5 Important Work-Life Lessons You Need to Know from Les Miserables

Reading has become a chore in our digital age. We want information broken down into Instagram feeds or at the very least 140 characters.  However, I discovered the beauty of reading. Forget skimming through the dailies or watching E! to see what Lupita Nyong’o wore to the Met Gala. I mean relaxing on your favourite couch with a nice cup of tea while you get engrossed in the story.

I know the word “classics” brings to mind, dusty old books that would fall apart with the slightest turn of a page and the Shakespeare English does not help the situation.  Les Miserables has changed my perceptions   of classics.  Just to bring you up to speed, the story centres on the life of Jean Valjean who is released after being incarcerated for 19 years. He breaks parole and begins a new life as Monsieur Madeline but his former prison warden Javert makes it his life mission to hunt down and bring him to book.  Victor Hugo weaves in the life of single working mother Fauntine, who tries to support her daughter, Cosette whom she left under the care of the greedy Thenardiers.

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After watching its 2012 movie adaptation, I am convinced this story has a wealth of lessons not only for literature geeks, but also for the Career Girl:

  • It is important to have someone in your corner: In the story, Bishop Myriel prevents Jean Valjean’s arrest after stealing his silver candlesticks because he believes in giving people second chances. Valjean uses this chance to make a fresh start and eventually becomes town mayor!

Find someone who will empower you to reach the next level. Let’s demystify these three terms. Mentors focus on the continuous development of a person. Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In emphasises on building natural and mutually beneficial relationships.  Coaches provide short term interventions to achieve a desired goal. For instance, losing weight or achieving work-life balance. These days, there are coaches for hire. Sponsors are people who use their power for the benefit of their protégées. Normally, a sponsor would reach out to a Career Girl that reminds her of her younger self.  But do not be afraid to approach someone with the potential to propel your career in the right direction.

  • Have a voice of reason. Enjorlas was there to show Marius that he needed to have realistic goals especially after discovering that he was in love with Cossette. Every Career Girl needs a friend who will give her a (friendly) smack down when she is not staying on the straight and narrow. This friend will provide her honest opinion with your best interest at heart. Here, I am not talking about those frenemies, but discovering rather someone in your circle of trusted friends who can keep you accountable.
  • It is important to forgive yourself: Through the years, Valjean tries to move on under various aliases but he is haunted by the ghosts of his past.

Do not let your past define your future. Career Girls can make mistakes even when they have the best intentions. However, we need to need separate ourselves from our actions and remedy the bad situation. Otherwise, we will always suffer from the Imposter Syndrome. You know, feeling like a phony and that you will be exposed despite actually being intelligent and highly successful. Isaiah Hankel, author of Black Hole Focus offers some remedies.

  • He’s just not that into you: There’s nothing as painful as unrequited love. From poor Eponine, I learnt that there is no need to stay glued to someone who does not add value to your life. In an article, Jason Womack provides tips on when to fire your mentor. I have encouraged you to get someone in your corner, sometimes relationships do not work out. There is nothing wrong with that. That person may have been in your life to help you go through a particular phase. So move on.
  • What are your values? Let’s also look at the Thenardiers. They milked Fauntine dry while mistreating her daughter Cossette.  A few years down the line, the tables are turned and they end up as common thieves while Cosette finds a father-figure in Valjean and marries the man of her dreams.

 “The accounts of these universe are probably well kept; everything finds its place in the long run” -C.S. Lewis

Be careful not to burn bridges and always treat people fairly regardless of their social status.  You never know whether the girl you bullied in high school will become your boss in future and have her revenge.

Editor’s note: Originally published on Career Girl Network

Photo credit: Goodreads

Lean In: How to Survive the Career Jungle Gym

Don’t wait for power to be offered. Like that tiara, it might never materialize. And, anyway, who wears a tiara on a jungle gym?

