It's OK for intellectual feminists to like fashion

Blog title from Hadley Freeman's book The Meaning of Sunglasses : "Prada styles itself as the label it's OK for intellectual feminists to like".

The author is a bilingual fashion editor, writer and translator with a serious blog, cinema and magazine habit.

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We’ve all had a co-worker or a friend, often a man, who likes to brag about only getting four or five hours sleep a night and being able to function perfectly. However, he rarely makes the connection between his sleeping pattern and how irritable he might be, or the mistakes he might make…

Sleep, or rather the lack of it, has been on my mind a lot lately, and not just because of confirmation bias. Last month, Stylist ran a feature about how “you look tired” was the worse thing you could say to a woman (the article failed to explain why it wasn’t as cruel to men). Before that, BBC News had published a first-person account by Michael Mosley on how sleeping one additional hour every night can change your life. When I told Ashley Milne-Tyte, expert in women in the workplace and founder of The Broad Experience blog and podcast, I was writing this article, she reminded me Harvard was on a mission “to get companies to take sleep seriously and add it to their health and wellness programmes”; part of an initiative branded Re-start America.

At the time, Milne-Tyte was working on a radio segment for Marketplace about how “showing up to work tired is just like showing up to work drunk”. Apparently, US companies lose $63 billion a year due to sleep deprivation. There is no hard data in the UK but in 2008, The Telegraph suggested the issue “costs the economy millions” while a 2010 study by health insurance company Bupa claimed it costs the country £1.6 billion in sick days. 

I made the only serious mistake I’ve ever made at work less than 24 hours before a June menswear show, around 3pm on a Friday afternoon, having slept less than six hours in total since the Wednesday morning. I deleted 50 rows from a mission critical Google Doc. This being Google Doc, the mistake was fairly easy to repair, in theory. Except it took me longer than it should have to remember that the revision history function existed, let alone how to use it. And it’s not the only reflex that had gone awry. Doing my little post mortem the week after, I could remember thinking, before I started deleting, that the Excel filtering function had changed. Lack of sleep stopped me from realising I was working on the source Google Doc, rather than on the Excel download I thought I had opened. 

People tend to discover the value of sleep after sleep deprivation upsets their lives. At The Shriver ReportKaren Brody explains how, as the under-slept mother of two toddlers, she started suffering from anxiety attacks in a supermarket, which forced her to take pills for three years. Pat Byrne founded Fatigue Science, a Canadian start-up selling fatigue management technologies, following his nephew’s death in an accident due to sleep deprivation. Arianna Huffington hit her head after fainting because of tiredness and sustained a head injury. 

This accident turned Huffington into a sleep campaigner. Addressing a TEDWomen audience in 2011, she argued that sleeping to your body, soul and brain’s content had the potential to unlock ideas, make you more productive and more creative. Sleep deprivation has been linked to memory loss, the difficulty to process information and heightened irritation. It has been used in Guantanamo. It is recognised as a method of torture by the UN and international law because “ongoing sleep deprivation is an extraordinarily cruel form of torture which leads to a breakdown of the nervous system and to other serious physical and psychological damage” (International Society for Human Rights definition).

When you read the pros and cons of getting enough sleep, why anyone would willingly choose the opposite becomes a mystery. And I don’t think it’s just because their addled, sleep-deprived brains can’t process the information on the topic. I think it’s because not sleeping much has become linked to virility and power, which might be why it’s ok to tell men, but not women, that they look tired. There is a romanticism attached to the idea of not sleeping enough: working hard with a team throughout the night to solve an issue, staying up all night to talk about life and philosophy on a Left Bank cafe, cramming for finals etc. There is also a self-importance to it: if you are going to sacrifice what many see as a basic human need, surely it means what you are doing is more serious than what everybody else is. 

Hollywood, as with many contemporary mores, is partially to blame. One of my big frustrations with The West Wing was that, although it was regularly suggested they pulled long hours, administration members never seemed tired, unless it was a plotline requirement. Even then, it was exaggerated tiredness, the type where you sleep in your office, borrow a co-worker’s shirt the next morning because yours stinks and survive on a cocktail of Red Bull-aspirin-eye drops. Sleep was to The West Wing, as it is to most TV shows, what money was to Sex and the City.

