Mathematics of Meetings

My profession is to go to meetings and write documents, I often tell my 6 year old. A lot of work happens at meetings. So if one wants to accelerate progress at work, getting a new product launched, ramping up sales, finishing a report, whatever, there are two ways to go faster: make each meeting more effective, and/or have the next meeting soon.  (I got this idea while swimming, where there are only two things that affect your lap time: stroke length (how far you propel yourself with each stroke) and stroke rate (time between strokes).)

Many articles and techniques have been written about the subtle interpersonal techniques around how to have an effective meeting (stroke length).  Not so much has been written about meeting frequency (stroke rate).

Fortunately, meeting frequency is simple math: reduce the wait time to next meeting, and your initiative or organization moves faster. The target metric (or Key Performance Indicator, KPI):  Average Time to Next Meeting.

So one Friday night, I pulled out my trusty loved-hated Excel and tried to model out what are the key variables that affect this time-to-next-meeting. I was surprised to find a few very important variables that massively slow an organization.  Here they are:

1. The number of people needed at the meeting.

We all know that more people means slower progress, but I was shocked to see in numbers how much a few extra people delay the next available slot — like Covid, it’s exponential.  Say I have  hour-long meetings randomly throughout an 8 hour work day, and usually spend half my day (4 of the 8 slots) in meetings. I want to find one slot where both of us are free.  Maybe at 9am I am free, but not my colleague; 10am my colleague is free but not me; 11am we are both in meetings; and noon we are both free.  In the model, it takes us an average of nearly 4 hours to meet up — so still same day, no biggie.  Add a third person, and on average it will take us 10 slots to meet up, so by tomorrow morning.  Add a fourth, and now it’s 20 slots (within 2-3 days); to have 9 people meet, it’ll take 534 slots, or nearly 10 weeks.

Top tip to speed up work: have max 3 people in a team that need to meet.

2. What proportion of each day a person spends in meetings

I assumed here all of us had already booked 50% their day with meetings (4 of 8 slots).  Some people rarely have meetings, and can be scheduled in any day.  But if you are trying to schedule in someone whose main job is to have meetings, for instance a manager or senior executive, they may spend 80-90 or even 100% of their time in meetings.  You don’t need an Excel model to figure out that scheduling a meeting with someone whose calendar is already 100% full for weeks means you won’t be able to schedule a meeting at all.

Top tip: cut down the number of meetings you commit to, and avoid including people who are always in meetings (such as senior managers).

2b. …especially when >85% of your day is in meetings

You will know either from trying to fly during the (pre-pandemic) Christmas holiday, that when people and planes are operating near 100% of capacity (or really anywhere above 85%), your waiting time explodes from minutes to hours.  When we want to go faster in business we tend to load people up to 100% (or 150%) of the time they have;  loading people’s calendars more than 85% with meetings hits a real tipping point (Here’s a picture from queuing theory) — you end up needing to wait a LOT longer to have that next meeting.

The fix: resist adding more work until you and the many stakeholders involved have finished the first. Celebrate those who operate at less than 85% of their capacity — who have some down time.  Culturally, it can be hard to tell a boss (or boss’s boss) you’re too busy for them; but the fastest teams are the best at pushing back on taking on more work.

3. How many slots there are per day.

There are 2 ways of increasing the number of slots per day : longer working hours, and/or have shorter slots.  If you are looking for a slot, it’s a lot easier to half the meeting length (e.g. from 1 hour to 30 minutes) than to double the number of hours worked (from 8 hours to 16 hours).
Tech teams famously use the 10 minute standing meeting to address this problem.  In general, I’ve often wondered Outlook/Google calendar had 20, 40, 60 minute default meetings rather than 30 and 60 minute ones, if we’d all meet up faster.  Working remotely has helped put more slots into a day — no more travel time to and from meetings. But days of back-to-back virtual meetings mean we, as humans, need longer slots: if you have too short, task-focused meetings only, you destroy human connection; and often don’t let the important stuff that really matters come to light.

4. How correlated their schedules are.

In my model, I’ve randomly assigned a calendar slot to empty or full — there’s no correlation between my calendar and my colleague’s.  But that’s not usually the case.

One way teams solve the Time to Next Meeting problem is by coordinating schedules well in advance and on a recurring basis — the standing Tuesday 9am team meeting, the monthly senior management meeting, the annual offsite conference. Of course, if your stakeholders’ calendars are now full of recurring standing meetings, go back to top tip 2 above!

I’ve also assumed that calendars can’t change. But often they do: you can propose a time and the other person can move something around to make it work.  How helpful would Outlook, Google Calendars, Calendly and other calendar programs be if they knew where there was some flexibility in the slot, and could adjust others’ calendars for you!

