F has been talking a lot about strengths.

I am interested in strengths, because I teach, and I want people to be able to use their strengths to help them learn. And a big chunk of my own life involves learning, or quite often failure to learn, so I want to be better at it.

I’m getting there, slowly. I am twice the learner I was since F and I got into a conversation, a couple of years ago now, about learning styles and about how highly visual she thought I was (I then proved her point by winning an argument, over the phone, about whether or not she had freckles). I had, in F’s parlance, a moment of clarity: my name is Curious Bunny and I am a visual learner.

What I have been working on since then, in fits and starts, is how I can make this lopsided ability work for me. Because I have a terrible memory. Terrible. I can remember clear as day where I was and when we had such-and-such a conversation (and frequently what you were wearing at the time), but I can’t remember much about the conversation at all. And this happens all the time: at home, at work, you name it. Serious Bunny has learned that if I am to understand something complex, then it must have pictures, or at the very least examples.

So I figured, if I’m all that when it comes to visual detail, how about I try using it, instead of being hamstrung by it. And so, over about the last year, I’ve been trying to use my visual memory to claw back all the context that I can muster, in order to try and re-experience conversations or learning environments, and hopefully pluck out the things I want to remember.

I’m having mixed results. I tried this with a colleague at work – who is similarly-abled, though he has the added gift of understanding abstraction, whereas I do not – when we were trying to remember the contents of a conversation. We sank ourselves back into the visual context and we nearly had it, but the crucial details escaped us. But on the other hand, I’ve been able to go back and reconstruct once-seen movie trailers, in search of the movie title. I can go back and piece together the visual elements of long walks taken in unfamiliar cities, and find what I need to find, even years afterwards. Recently, I had good fun trying to picture each word on the page while Serious Bunny read to me (it was exhausting! But it helped a bit).

I’m still practicing. I keep a paper week-view diary, and once I’ve written things in it, I can usually remember them (yes, I am also partly a kinesthetic learner). My latest exercise is, at the start of the week, to review the whole week’s appointments in my mind before I actually open the diary, and I’m getting most of them right. (Incidentally, I also have an electronic diary on my phone, but I only use that for reminders/alarms – because the writing and the appointments all look identical, my visual memory can’t get much purchase on it. But, kinesthetic learner: the act of programming it into the phone is usually enough to make me remember it.)

Can I improve my memory? I think so, with practice and discipline. I am inclined towards neither, but I want to not suck at remembering information. So.

Learning styles as a concept goes in and out of fashion (I think someone recently told me it’s coming in again, but who knows; it’s hard to keep up). I’d like to see more use of it in real life, as well as in the classroom. I’m a big advocate of working with what you’ve got, and I’m pretty sure everyone’s got strengths, so perhaps we should spend more time fostering those.

I’m not challenged by the abstract; I’m visually gifted. Ha.

(Title is from Thom Yorke’s And It Rained All Night)

We are simply his slaves

September 17, 2008

I do not pull my weight in the house.

There are several reasons for this, some rational and some bad.

My flatmate, V, is much cleaner than I am, for example. She minds when the kitchen is dirty, and I don’t really. So she cleans it more often than I do. QED.

She is a natural-born cook and I am a learner. So she cooks more often than I do.

She has always done for herself, and I had a cleaner until last year. So she is conscious of chores that need to be done, and I still expect someone else to do them for me. I am quite happy to empty the bin and clean out the litter tray if reminded, but I do not remember on my own. So quite often she ends up doing them more than half the time because it’s easier than reminding me when I get home.

She does the garden. That’s not actually out of order per se, because I said when I moved in that I was not going to do the garden except for the odd bit of hired manual labour, so I am not reneging on the deal here. But it still adds to the imbalance.

I’m rather tidier than she is, but the problem with tidying is that you can only really do it for yourself, not for someone else. I don’t know where all her things live, and if they’re not in their places then there’s probably a good reason for it and I will muck up her system by putting them away. So I keep my stuff pretty tidy most of the time, but this is not a major contribution to the smooth running of the household.

There is one job that I do much, much better than she does, however. You guessed it. Laundry.

My endless passion for clothes is well documented. I’d write here more about it if it weren’t for the fact that (a) I am not sure SJ would approve, and (b) I can’t really convince myself that anyone else is interested in my wardrobe.

V does not look after her clothes very well. She leaves them all over the floor. She forgets to zip her lingerie into the protective bag before it goes in the wash. Sometimes she leaves her clean laundry in the washing machine for too long, and it has to be washed again. I am too narcissistic to do anything like that.

So, as of tonight, I am taking over the laundry. It kills three birds with one stone. Firstly, I will be closer to pulling my weight, which would clearly be a Good Thing. Secondly – and most importantly; we’re making a big deal about this at the moment – washing will be more environmentally friendly. No more half-loads. Finally, I will no longer have to be offended by the mess that V makes of her tights I will be able to contribute my particular expertise to the smooth running of the household.

