Friday, September 12, 2014

Living with depression: update

A few months ago, I wrote about my experience of living with depression.

It was the first time I had made a public, explicit statement about it. It wasn't really a secret before, but neither had it been something that I had owned publicly and unequivocally.

Since then, Robin Williams - a fellow sufferer - has taken his own life, and many more people have begun to speak very openly about depression. About their own experiences with it, or about watching someone they loved dealing with it.

I took that death hard. So hard that my line manager even commented on it. I don't know if I can explain it without sounding melodramatic, but I guess when yet another sufferer decides to call time, it increases that sense that (a) my future might well hold a period of darkness deeper and blacker than any I've known before, which is really, really daunting and (b) how can I be sure that I might not one day wind up putting my own family through the same wringer?

I'm not sure if that was the trigger, but around that time, I found myself battling yet another bout of depression. It seemed so unfair. I still hadn't completely recovered from the last one (last year), so this was kicking me while I was down. Also, my husband is due to go away for a couple of weeks this month, and it heightens his anxiety to know that he is leaving a depressed wife behind.

I opted to be very open about it.
  • I made an appointment with my GP.
  • I told my manager at work.
  • I made it known on Facebook.
And the level of support has been astonishing.

I discussed my concerns with my GP. He asked me the usual questions and didn't adopt that overly solicitous attitude that some GPs adopt when posing the scripted questions they are obliged to ask about suicidal thoughts and other deeply personal issues.

I told him about my reluctance to become reliant on chemical assistance, but acknowledged that, under the circumstances, I might need to accept that it was the best thing to do. He prescribed Citalopram, which I started immediately.

I am still struggling with the side-effects, but hopefully those will fade in time. I discovered that my sister is taking them, too (for different reasons) and she was able to give me some tips (which I'll happily share if anyone is interested).

My manager was open and sympathetic - totally unfazed. She spoke to HR and found out about support services available through the company I work for. She checks in with me from time to time and maintains an open line of communication. If I feel unable to handle my workload, I know that she's got my back and will make a plan to ensure that the projects don't fail as a result.

As a result of her enquiries, I had a phone consultation with a counselor, who arranged for me to have six sessions with a local counselor, the first within 5 days of our phone call.

Somehow word got out at the office and initially, people walked on eggshells around me. But one or two staff members adopted a very matter of fact approach and chatted easily to me - not in hushed tones. I guess that openness and easiness caught on, and everyone has more or less relaxed. People have a short attention span after all, and more interesting things demand their attention.

The biggest surprise has been the response on Facebook. There are those who demand that Facebook should be like Lala land - all happy and funny and lighthearted and skip to my lou my darling. Occasionally one of my contact will wail about being exposed to negativity on Facebook ("this is not what I signed up for!!"). Some of those have chosen not to respond to my openness. Some of those have opted to express their support privately, through my Inbox. But the most pleasant response of all has been from those who have publicly (well, sort of) responded with their own experiences and expressions of support and understanding.

Of course, there has been the inevitable 'chin up' and 'listen to some happy music' type of response from people who clearly haven't got the remotest idea how depression works, and I'm happy for them that this is the case. I wouldn't wish the darkness on anyone.

I have better days and worse days. On both kinds of day, getting out of bed is tough. As you can imagine, it's tougher on the worse days. I've discovered from interactions on Facebook that bed is the safe place for many sufferers.

There have been two very helpful pieces for me, which I come back to, time after time and which I hope will help other sufferers, too, as we plod through this dark valley. The first is this one called Black Dog.

The second is this TED talk by the inspirational Andrew Solomon, which for some reason, refuses to be embedded here.

Oddly enough, my experiment with boycotting the 'like' button has also had a role to play. The common thread through both the links above is that depression is not the opposite of joy. It is in fact the opposite of vitality. I find myself disengaged, going through the motions. And I see clicking the 'like' button as symptomatic of that. So, unless I actually have something to say, I don't engage with a post at all. If I want to engage, I take the trouble to put that into words. It has meant that my interactions online have become fewer, but deeper. And I can't help but see this as a good thing.