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It all began with her 2010 TED Talk that has had over six million views (and counting) where she advocated for women to take charge of their careers by ‘sitting at the table’ and take risks to have it all (I know that this ‘having it all’ point is highly debatable, but shall we leave this for another blog post shall we?). Sheryl Sandberg, in her book Lean In that resulted from that talk, tries to erase the negative effects of Disneyfication by calling on women to heal themselves of the tiara syndrome. Those of us who grew up in the 1990s watching the Disney princesses seem to have carried the notion that when the time is right, your fairy godmother or Prince Charming will always save the day into adulthood and even our professional lives.

In a perfect meritocracy, women expect that as long they work hard and play by all the rules, they will be rewarded. Truth be told, careers today are simply jungle gyms. They are neither linear nor have safety nets. Women have to position themselves in places where they will able to participate in negotiating and decision making. The affirmative action card has been played for far too long and women need to claim their rightful place in the C-suite by earning it.

Sheryl calls on women to be able to take stretch assignments that will differentiate from the rest of the pack and diversify their expertise. However, women are not likely to do the extra work because they feel that they may not rise to the occasion. The imposter syndrome makes a woman feels fraudulent even though she is very capable and qualified to perform tasks at hand. This form of self-doubt coupled with gender stereotypes has paralysed women into staying within their comfort zone, not exploring what they have to offer themselves and the rest of humanity. This can only be remedied by taking risks. Calculated risks. Women should set their bars high and strategically manoeuvre the career jungle gym with the right people to helping them along the way.

Numerous blog posts and books have preached the importance of mentorship, sponsorship and coaching in career development. The author expresses her disappointment about a time when she attended a talk where the male attendees asked her intelligent questions about the topic of discussion and her own career while one of the ladies asked how she could get a mentor. To ease the pressure from prospective mentors and protégés, we need to change our advice from “Get a mentor and you will excel” to “Excel and you will get a mentor”. The mentee can capture the mentor’s attention or imagination by ensuring that their encounter is tailored to meet both their needs. The mentee should be specific in the kind of assistance that he or she requires without inconveniencing the mentor.

Sheryl advocates for building “natural” relationships with people that you admire or remind you of your younger self. However, mentoring becomes complicated when a mentor is a man and the protégé, a woman. She cites how she handled a personal incident and how other male executives have tried to mentor (younger) female employees without raising eyebrows. Reader beware, mentors are not your therapists. Very few executives with their high-strung careers have the time to hold your hand as you go through your emotionally charged career. Seek their input on well-thought out specific problems and not your personal dramas.

Part of sitting at the table involves mastering the art of negotiation. Sandberg says that when negotiating for that promotion or salary raise or the opportunity of a lifetime, women need to “think personally, act communally.” Most of the time , women tend to think about the common good at the expense of their own desires and thus end up being unhappy. Sure, it is good to put in the extra hours in order to meet a particular target but one should not put their advanced degree on hold just because they are “indispensable”. In these harsh economic times, even the very best are shown the door by employers whom they thought they had hired them for life. Know when to take one for the team and when to be selfish.

Lean in offers advice on how to make your significant other a real partner in a bid to juggle private and public roles. Sheryl also shares about her work dynamics with Mark Zuckerberg and her experience working for the greatest organisations in the world.

This is not one of your typical self-help books that offer a step by step guide on how to deal with problem XYZ. Sheryl has reinforced all her ideas and experiences with research and statistics that bring out her core message of women being more proactive in the proactive in their life choices. For instance, the Heidi/Howard case study blatantly demonstrated how as human being we correlate gender stereotypes, success and likeability. She links the research findings to when she had her first performance review with Mark, who in turn advised her ‘’If you please everyone, then you are not making enough progress’’.

Lean in make the reader reflects on how the various statistics presented in the book skew in their own context. This business book is not just for the professed feminists who want to achieve world domination (in their particular fields) but also for the men who want to empower the important women in their lives.

Available in Kenya:

Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead: Text Book Centre¦ Bookstop

Lean In for Graduates (Expanded Version): Text Book Centre

Photo credit: Goodreads.