I’m most interested in strengths. I am doing a lot of coaching around strengths right now, asking my clients: How could you use more of your strengths to get what you want? The answers are fascinating, and so is the energy around the question. People want to use their strengths. They are happy using their strengths.

Clothes is a strength of mine. I’m happy to do as much laundry as needed (although I draw the line at matching Hano’s socks). I just walked into V’s room and picked up all the clothes on the floor and folded them and I felt energised and cheerful doing it. I don’t feel like that when cleaning the bathroom.

This is a good way to divide up household chores. I probably have other strengths that can be brought to bear in this arena, although I’m not immediately sure what they are. We could maybe work on this.

I have been doing a lot of clothes shopping on eBay.

This is a quite different experience from normal shopping. For a start, they seem to sell the kind of clothes I actually wear. In addition to that, almost everything costs less than a tenner. (It would not be true to say that everything on eBay costs less than a tenner, but the clothes I buy do. Obviously no-one else has the same taste as me, which I could get worried about if I could be bothered.)

On the minus side, I can’t try them on before I buy and I have to judge from photos. So I’ve ended up with a couple of jackets that are all the wrong shape, and a ravishing pair of shoes that are too small for me. That’s okay – there’s always the clothes swap. And in the last month, I have acquired about seven jackets, the rapidly-becoming-fabled snakeskin peep toe high heels (for £4.50 including postage), black patents (also high heels, why do you ask?) and some very good face cream for about half its retail price. And a couple of dresses are winging their way to Foxtrot Road even as I write. (I’ll need jackets if I get a job. There’s the work connection. Hah.)

I’ve paid a little over £100 for the lot, and most of that was the face cream.

It’s a whole new shopping strategy. I put in very low bids on lots of items and get a few of them. There’s a pleasing randomness to it. It’s not consumerism – nothing new is being manufactured to feed my habit. It’s kinda disposable shopping, in that I’m expecting a certain proportion of purchases to be wrong. And that’s okay, because I’m paying an average of about £12 per item. I can afford for a certain proportion of purchases to be wrong. But it is not like any other kind of shopping I have ever done before.

And my wardrobe is being upgraded, because I am finding clothes that I actually want, rather than what is fashionable this season. I lived in a green velvet jacket for eleven years, and then it died (funny, that) and I was lost and bereft. And now I’ve found the identical jacket, in burgundy and exactly my new size. I have found a brown dress that’s almost identical to the black dress that I’d live in if it weren’t black, which doesn’t suit me. And it might not fit, but it’s worth the risk.

I spend a lot of time thinking about my clothes. I know this is not the kind of interest I should put on my CV, and I do still feel a little ashamed of it. I always feel I should have grown-up interests like politics or history or classical literature. (Actually, I really should write a post about this. My interests are so demotic compared to those of my family, with the sole exception of my love of Wagner.) But I get better and better at taking simple pleasure in my wardrobe. And it does make me happier than almost anything.

I have always hated my voice.

I am not a believer in blaming my childhood for my adult woes, but there are reasons why I hated my voice. I was a very extraverted child brought up by a very introverted father, who was continually telling me to be quiet. I was a Southern middle-class child educated in a Northern comprehensive school, and my voice was wrong and mocked for being wrong. I spoke very fast and often people couldn’t understand me.

I remember how hard I would try not to say anything to the bus driver as I put down my 20p piece, so that no-one would hear my voice.

But I wasn’t silenced. It’s not possible to silence me. I have too much to say. I got more and more embarrassed about saying it, and hated myself more and more for not being able to shut up – but I couldn’t. Talking is one of the things I’m on the planet to do.

As I got older, things slowly started to shift. I discovered I could sing, which helped. I discovered that my voice might be odd but it was also sexy, and that was important to me. But I remained convinced that the way I sounded was wrong, different. I felt that my voice marked me as different, as an impostor, that people could see right through the sophisticated facade to the gauche teenager beneath. I cringed inside whenever I had to speak.

But I still talked. I talked and talked. I couldn’t help it. The more I tried to silence myself, the more I needed not to be silent.

I’ve worked on my voice almost as much as I’ve worked on my appearance. I’ve tried to slow it down, to change the timbre and the accent, to make it calmer, more modulated and controlled. I’ve done vocal exercises, breathing exercises, diction exercises. I’ve had a million singing lessons.

Then, at the end of last month, I sat down with some people to take a look at my spending plan. And they pointed out that I’m always spending money on things to make me a better person. I spend money on yoga lessons, which would be fine if I loved yoga – but I find yoga very difficult. It hurts. And similar. They asked me, ‘why are you spending your money on things that hurt?’ And they asked, ‘what do you actually want to spend your money on?”