I sincerely trust that my journey will encourage others to become more open about their own battles. It's time to shake off the stigma. In fact, as a fellow sufferer (someone I've known for well over 30 years) pointed out, perhaps it's time to stop talking about depression as a mental illness. After all, it's physiological in nature, being caused as it is by a chemical imbalance. In that way at least, it is no different from diabetes.


Friday, August 15, 2014

On quitting the 'like' button

I came across this article recently, and it struck a chord with me. So I decided to quit the 'like' button myself for a while and see what happened. And not just on Facebook, but on my company's intranet social spaces, too.

This 'like' thing is rather weird isn't it? I bestow upon your post my approval with my mighty 'like' button. Wait. What?

This puts me in mind of earlier conversations I've had about blog comments. Stephen Downes once said in a blog post I now can't find (it was a long time ago), that he didn't think he needed to respond to every comment on his blog posts. That they were perfectly able to stand in their own right and he wasn't arrogant enough to believe they needed validation from him. That has stayed with me (obviously), and when I read the article about the 'like' button, it occurred to me that it was a similar thing. Quite apart from the fact that the bots at Facebook towers are probably building a profile of me based on the things I like.

It can be a bit fraught. If five people comment on a post of yours, and you've 'liked' the first four, do you feel pressured to 'like' the fifth even if you don't like it? If you follow me.

It reminded me a bit of my grandfather. Bear with me. When I was little, my grandfather had this little noise he would make. Somewhere between a grunt and a 'yeah'. It meant "I know that you've spoken. I don't know what you've said, and I'm not really interested. But I acknowledge that you have addressed me." Since I was (you'll be astonished to learn) a chatterbox, I heard that noise a lot. A lot.

Isn't the 'like' button a bit like that?

So this is what I'm doing instead:

I will either engage with something enough to take the time to post a proper comment on it. Or I will let the post/comment stand on its own merit. The 'like' button is off limits for a while. And several of my Facebook friends have decided to join me.

How about you? Shall we turn this into a growing social experiment?

Thursday, August 07, 2014

...and I want to be a mechanical engineer

Steve Wheeler's 'I want to be an astronaut' post today describes his encounter with an overstretched, unsympathetic school guidance/careers counsellor. Inevitably, that put me in mind of my own experience. My title is a continuation of his.

Steve and I are roughly of an age, and, although we were educated in two very different countries, it seems our school careers advisers were cut from much the same cloth. Perhaps it was more to do with the way they were equipped for the job than with the sort of people they were, but I'm not entirely sure.

First came the IQ test woes. Ordinarily, we'd be tested once in primary school and once in secondary school and that would be it. Like everyone else, I was tested in primary school, and presumably the results showed nothing alarming or surprising.

When it came time for the high school test, however, it seemed my first assessment was so far at odds with the primary school test, that I was called for a retest the following year. I guess the results of that test were equally surprising, because I was tested yet again the year thereafter.

Oddly enough, the results of these tests were never revealed to us. Apparently, our IQ was none of our business. But, during one of my many run-ins with the head teacher, mine was made known to me. She declared that I was more intelligent than either of my two closest friends, and both of them were A students, while I was a solid C. Of course, the fact that I played just about every sport going, participated in every school play, was a member of several clubs and societies, while they did/were not, was clearly beside the point.

What a dismal underachiever I was.

Then came the dreaded aptitude tests. On a scale of 1-9 I scored a solid 7 across the board. During my 1:1 with the school guidance counsellor, I discovered that I could do whatever I wanted and - as long as I applied myself - I'd be good at it. This didn't help me, because I didn't know what career options even existed out there. How could I want to do something if I didn't know about it?

