Thursday, 27 November 2008

On Indecision and Happy New Beginnings

Just a few months ago, I was going through a tricky patch in my professional life. I found I was being put in a situation that I felt uncomfortable in. You see I'm a manager (or was) of a team of lovely staff, and my boss had started pushing me to look at my 'team structure'. Warning bells went off in my head and I started to panic...I felt protective of my team and compelled to defend the qualities of each individual, because they were all smart, brilliant people.
What I didn't realise was that I was making the whole thing more convoluted and painful (mostly for myself at the time) than it needed to be. My emotional involvement with the situation was clouding my ability to make decisions. I was all in a tangle, and I couldn't pick a direction so I was stuck, and no-one was benefiting from the situation. At the time, I remember comparing myself to a character from a book that my parents used to read to me when I was a little girl.

On my fourth birthday I was given a book that became very precious to me - Terry Jones' Fairy Tales - a collection of original short stories with beautiful, lavish illustrations by Michael Foreman. Terry Jones is of course better known for being a member of the Monty Python team, but apparantly he also knows how to spin a good yarn for children! The book was also rather special because the person who gave it to me added their own illustration and a short (rather gruesome) story all about me!

Of course when I was little I just enjoyed the stories in their own right. However traditionally, fairy tales have a moral behind them, and I find myself thinking back quite frequently to the little lessons that were hidden behind the magical lines.

The straight way's short, but the long way's pretty...

So in my dilemma, I started thinking about one of the stories in particular - Katy Make-sure. The name says it all really! Katy Make-sure was a little girl who couldn't make up her mind. In the story, Katy is out for a walk in the woods when she bumps into a goblin who offers her the once in a lifetime chance to visit Goblin City and get a reward (for finding his lost shoe). But the problem comes when she asks how to get there, and the little man replies:

Short or long to Goblin City?
The straight way's short,
But the long way's pretty!

Katy can't decide which is the best way to go - the long or the short way - and each time she asks the goblin for advice, he simply repeats himself and she gets more confused! Eventually after she's asked his advice over and over she asks "How can I be sure i'll like it whichever way we go?" The goblin finally becomes impatient and disappears, leaving Katy all alone, and she never does get to visit Goblin City in the end poor thing!

But isn't it all too easy too caught up in trying to 'make sure' a decision is the right one? Especially when it's an important choice and the consequences are an unknown quantity, we can sometimes spend too much energy worrying and not enough finding a solution to the problem. Our uncertainty paralyses us and we become like Hamlet, a victim of our own inaction. It can be comforting to be indecisive, but what if we were to be brave... start down the long pretty road, or just get there quickly instead of dithering around. Maybe we'll make some wrong choices and we might get burned, but we can only make the best decision we can at the time and learn from our mistakes, arriving our destination a little wiser. Perhaps what prevents us is that don't want to get to our destination...but even then, does standing still help?

In the end, I took action - moved forward. Ultimately, my choices resulted in positive (if surprising) changes for my team, the company and for myself - including deciding to leave my job on my own terms instead of staying on for a sense of security. And the best thing is that I feel so much better for it. I found out that by taking action you can actually influence the destination you come to. Which is kind of wonderful, I think.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Empire Falls - Richard Russo

Today I feel i have been struggling against the tide a little at work. I find - and I'm pretty sure this is true of the majority of people - that identifying what tasks are most important and actually getting down to them can be a bit of a challenge. It is easier to procrastinate and do other less-useful things which give you a sense of superficial satisfaction, but don't actually get you any closer to your goal.

Why do we put things off? Is it because we don't really think that the end result will be that beneficial to us? Is it that we are afraid of not completing it to our own personal standards? Or, could it be that we don't truly know what it is that we want to achieve and why? And moreover, why - you may be wondering - am I rambling on about procrastination in a book blog?!

I mentioned a certain lady from Maine in my previous post. The lady I was referring to was a Mrs Whiting from the 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Empire Falls, by Richard Russo. I read Empire Falls in August as part of readers group with friends, and although I enjoyed it once I'd finished it, I found it a little long-winded. Also, while Russo has a brilliant skill for developing his characters, I didn't empathise with most of them or the setting either. As a Brit, I don't really identify with the faded nostalgic glory of the small American mill town, that Russo depicted in his novel.

But one of the town's inhabitants, Mrs Whiting (and her demented cat) really tickled me. She was interesting for being such a strong and formidable character, and I remember thinking at the time of reading that despite the fact that she was a bitch of the first order, I could take something away from her methods!

In the novel, Mrs Whiting controls the little town of Empire Falls, and is a thorn in the side for Miles Roby, the manager of the Empire Grill who is too distracted by his failing family life to notice how suffocating her iron grip really is. Mrs Whiting, despite being an aged single lady with a disabled daughter, she always gets what she wants.

Firstly, she knows her own mind. This is in contrast to Miles who for most of the book seems unable to pursue even his own happiness leading him to putter and sputter along. Though he doesn't realise it, Mrs Whiting is a deadly succubus in his life and his resigned temperament simply makes easier for her to affect him.

Secondly, Mrs Whiting has a particular method of getting what she wants with a grim determination reminiscent of the kind of zombies from third rate horror movies. You know, those ones that don't always move very fast but always get their victims in the end. Her philosophy is to break down her goal into smaller tasks that are easier for her to undertake. And if she can't achieve those? She breaks them down into even smaller, more minute pieces. This makes her unstoppable.

So what did I take from that? Well I'm not saying I want to be a scary, calculating sort of person, but this reinforced something for me. I believe that if you know what you want and can identify the steps to move towards it, your goal becomes manageable, and therefore achievable. A note of caution though. Mrs Whiting's inflexibility and desire to control everything eventually leads to her undoing. Beware megalomania!

Right, I'm off to write my task list now and conquer the world...

Friday, 21 November 2008

Introductions and Insights

Let me introduce myself. I'm a twenty-something girl, living in London who loves books. Particularly novels, and particularly ones with nice covers which I know is naughty as it's supposed to be what's between the sheets...oops, I mean the pages that count.

Why I wanted to write about books -

Some books and certain characters, really make me want to wax-lyrical about them. Why? Because in their own little way they are life-changing - so that's why I wanted to start Novel Insights.

Novel insights is a place for me to share my ideas about novels, particularly fictional characters that have had an impact on my way of thinking.

Being inspired by fiction -

For me one of the beautiful things about fiction is that you almost always inadvertently learn something new at the same time as enjoying the story for it's own sake. For example, when I read The Kite Runner, a few months ago, I experienced a whole other culture and the intense, human drama of it all made me want to watch the news more - pay attention to what was going on in the world in a more active way. It was like Khaled Hosseini had used his moving words, exciting story and charming characters (well some of them were charming!) to fool me into opening my eyes a little more. I like learning something new, and I like it wrapped up in vivid, spellbinding prose like a gift.

So I want to share what I've learned from reading, not in a preachy way I hope, and maybe my thoughts will strike a chord with someone else or at least inspire them to read some fantastic stories.

Now, like Sheherazade, I'm going to attempt to be mysterious and give you a taster of what comes next. My next post will be about the character who sparked me to write Novel Insights - a certain formidable old lady from Maine. Can you guess who she might be? More about her next!