The thought that people in the upper echelons of the business and political world take pride in their lack of sleep scares me. A 2011 study by Duke University suggested 18-hour work schedules for traders was partially responsible for the financial crisis. The research, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, “evoked a strategy shift during risky decision making such that healthy human volunteers moved from defending against losses to seeking increased gains”.

I am always worried when I read interviews with leaders bragging about how they only need four hours a night. Margaret Thatcher was famously one of them, as was Winston Churchill. Or were they? In a BBC News article published shortly after Thatcher’s death, Tom de Castella highlights how their reputation for needing little sleep contributed to their political legend: “for the Iron Lady four hours was a badge of almost superhuman strength. It fits the narrative of the “warrior” prime minister”.

Castella quotes studies suggesting that about one percent of the population can function on four hours of sleep like the 99 other percent can on eight hours. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are a lot of them at the top because having 20 hours a day available means you get a four hours head start. 

Yet Castella also acknowledges there is a lot of one-upmanship on the topic, especially in competitive, testosterone-fuelled environments such as finance. If your colleague says he only gets five hours a night, you might feel the need to only get four or be perceived as less able. Whether or not he actually survives on five hours is another matter. Sleep is personal. You can get as much as you want, or as you can, and yet claim whatever you want. I feel about people who volunteer that they need very little sleep to function the way I feel about models and actresses who say they eat loads and never exercise: disbelief but on the off-chance it might be true, a bit of jealousy. 

Recently, my mentor challenged me to stop thinking my level of tiredness, which I let rule my life, is actually linked to me getting exactly the seven hours I think I need. His example was that for years, he was convinced that he would be exhausted unless he got eight hours a night, until he read a newspaper article which explained seven could be enough and changed the way he looked at sleep. Just like that, he stopped feeling tired on seven hours a night.

My sleep paradigm doesn’t so much revolve around how much sleep I think I need, rather that I have hard-wired my brain to think that unless I am asleep by 10pm, I will be exhausted the next day, no matter the amount of shut-eye I get. This came from a realisation, while at uni, that my most restful sleep was done by sleeping between 9pm and 1am, having an ‘awake’ period until about 2am and sleeping again until 5am. The awaken period used to freak me out, which in turn meant I couldn’t go back to sleep, until I started researching it and discovered segmented sleep is quite normal and is actually the pattern often followed in pre-industrial societies. It’s the perfect time to catch-up with your neighbour, go check the cattle or read a book. 

Whether it’s how we organise sleep, how much time we think we need, or the belief that we don’t need much, our views on sleep need to be challenged so we get real about what we need to be at our very best.

Posted at 2:11pm and tagged with: sleep, management, work, first person,.


* Please note this article contains potential spoilers for all three series of Forbrydelsen.

Having a strong, smart female lead at its heart in Sarah Lund (Sofie Gråbøl) is one of the reasons for the success of Forbrydelsen The Killing. The series is good, the acting first class but the plot lines aren’t groundbreaking, following the traditional codes of thriller writing, especially in series 3 which calls upon plot devices seen in previous installments. Throughout the series, Lund puts her job and search for justice first, to the price of personal sacrifices.

She follows her instinct. Lund is smart but her gut often knows something before her brain can articulate it, and she accepts it. Her extraordinary ability to solve the most complicated cases stems from her gift for linking clues no one else thinks of and her taking her reasoning further than anyone else.

"She’s at peace with herself". In a March 2011 interview with The Guardian, Sofie Gråbøl explains she picked her Faroe Island sweater because “It tells of a person who doesn’t use her sexuality – that’s a big point. Lund’s so sure of herself she doesn’t have to wear a suit.” She’s smart, she knows it, she’s not afraid of showing it and she doesn’t feel the need to fit in.

She’s unfazed by power. Lund has a gift for working cases linked to powerful Danish men, yet whether she’s dealing with a mayoral candidate (season 1) or a shipping magnate (season 3), she always makes them feel the law is above their influence and millions. To hammer the point home, the Forbrydelsen writers ensure a couple of corrupt policemen feature in the plot.