I thought about what I enjoyed doing and what I was good at, and decided I wanted to be a mechanical engineer. I wanted to design machinery that did stuff. Maybe cars, maybe production line equipment. The mechanics part of the physics syllabus was far and away my favourite bit, so I thought I might enjoy a career in which I got to do that all day.

Not so fast, kiddo!

My Mom couldn't afford university fees on her own, so I was going to need a student loan. Only it turned out banks in the late 70s were no way no how going to give a study loan to a girl who wanted to study such a manly subject as mechanical engineering. I'd never make it. The attrition rate was too high. Yadda yadda yadda. To give them their due, newspaper advertisements for mechanical engineering posts in South Africa at the time called for someone who was 'white, male, 25-35, with experience'. Through no achievement of my own, I was indeed white, but I was not and was never going to be male. At some point, I would presumably be 25-35, but how was I going to acquire experience if I was unemployable up to that age? No-one seemed to have the answers.

And thus began a round of the most interminable testing and visiting to student counsellors at universities and and and.

One such visit is indelibly imprinted on my memory. By now, I had figured out how to manipulate the tests to get the results I wanted. The student counsellor at the University of Port Elizabeth was perplexed by them: how could I test so high for teaching and so low for working with children? It simply didn't make sense!

This from a university staff member, mind you. A place where a fair amount of teaching took place day to day, and none of it to children. He failed to put two and two together, and instead advised me to get a PhD in psychology and take over from him when he retired. How I was supposed to reach the PhD level, he never quite explained. Perhaps he assumed it was obvious. It wasn't.

What he also failed to consider was workplace learning. I had never heard of it. I thought people went to school, then to university, then to work. I had no idea that the learning journey continued thereafter. In fact, loathing school as I did, I'd have been horrified to discover that companies had training rooms and people went to 'school' in them (which is how it was done back then).

So, of course, I did the obvious thing. If I couldn't do mechanical engineering, I'd go to drama school and be discovered by Hollywood.

How I did actually wind up in a job which involved teaching-but-not-to-children is perhaps a story for another day. I'm truly glad I stumbled across the field of workplace learning, but it was certainly no thanks to any of the hordes of guidance counsellors I saw during my high school years.

I sincerely hope that today's schoolkids are better served by theirs!

Monday, July 28, 2014

Corporate social media - something to remember in the exit interview

One of the services I provide is to assist organisations with their social media presence.

Managing the social media footprint of a business is in many ways similar to that for an individual, as I covered in a recent post. But there are some key differences and it's pretty vital to bear these in mind.

Most importantly, the account is a company asset. Sometimes senior management is all to willing to relinquish control of the account to a staff member and to disengage from it themselves. This sends a clear message about the (lack of) importance they impute to the social media campaign. I would venture to suggest that this is short-sighted. And, while it might work fine for a while for the account to be the sole province of a staff member, it is a risky path to take. An individual who has set up the account, managed it and nurtured it through the rough times might become a bit precious about it, and there may be consequences, more of which anon.

If you're the person who looks after a social media account for your organisation and it's taking up too much of your time for too little reward to either you or the organisation, it's time to re-evaluate the situation. Is this the right space for your organisation to have a presence? Would the organisation's strategic goals be better served by focusing its/your attentions elsewhere? I recommend a pro-active approach. Gather some metrics and approach your management team with a suggestion solution. Something like "Let's ditch the Facebook account, because it's not serving any purpose, as shown by my handy little graph. And let's instead focus on upping our presence on LinkedIn, because as you can see from these statistics, this would benefit us in X and Y way."

Important point for managers: when the person who manages a social media account on behalf of the company leaves, the admin rights for the page need to be passed on to someone else, and the leaver's admin rights revoked.
You expect them to hand over the company phone, the company laptop and the keys to company car, right? So why are you letting them walk out the door with (sometimes sole) access to intangible company assets related to brand and market presence?
I have encountered situations where the person who manages the account has left for pastures new, taking with them the only log in details and admin rights to the page. In one instance, when the organisation finally realised that this was the case, the person refused even to reveal their identity, placing the page (and the company's brand) at risk.