And, without thinking about it very much, I said, “acting classes”. It was a bit of a breakthrough moment.

And today I had my first acting class. It was a revelation.

It was a revelation because I was able to admit something to myself, for the first time ever. I love performing. I am totally me when I am performing. I have believed all my life, with every fibre of my being, that I ought to be quiet. But in fact this belief is not true. I am not here to be quiet. Performing is one of the things that I am here to do.

And it was a revelation because I am really good at it. I am not the eight-year-old with the funny voice. I am an adult woman and I have talent. After I gave one of my presentations, the rest of the class was saying, ‘It’s a plant. She’s an actress, isn’t she?’

I am not writing this to be immodest, truly I’m not. This is really news to me. I kept expecting the feedback, ‘Change this, change that’. But instead I got, ‘Stop trying to change anything. Be yourself. Use your voice. It is perfect exactly the way it is.”

I don’t have the words to explain how huge this is for me.

Earlier this week I was interviewing someone about their strengths in the workplace. And, because despite all this work I still have a considerable ego, I then turned to interviewing myself in my head.

It’s rather amazing that I’m able to tell a coherent story of my strengths in the workplace. In the past, I would either have told you (meaning it) that I had no strengths in the workplace, or I would have lied and told you some inflated stories about things that I could pretend had gone well. But I would have been thinking, of course, Megabank Corp (or insert name of company as appropriate) never really gave me a chance to use my strengths. I was quite sure that when I found the right environment, my genius would finally be able to flower and be acknowledged.

I don’t believe either of these stories now, thank the Lord. It’s hard to decide which one is more unhelpful. I know that I have strengths that I can use in the workplace and I also know that there are areas where I am not strong. I could now answer interview questions truthfully on either subject, without defensiveness or resentment.

The second is harder to answer than the first, because I have changed so much this year. It’s a bit of a generalisation, but for the most part my workplace strengths are strengths of skill, whereas my workplace defects have been defects of character. I have screwed things up at work because I have been very emotionally reactive, because I have taken everything personally, because I have had very messed-up ideas about what I am responsible for. (Everyone else, but not me, broadly. Any flaw in that logic?) I have screwed things up at work because I have been paralysed by my perfectionism and fear of failure, because I have carried approval-seeking to pathological lengths, because I have taken my drama addiction into the workplace. I’m sure there are more.

I’m not here to say that I’ll never do any of these again at work. They’re habits that I’ve practised assiduously for sixteen years, and they’re not going to go overnight. But the balance has shifted. I now know I am doing it, and, more importantly, I now know that I am responsible for it. I’m no longer emotionally reactive. (I just checked this on the phone with my flatmate. It really is true.)

I hope this doesn’t sound like I will be a perfect employee. I am quite, quite sure that I will have new weaknesses at work. It’s just that I don’t know what they will be. My concentration span is still not great – I’m working hard on that one, but it is a difficult change and I think it will be a while before the balance shifts. (I’m not certain it would be a great idea to admit to that in an interview.)

The other thing that comes to mind is that I still make things more difficult for myself than they need to be. I am very bad at keeping it simple. I don’t have a great judgment about when to keep working on something and when to compromise. I get things done, but I often make heavy weather of it and tire myself out unnecessarily. I have achieved more this month than in any other month of my life – and I’m proud of it – but my goodness I have been exhausted for a lot of it and, if I’m honest with myself, that probably wasn’t necessary. I don’t yet know how not to do that.

It’s a journey, and starting a new job will be a new phase. It won’t be what I expect. And maybe I’ll never even get asked that in an interview. But it feels good. I have strengths, and I have weaknesses. Just like everyone.

This post is not for Ankaret, because it is about evangelism and that is very much Not Her Thing. You have been warned, m’dear.

Not particularly Christian evangelism, although I expect I’ll get to that. Any evangelism will do. (Sung to the tune of ‘Any dream will do’, from Joseph, clearly.)

Moi, I am evangelical about the following: Being stylish*. Having some kind of a spiritual life**. Twelve-step programmes.. Aloe vera, both to drink and to put on your skin. Mindfulness meditation. I’m sure there are other things I’ve forgotten. ***

Before you decide that I must be hell to be around (that’s a whole ‘nother post), let us examine what I mean by evangelical. Because mostly I do not evangelise, at least I don’t think I do. (My flatmate might disagree about the aloe vera.)

I’d like to, don’t get me wrong. I’d really like to spend the whole day telling everyone about all these wonderful things that have changed my life so much. I would like everyone to have a chance to benefit from this great stuff – and I really do believe that practically everyone would do so. I think the world would be infinitely better if we all practised transcendence and living in the present, and if we all worked step ten on a regular basis.

However.