One common ‘calendar correlation problem’ large corporates face is using specialists : legal, financial, technical, central services, etc. Often their calendars are truly uncorrelated to the teams they support. The main fixes I have found are switching to one-to-ones with the experts, giving up on meetings entirely and switching to email, using specialists in a very short timeframe (e.g. all within the same week when they might have a lull from other projects) or abandoning specialist support entirely.  If you have other solutions, let me know.

5. How much the team’s working hours overlap.

Having worked in global jobs spanning multiple time zones my entire career, I know working across time zones kills any hope of that next meeting happening quickly.  I chose to live in London in part because it straddles the Americas-Europe-Asia time span.  But if you need a team with people from London, the US (hopefully not California), Bangalore and Singapore, you likely have 1 (awkward) hour a day to meet, at best — 7 am California (preferably not a Monday) / 3pm London / 10 pm Singapore (preferably not a Friday).

It’s not just time zones — it’s holidays too.  My first summer working in Europe, I was advised to ‘make sure you get your deliverables done by June, before the July and August holiday period.’ Having moved to London from China, where all the nations holidays were synchronized around (then) 3 major holiday weeks, and in America, where people didn’t take more than a few days holiday at a time, it was a learning curve: some schools (and their parents) break for a few weeks holiday in July, others in August, Germany has a week long holiday sometime in October, others take a few weeks off for Eid, in addition to the Christmas, New Year and Chinese New Year holidays I already had learned to work around.  In my model, I didn’t assume any holidays — once you add those in, the time-to-meeting explodes.  The solutions I have seen are to synchronize shut downs (e.g. everyone takes off the week after Christmas), reduce participants from teams that have different holiday schedules, pre-plan projects with the holiday calendar in mind and ask people to work during their holidays (ouch).

So that’s it: it’s just math.

It’s quite amazing that there’s a single metric that you can measure to figure out if you work in a fast organization/team/project, or a slow one: ask your colleagues how long it takes on average to book the next meeting. Is it same day, next day, 2-3 days, >1 week, or >2 weeks?

Not everyone wants a fast organization, and a lot of mistakes are made by going too fast. There are good reasons for having a slower organization, where the tradeoffs are worthwhile: maybe you make huge, multi-year investments, with safety critical operations, and massive risks.  In that case, it’s worth it.

But if you are in a business or organization which doesn’t have these constraints, especially where the market is changing quickly or you have aggressive growth targets to hit, then consider a few ‘quick’ fixes:

  • Delegate power and authority to small (3 person) teams
  • Keep everyone working in the same time zone, on the same correlated schedules; avoid jobs or reporting lines that span time zones
  • Keep everyone at least 15% below what they can do (think: a day free a week)
  • Shorten the default meeting time to 20, 40 or 60 minutes
  • Use specialists with uncorrelated schedules sparingly, in one-to-ones, in bursts, or by email
  • Don’t require all decisions or input to be made, live, by people whose job it is to primarily attend meetings

Does this resonate with you? Any other variables you noticed? Any other fixes you’ve found that work?

And if you’ve made it this far, let me know — it means I found someone else who finds it interesting to think about the mathematics of meetings!  We should be friends.



If you enjoyed my writing, you may enjoy my recently published novel Turning Forward, available in eBook and paperback on Amazon

Food goes in, what goes out?

Pop quiz: if you consume 1 kg of food and drink in a day, and your weight stays the same, where does this 1 kg go? How does that mass actually leave your body?

I realized on the sofa last night I had no idea, so I tried without my phone to figure it out; surely I’m educated enough to guess this one, right? Here were the options I came up with. For fun, I suggest you guess what % of your food and drink leaves your body against each one:

(a) heat / energy / burning calories
(b) poo (or poop, in the USA; apparently my kids have British accents)
(c) wee (yes, one of them is almost 3 years old)
(d) breath
(e) sweat
(f) other (tears, dandruff, skin flaking off, menstruation, semen, hair cuts, shaving, snot, saliva, etc.)

My own guesses on the sofa:

Heat/burning energy : Initially I thought 80%, as we talk about that all time — ‘burning calories’? And doesn’t E = mc^2? Then I remembered: yes, you can convert mass to energy, if you happen to be the sun. Not if you are a bag of biochemistry like me. In a (clearly memorable) middle school science experiment, we burned a piece of wood in a closed system of test tubes, collecting all the gasses, liquids and ash. After burning, they weighed the same as they did at the start, providing that mass is indeed conserved. Right, I recalled on the sofa, chemical reactions create heat, but don’t destroy mass. So actually, I guess we don’t ‘burn’ any ‘weight’ in calories at all — the weight in has to leave our body somehow else. So 0% to heat.

