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.

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. (

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.

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, 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 may just be onto the next big thing.