Her EQ is all over the place. Part of this not caring how she fits in means she doesn’t to show emotions, which puts her at odds with the victim’s parents in series 1. On an EQ-i Model of Emotional Intelligence, she’d rate low on emotional expression, impulse control but high on self-regard, independence and reality testing. Lund’s tendency to run away from feelings is a subplot of series 3, in her dealing with her son, her unfinished love story with her new Special Branch partner and the suggestion she’s still haunted by the death of her partner from series 1 (episode 4).

She disobeys orders and lies to get her way, but only if it’s the right thing to do. Lund’s goal is always the truth, and even though her means are never fully illegal, she often snoops beyond her mandate, particularly when in a war zone (series 2).

She cares little about consequences, in a way only a TV character can. I wouldn’t advocate going for a midnight walk with someone you suspect of being a repeated killer (series 2), or turning up at a morgue if you think a kidnapper might use it as a killing ground (series 3) but it seems to work for her.

She doesn’t know fear, whether it’s the fear of losing people or the fear of her own death.

She sticks to her values, a trait shared by the women in the show at the end of series 3, whether it’s killing a murderer who would otherwise walk free, wanting to reveal dodgy political and police dealings or wishing for more family time.

Posted at 10:00am and tagged with: TV series, career, management,.

I’m “the woman who resists” claims former French nuclear group Areva CEO Anne Lauvergeon on the cover of her autobiography. And resisted she did, against the anti-nuclear lobbies, the Greens, the CEOs who wanted to take her job and ultimately Nicolas Sarkozy. She tells of an exemplary career which took her from a working class family to leading nuclear expert thanks to a strong work ethic, a lot of hard work and an ability to meet the right people at the right time.

Never stop learning. Lauvergeon went to the best French schools, paid as much attention to humanities as she did to science. As a result, her autobiography is woven with literary references, her analyses of human behaviour based on philosophical concepts. When she criticises her peers, it’s often for their lack of knowledge in a field she’s expert in. Case in point: her arch ennemy Henri Proglio, EDF’s CEO who wanted to turn the electricity company into a nuclear leader without knowing much on the topic. Her culture and willingness to learn earned her mentors: Raymond Levy, who loved discussing La Fontaine’s Fables with her and got her her first job out of higher education looking after Paris’ quarries and underground network (a job she describes as a learning curve) and François Mitterrand, who took her for a walk in the park during a 1991 international summit to talk trees, 19th century literature and the French kings.

Don’t hesitate to refuse a big job if it’s wrong for you… In 2007, the newly elected Nicolas Sarkozy suggested Lauvergeon picked any government position she wanted. In 2011, he suggested she went for Air France CEO. She turned him down, explaining she had no experience in the field.

… But don’t hesitate to take a job that feels right against all odds and advice. In 1999, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin offered Lauvergeon the directorship of French nuclear company Cogema. The Greens had just totaled 10% of the votes in the European elections: nuclear was out whereas telecoms, where Lauvergeon was working, was in and rising. Yet she took the job and her first step in nuclear leadership.

Mentors matter. Lauvergeon learnt from the best from early on, writing her master’s thesis on the daily life of French CEOs, although she denies it inspired her to become one. Mitterrand, whom she (literally) bumped into while running in the Elysée palace corridors, supported her rise to deputy secretary general, Jacques Chirac supported her work at Areva and Sarkozy’s lack of support ultimately cost her her CEO job.

Show the same support to your peers and employees. “I knew this support, from time to time, made up for the harsh, hurting, unnecessary words you hear so often, and even more if you don’t fit in” (p.39).

Don’t make a fuss about being a woman but acknowledge it makes things different. Lauvergeon argues Prime Minister Edith Cresson, whom she worked with, was pilloried in a way no man would have been. When she first set foot on the factory floor at Usinor as an intern, Lauvergeon was something of a UFO: women were forbidden in the building. Cue a meeting with a manager working from a room papered with porn pictures. Many a Lauvergeon detractor and co-worked expected to take advantage of her pregnancies to move up at Areva.

