelerators, creating a whole new community, to which many want to belong (even if for a few months).  It is become another stamp or seal of approval to prove ones worth as an "independent and innovative thinker."  

I see it here in San Francisco  where you can't throw a stone without hitting  a so-called entrepreneur.  But yet, the very definition of an entrepreneur, as someone who "one who organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise," with its root in the word 'enterprise' meaning "a project or undertaking that is especially difficult, complicated, or risky" is by its definition very vague and non-descript (definitions courtesy of Merriam Webster's Dictionary).  There is no limitation, nor should there be, to who can be an entrepreneur.  So then why in this new world of increasing focus on innovation and becoming the next Steve Jobs has it become something only the elite classes can accomplish to be taken legitimate?  

I believe in the next few years we need to be very careful and purposeful about how we manage knowledge - and the attitudes we take when sharing.  The beauty of the internet is that it allows for sharing, whether its an online blog that supersedes the 'institution' of a peer-reviewed journal, or that of an average person being able to learn about a new skill set or a new trade without having to pay for an expensive education - the lines of legitmacy of knowledge are being drawn.  We need to make certain that it is inclusive, and really come to question what isthe politics of knowledge - and how is it that we play as actors within it.