21 things you can do in a Nairobi traffic jam.

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It’s no secret that Nairobi traffic jams are worsening and everybody has their reasons… Some say that the growing middle class with a higher disposable income  are keen on flaunting their stuff with their imported Japanese cars.  I mean its quite obvious that the car or matatu in front of you is 90% of the time likely to be a Toyota  but lets not  go there for now. Others blame (insert name of elected representative or Serikali in general) for misappropriating funds  meant for improving  road infrastructure  and those  who decide  to say not so pleasant things about their  fellow road users.

From my own experience, there  have been  times when I have been stuck in a less than 50m stretch for three hours wondering what happened to all sanity.  At such times, I wished I was Inspector Gadget, so that I could fold up my car and just  walk to my  destination or even transform it to a chopper.

In a 2011 study, IBM Institute for Business Value calculated the commuter pain index which ranked Nairobi 4th out of 20 cities worldwide. See the study here. 42% of the  respondents  agreed that their  stress levels had increased due to traffic congestion and its related woes, since 91% of all the respondents  lost an average of 1.3 hours.

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In light of this study, I thought of various ways that you and I could make use of the fringe hours and  hopefully reduce road rage:

  1. Ask the driver to loan you his newspaper so that you can catch up with the news at no extra cost.
  2. Sleep: This has can be done especially when you live on the outskirts of Nairobi (Rongai, Athi River, Kitengela) since some of them have curtains anyway but word of caution, ensure that don’t pass your stage or that you are not pick-pocketed,
  3. Go to that happy place that is devoid of all impatience and frustrating thoughts. You could actually come up with the next big idea!
  4. Plan your day and other things. Though we love the  good ol’ pen and paper  but mental notes or your smart phone  might do as well.
  5. Courtesy of the free WiFi in the matatu, update your Facebook status or gram or Snapchat or blog or tweet. Word of caution: beware which street you are on before you flash your smart phone.
  6. Catch up on all the articles that you have clipped to Evernote  or  bookmarked on your designated blog reader.
  7. Read that book or magazine that you have been carrying around for the last couple of weeks but have never gotten round to.
  8. If you are bright enough(and brave enough), you could have your breakfast especially if you own a thermo-mug.
  9. For the last-minute crammers, this would be a wonderful opportunity to go through those notes or even catch up on your homework.
  10. Chat up a stranger on the state of the economy, the matatu industry, the weather e.t.c. e.t.c. If you are lucky enough you might discover that he or she is the neighbour that you have never met.
  11. Chat up the conductor a.k.a makanga a.k.a concodi on how day in his life is like.
  12. If you are alone  you can have  your 60 seconds of fame and belt out  your favourite tunes orif you have company, then have your own version of carpool karaoke.
  13. Well, there’s always your indispensable earphones that are permanently attached to your smart device or listen to the car music player. Listen to that podcast or audiobook that you have been putting off.
  14. Listen to the local stations (By the way, does the Kenyan matatu industry have an MoU with Classic 105?)
  15. Call that person that you have been intending to talk for a long while. For pre-paid customers, don’t worry about running out of airtime, because you”ll find someone selling Bamba 50.
  16. Support the local economy. Buy some of the wares from our ever-entrepreneurial hawkers from newspapers to wall charts to scarves to vuvuzelas to peanuts to mobile chargers. You name it, they’ve got it.
  17. Get out of your vehicle, stretch and talk to other motorists
  18. Fiddle with the fancy gadgets in your car and discover how to actually use your GPS system.
  19. Clean out your compartments. I am sure that there are so many receipts, leaflets, flyers, broken CDs that you really don’t need.
  20. Go to your nearest coffee house, grab a cuppa  and wait for the traffic to subside.
  21. This would be the opportune time to pull out your sandals or ngomas and walk to your destination.

Any more ideas? Please  share them in the comments below.

Photo Credit: Unsplash