When is the last time you did something because someone else told you how good for you it would be? For most of my life, I have pretty much gone out of my way to do the opposite of what was suggested to me, and I’ve noticed consistently that other people do the same. It’s one of Frankie’s Laws of Change: people do not like being told what to do. (I do believe that people change through admiration of others. I think I’ve written here before that one of my favourite quotes is from St Francis of Assisi: “Evangelise wherever you go and, if necessary, use words.)

So I’ve never really understood evangelism. How does it work? Why does it work?

I have recently got to know someone who is an evangelical Christian. He is a really, really great guy. But in our first conversation he suggested that I should come to HTB with him. As it happens, I might sometime, because I really like evangelical services. The singing is fantastic. But it’s not my particular aisle of the broad church that is Christianity, and I would have guessed that I am more likely to be warm towards the idea than most people he asks. I can’t imagine how many times his offer’s been rejected, and I would guess that sometimes that’s accompanied by harsh words, harsh judgments and / or a real sense of invasion and offence.

I’m fascinated. What does it take to keep doing that? I’m torn between admiration of the principle and the struggle to understand the kind of mind that thinks it’s the best way to work – or, even if they can see the pitfalls, so deeply believes it’s the right thing to do that they do it anyway. (Did I get the pronouns right in that sentence?)

I am not that person. I’d like everyone to have the great things that I have. But I don’t think it is my job to make it happen. And I don’t think I could make it happen, even if I felt far more deeply about it than I do.

* That’s a technical definition in my world. It does not involve being fashionable, trying to look like someone else, defining oneself in terms of one’s appearance and various other things designed to enslave women. That’s a whole ‘nother post too.

** Please note that this does NOT mean believing in God. Not not not not not.

*** This is actually quite a small sub-set of the list of things that I’m passionate about and would like to share with the world. I really do get that there are some things that work for me but wouldn’t work for everyone, which is why black cats are not on this list.

I think this is a great post. I identified with a lot, especially “A lot of my problems with work over the years have stemmed from the feeling that I wasn’t doing all I could, that I ought to be achieving more.”

I was a high flyer. In school I got top marks without, um, ever doing any work at all. In college, likewise. This has had many consequences for me, not all bad. But one is that there’s always been a little voice in my head, repeating, “People are looking at you. You can’t let them see you fail.” That hasn’t been particularly helpful, because, as Trunk and SJ point out, the standard of achievement against which I am judging myself is of course a myth. (And other people aren’t thinking about me anyway, except in the vaguest of terms.)

I also agree with SJ that what we are taught in schools does not fit us well for adult life. I cannot imagine a circumstance under which I will be called upon to solve a partial differential equation. I adore knowing Latin, but its only value in my life is for crosswords and showing off. The only things I regularly use that I learned in school are English grammar and typing.

It is of course more complicated – my academic skills have some value, even if my knowledge doesn’t. It’s useful to be able to tell real from false logic, to be able to analyse each situation and look for the patterns that unite them. It’s exceptionally useful to be able to read. But I think SJ’s right to point out that, without the requisite social skills, the careers in which I can be successful are limited, whatever my abilities. Rocket science, IT, engineering, that thing in investment banking where you work out the value of obscure structured finance products, or the Treasury – and that’s about it. (Counter-intelligence, perhaps?)

I’ve spent most of my adult life teaching myself the social skills I need. It’s been hard going, and I’ve often been very resentful of the fact that I’ve had to do it myself. I used to go round posturing about how it would be different when I Am In Charge: children would be taught things that would be of use to them, such as listening and cooking and self-awareness and how to live within one’s income and where to find the main stopcock and why good manners are a Good Thing. (And reading.)

But it’s not quite that simple. If I look back on myself as a teenager, could anyone actually have got me to pay attention to such lessons? Was the environment safe to practice them? Could I have understood them, and why they were useful? If I wasn’t willing to study language and literature, would I really have shown up for personal development?

It’s a conundrum. I disliked school very much indeed, and it is true to say that it didn’t fit me for the world. Personally I no longer want to blame the institution for that, because I prefer to take the responsibility. I don’t like the idea of being a victim of my school days twenty years on. But I’m also aware that I am very privileged, and I should not generalise from my own experience.

I also think that Ros is right (in comments) to question the roles of the school and the parent. Carol Craig, whom I admire, points out* that a major danger of incorporating social and emotional aspects of learning into the curriculum is that it is letting parents off the hook for their part of the civil contract. To her, the privilege argument is irrelevant – we are disempowering all children by doing this. It doesn’t matter that some parents have more resources than others.

I absolutely agree that we could get a lot better at scoping education so that it is useful for both the individual and society, but I’m not certain I’d start from there.

* The main report is 100 pages, but there’s an 18 page ‘summary’ hiding somewhere on the site if you’re really interested.