Clearly, it is unwise to have only one person with admin rights to any of the organisation's social media sites, and then to forget to do something about that when the person leaves. A person with access like that and an axe to grind can do a great deal of harm, and it could take a while before they can be stopped.

Monday, July 07, 2014

On the sex abuse scandal floodgates

If you live in the UK, you can't have escaped the torrent of cases involving historical sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable people. Especially if you listen (as I do) to BBC Radio 4, which doesn't shy away from spotlighting the growing number of cases.

We had well-known individuals like Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris. We've had stories emerging from institutions such as St Paul's School, Broadmoor Hospital (related, but not restricted to Jimmy Savile's legacy), and immigration detention centre Yarl's Wood. There have been cases involving teachers, including William Vahey. There was an additional case of a school for boys from homes with difficult circumstances, but I can't for the life of me remember what it was called. It was featured on a BBC R4 programme a few weeks ago, and one of the victims was interviewed. He talked about being 'pimped out' by the staff to people from the town.

Most of this abuse happened between thirty and fifty years ago, although some of it persisted until fairly recently and in some cases, there are allegations that it may well be ongoing.

The expression 'it was a different time' is sometimes used to excuse behaviour of previous generations that later generations find perplexing. In this instance, it's absolutely no excuse, but it is also true: it was a different time, and this is how the perpetrators managed to carry on doing what they did to people who were in no position to fight back. A child who reported a teacher in the 50s and 60s was unlikely to be believed, and might well have brought down worse circumstances upon him/herself. A woman who reported a male colleague for inappropriate behaviour, likewise. And in both cases, the victim was expected to take responsibility for changing the situation.

Let me share two experiences from my own life for two reasons: to back up my assertions and to demonstrate that 'this sort of thing' can happen to anyone. Keeping it a secret only supports the agenda of the perpetrator.

When I was around 7 or 8 years old, there was a man who used to take up his station in the children's swimming pool at the beach near my home. He posed as a fun person, who cavorted with the children in the water. Most commonly he would push a child through the water at great speed. The sort of thing you do with kids - usually totally innocently, and usually to the great delight of the child. Only he would achieve this by placing one hand on the child's shoulder and the other between her legs, pushing her away from him through the water. There was always a long line of kids waiting their turn to play this game. I joined the line once at the suggestion of a friend. Our two families were visiting the beach together that day. She said the game was open to anyone and was great fun. Certainly, everyone did seem to be very happy. It happened so fast, it was over before I knew it, and I made a beeline for my mother, lying beside the pool. When I reported what had happened, my mother told me "Stay away from him, then." The other little girl's mother called her daughter over and - over her objections - told her to stay away from him, too. That was it. The sum total of the action taken. No-one called the police. No-one challenged the man on his behaviour.

It was up to his little victims, many of whom didn't even appear to notice what he was doing, to take responsibility for ensuring that it didn't happen again... to them, at any rate.

Sexual harassment
When I started my first 'proper' job at the age of 21, I was subjected to a sustained campaign of sexual harassment by one of the company directors. Mine was a very junior position, but the nature of my job meant that I was often present at meetings of senior staff members and client meetings. I was always the only female present. I was also at least 15 years younger than the next youngest person in the room. If I did something well, this guy knew of a suitable 'reward'. If I made mistake, he knew a suitable 'punishment'. Always suggested in the most unmistakably lascivious fashion. He would openly stare at my body and complain if I stood at an angle or in a position which obscured his view. He did this in the presence of other senior staff members and our customers (also all male and mostly middle-aged), most of whom would laugh uproariously. I had no idea what to do about it. I asked my Mom for advice, and she told me to try to avoid him. Again. My (male) boss told me to take it as a compliment. Other women on the staff shunned me as if I were somehow to blame for the man's behaviour. The MD warned me in private never to be alone anywhere with the man, especially at any event where alcohol was involved.