Playing dumb can be the smartest move. As demonstrated during her first meeting with Francois de Grossouvre, a high ranking public servant who tried to impress her with his access to Miterrand, whom she’d just met; when reacting to Proglio swearing he hadn’t told national media dismantling Areva was the only way forward; when Sarkozy explained the Areva CEO, like the French President, was only allowed two mandates.

Be truthful. “I speak frankly, directly, without trying to stigmatise, break or mislead my interlocutor” (p.39). While deputy secretary general at the Elysée, she spoke against Prime Minister Pierre Bérégovoy and the entire government to encourage them to adopt a new policy on the CAP. Being supported by Mitterrand probably helped. Her first move at Cogema was to meet with the Green Environment minister, Dominique Voynet, to discuss the topics they agreed and disagreed on.

Time is the essence. “As a scientist, I used to be convinced a decision was the right decision. I learnt a decision was different whether taken at moment M or at moment M plus 24 hours. Not only do you need to find the right decision, you need to find the right time to apply it”. (p.96)

Anne Lauvergeon La Femme qui résiste(Plon, 2012). All translations my own

Posted at 8:51am and tagged with: career, management, book review,.

Ten reasons why the video of Pixar almost deleting Toy Story 2 resonates with all of us

A video of “How Pixar almost deleted Toy Story 2" due to an ill use of rm -r -f * has been making the tech blogs rounds this week. The (over?) dramatisation of the episode resonates with us all because we all use computers, we’re all familiar with the Toy Story trilogy and we’ve all made mistakes we never thought we’d overcome. Like Toy Story talking to our nostalgia and childhood memories, this video is universal because:

1 - It takes you behind the scenes of one of the most successful animation trilogy in history. Where you learn that they used Linux, had a single back-up they never checked and that “the master copies of characters, sets, animation, etc” were saved in databases “the frames were computed from”.

2 - It’s a big company owning up to its mistake. We’re Pixar, and we make great movies, but sometimes we f**k up like everyone else, because no matter how technologically advanced we are, there still is a human element to our work. And humans make mistakes, but they also solve them.

3- It’s a tale of a new mum saving the day because she worked from home. Mike Masnick at questions the legality of Galyn Susman’s home back-up, arguing that ” you would have to imagine that at a place like Pixar, there were significant concerns about things “getting out,” and so the policy likely wouldn’t have looked all that kindly on copies being used on home computers.” Or you can see it as a positive story, showing that companies really have nothing to lose in accommodating new mums’ wishes for flexible schedules.

4 - It reminds us why back-ups, especially the most unusual ones, matter. The single, never checked back-up seems farfetched for something as big as Toy Story 2, though not impossible. Buy that second external hard-drive/cloud space now.

5 - It’s a story anyone who works in IT can identify with, and which resonates with anyone who’s lost, or nearly lost, important work. Whether it was your master’s dissertation, the kid’s birthday pictures or Toy Story 2, we’ve all been screwed by over-reliance on technology at one point or another.

6 - It makes us feel smug. You and I losing documents due to a computer fiasco is one thing. A multi-billion dollar company doing the same is another entirely.

7 - It shows you can rebound from your mistakes, no matter how big, if you can solve them and learn from them. The film did come out in 1999 and has so far made nearly 246 million dollars (2.7 times its budget), Jacob became CTO of Pixar before founding Toy Talk and Susman is now producer for Pixar. Craig L. Good, camera artist at Pixar, answered on Quora that “many changes have been made, obviously including a killer backup system”.

8 - It doesn’t involve any finger pointing. No matter how tempting it might have been, especially at the time, the video doesn’t name the person whose rm * use started it all, nor does it specify what happened to that “clown”. Did he come out with his mistake himself? Did the logs identify him? Did he get fired?

9 - It shows everything gets better and more epic with the gloss of time and reminds us all of the importance of storytelling: they don’t focus on the disaster or linger on the stress and anxiety, they focus on how they solved the problem. “99% true… As far as we recall!” it says at the end of the video.

10 - It makes Toy Story 2, not the best episode of the Toy Story trilogy, more iconic: it’s the movie which could have not happened, or which could have been delivered really late. It was saved in an epic manner not unlike Woody’s own adventures. This video is Toy Story 1.5.

Posted at 3:15pm and tagged with: Classy film, management,.