So, once again, the victim was expected to take ownership of the situation.

In the intervening years between those two incidents, I encountered a few 'dodgy' individuals - usually someone's uncle - whose own family members would warn me to avoid. Sometimes it seemed like almost every family had one, but no-one ever did anything about it, other than to ensure the people they cared about didn't become victims. Fortunately my own family didn't include any dodgy uncles, I'm pleased to say.

We see the same tacit attitude in legacy guidance to female university students or shift workers to avoid becoming a rape statistic by doing (or not doing) this or that thing.

What we're beginning to see now, is the backlash of all of those years of not taking action. It's like someone has lanced a boil. Decades worth of suppuration is coming tumbling out. I predict that for a while, we will continue to be deluged. Several more of our icons will prove to have feet of filth. Eventually the flood will slow down, but hopefully someone will then proactively clear rest of what is in that wound and it can then be disinfected.

In the meantime, we need to create an environment in which the shame attaches itself to the perpetrator, not the victim. In which the victim makes a beeline to a parent/teacher/manager. In which said parent/teacher/manager takes immediate and decisive action.

We need to change the language we use from apportioning responsibility to the victim for avoiding the crime, and direct ourselves toward teaching people not to be perpetrators of the crime. Every perpetrator once was a child.

By the same token, we need to take care that we don't create a society in which every vulnerable person is a victim and every person in a position of responsibility is automatically under suspicion. We have seen signs of that when several high profile children's authors refused to visit schools because of the requirement that they undergo CRB checks.

I'm not sure where the solution lies, but we need to start working towards one. There is no doubt that we have let people down. Often and badly. But throwing draconian legislation at it in a kneejerk reaction isn't going to be helpful, in my opinion

Friday, June 20, 2014

Sue Llewellyn (et al) on the psychology of social media

On Monday, as part of  at the FT digital learning week, Sue Llewellyn delivered a session about the psychology of social media. This is a topic that is of great interest to me. Much of what Llewellyn shared was pretty much common sense to those of us who have been active in the social media space for a while, but I've been ruminating over it for a while, because...

Attending the session were people from the FT and the wider Pearson group, looking at how to use social media to benefit the business. We're talking about large corporate endeavours here. And yet, most of what Llewellyn had to share seemed aimed at people who were looking to promote their personal brands. And this is what I found quite telling. Nearly 15 years after the publication of the cluetrain manifesto, and about eight years since the publication of naked conversations, this is the core message coming through. Many companies I've spoken to over the years have had a social media presence, but they haven't really set the world on fire. Largely because it has been seen as part of the traditional marketing/comms programme. Running a social media 'campaign' like a mailshot distribution just doesn't cut it. In this social age - and this has been one of the themes running through the whole week for me - people want to engage with people with skin on, not some faceless corporate monolith.

Social media have seen us move into a space where individuals have a voice, and aren't afraid to use it - for better or for worse. The digital era has shifted gear. We're no longer in a space where it's all about writing code and publishing stuff online. We've moved into the engagement space. So 'people people' can be tech-geeks too. In fact, they had better be! And they had better be well informed, too. Many is the brand that has suffered damage at the hands of someone delegated to do the job because they have the technical skills, but who have not done the brand any favours as they have revealed their own lack of insight or have been dragged into exchanges of personal insults and potential libel (one example: Gillian McKeith).

Which brings me back to Llewellyn's presentation. All the rules that apply to promoting your personal brand through social media, apply to building your business brand.

Turning the traditional 'what's in if for me?' question on its head, Llewellyn suggested considering what's in it for them (your followers)? She talked about finding the behavioural trigger than makes people want to engage with the content you put out there. She used the term 'psychographic' - don't just think about the demographic of your follower group, but their psychographic: what matters to them? What do they want to hear about?

She provided some useful guidelines as to what made people share your content with their own follower audience and talked about how to trigger those responses. I'm not going to go give away all her suggestions and observations free of charge, but - in addition to the practical suggestions she made - it boiled down to being 'neighbourly': if you ask people for feedback, thank them for it and put it to use, share the link love, give credit where it's due... all that stuff.

This was the biggest take-away for me. From a business perspective, it is important to track what works and what doesn't. Think about why that might be and what you can do to influence that. I suspect this is where a lot of corporate social media campaigns fall down.

You're allowed to be funny (and even silly)
One of the points Llewellyn made strongly was to show how much response there is to 'silly' posts. A picture of a bear in a hammock, shared by BBC News World Edition on their twitter account racked up scores or retweets. A corporate 'entity' is allowed to have a lighter side. In fact, it had better have a lighter side. It's part of the whole personable thing. We like to laugh. We like say 'awww'. So using emotive triggers is not only acceptable, it's advisable and possibly even imperative.

Areas for neutrality
While an individual can have a strong political/religious stance, a corporate image needs to keep neutral on these topics. So while it may be acceptable to share the news of the kidnapping of 200 Nigerian girls, it probably isn't wise to use that as a platform for religious prejudice.

Llewellyn summarised her advice as keeping content relevant, interesting, timely, engaging, and to ensure that it added value.

What she didn't explicitly mention, but it was the inherent thread throughout her presentation - and many of the others during the week - was that even a corporate twitter account needs to be personable and relatable.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

FT Digital Learning Week: Women in digital leadership

As part of the Financial Times digital learning week, I attended an early session today on women in digital leadership. Chaired by Megan Murphy head of Fast FT, the panel consisted of Molly Flatt from 1000 Heads (among other things), Anne Marie Imafidon from Deutschebank and Stemettes, Claire Koryczan from Decoded and Karla Geci from Facebook.
Molly Flatt, Anne Marie Imafidon, Megan Murphy, Claire Koryczan, Karla Geci
For me, it is a frustration that we even still have to have sessions like this. When they are no longer needed, we will have arrived. Maybe.

What came out of today's session is that the number of women in tech has actually declined over the last 30 years - in the US, at any rate. This saddens me. You see, when I was in high school in South Africa (far more than 30 years ago!), local industries were so desperate for computing staff (the term 'IT' wasn't being used, yet) that they were recruiting straight out of schools off the back of an aptitude test offered to kids with maths skills. Starting salaries were really good, and there was the promise of being able to work towards a degree while working. Right in the thick of the patriarchal, apartheid era it was the first profession in which gender and race were shoved aside and demand became the sole driver. So the declining numbers being reported today are disappointing - all more so since the skills around the field of tech have become more blurred. It's not just a case of writing code any more - there is a need for community management skills, social engagement skills... all those 'soft' skills have found their way into tech. And those are areas which have traditionally attracted a large percentage of women.

The question was asked  whether women have a problem with tech or the tech industry has a problem with women, and the general consensus was that it must be the latter, because the former was simply not true, based on the experience and research of the panel members.

So having these women as role models for women starting out in tech is important. Having organisations like Stemettes giving girls confidence to operate in the science/tech space perhaps even more so, since this addresses the matter at grass roots level (because, let's be real - few kids will have heard of these women, yet - they don't really blip on the average young person's radar).

I'm not sure that I came away with a fistful of answers, but I would suggest that perseverance in raising awareness is at the very least a start.

However, I would be loathe to see women pressured to move into senior management roles or risk being seen to be letting the side down. Leadership is not the same thing as management or seniority (for example, I would contend that Malala Yousafzai's achievements make her a leader), and we need to take care not to conflate the two concepts. I would also like to see women in the role of specialist practitioner, becoming leaders in their field by dint of the sheer quality of their work and the level of expertise they gain, and being afforded the same level of respect, support and mentoring as captains of industry.