Poo — I knew from Giulia Enders brilliant book The Gut that poo is actually mostly water and bacteria, and some indigestible fiber. So likely it wasn’t mostly poo. Maybe max 20%.

Wee — Probably all our water is passed out as pee. Astronaut ice cream is super light, so our foods must contain a lot of water too. I’ll say 70%.

Breath — I remembered an embarrassing video of graduates from a good university being asked where trees got their matter from. All of them said, as I would have too, that trees got the materials via their roots, from the soil and water. Actually, they get their bulk of their mass from the carbon in the air; when they convert CO2 to O2, they keep hold of the C. Our mental model around photosynthesis is wrong. But surely we don’t breathe out our chicken sandwich… do we? I’ll say 2%.

Other — gosh I think we do shed a lot of skin, have some tears, I don’t know maybe another 10% there?

So that’s what I got to last night. Then today the internet told me I was wrong.

We do breathe out the chicken sandwich.

Indeed, we breathe out almost all solids as CO2. We also breathe out about a third of the liquids we consume as water vapor. The other half we pee out, which at least I got somewhat right. Indeed, water is around 3/4 of the 4.2 kg that the average American ingest every day, either in pure water, coffees and other beverages, and the water content of food.

But, what!? We breathe out our food?!?

In a great TED talk Dr Ruben Meerman explains (more accurately and in more detail) that much of what you eat is made of carbon (C), hydrogen (H) and oxygen (O), which is digested and metabolized by your body. The H and the O end up as water (H2O) which you wee, breathe, poo and sweat out, and the C ends up as CO2 which is carried to your lungs to be breathed out.

In a related article I also learned I don’t just consume food and water — I also consume oxygen. A lot. Around 1/6th of the weight I add to myself I ingest in a day is oxygen I breathe in from the air.

I read somewhere the body is not a fixed entity, but a ‘system through which matter passes’. How beautiful to think that the way this matter passes through us so heavily involves our breath. We breathe out our food. We breathe out the waste products from energy. We breathe out the fat that has accumulated over the festive period, and the New Year’s bubbly too.

So I guess in sum : if you are planning to lose those holiday love handles this January, don’t hold your breath.

Happy 2022,

Dr Ruben Meerman does emphasize that you need to exercise in order to turn the fat into CO2 in the first place; you can’t just breathe more, or you will end up hyperventilating. Nice try though.

I did poke around the Other categories, and they can be small, but thought it was interesting anyway. Menstruation comes out to an average of only 0.003 kg/day. While we produce 0.100-0.300 kg/day of tears, they are 90% reabsorbed, so we evaporate around 0.010kg/day. We lose a similar 0.010 kg/day in shed skin. And of course beards are very heavy, so I recommend all men shave them off to start 2022.

If anyone can find the source of the ‘body is a system through which matters passes’ quote please let me know.

Liz Aab

The Taxonomy of Touch (or Hard-Smooth-Cool-Dry)

For sight, we learn Red Orange Yellow Green Blue Purple. For taste, we learn Salty Sour Sweet Bitter. For sound, we learn Volume and Pitch, Rhythm and Timbre. But for touch? What are those basic categories of how things feel that I can teach my kids — and myself? What is that taxonomy of touch?

To my surprise, after hours searching the internet over the past months, I haven’t been able to find a simple table. So here’s what I’ve come up with, after a few failed starts. If I’ve done it right, it should hopefully feel obvious:

There are 2 main ways that things feel based on what they are:

Hard or Soft
Smooth or Textured

And there are 2 main ways that things feel based on their current state:

Wet or Dry
Cool or Warm

Altogether then, there are 16 (2x2x2x2) ways that most objects feel at any moment. Of course, like Red-Orange-Yellow or Salty-Sweet, simple categories hardly capture the nuances of the color of wood (yellow?) or the flavor of a slice of bread (salty?). But what having this simple taxonomy does is unlock an awareness of what on earth we are touching, and where we may be sensation-deprived.

The touch I refer to in my taxonomy is where you run your finger over an object to feel what’s there. Since your touch nerves detect vibration, moving your finger around on the surface helps you feel it better than just plonking your finger down once.

Now catalogue what textures you have felt the past 5 minutes. Actually what are you feeling now? I would guess it’s Hard-Smooth-Cool-Dry. In fact, I would guess a majority of the things that you touch (other than your own face or hair) are Hard-Smooth-Cool-Dry. Our phones, our keyboards, or cooking and eating utensils, doorknobs, buttons — most of the tools and implements of our lives are Hard-Smooth-Cool-Dry.

Think for a moment of what objects you touch that aren’t Hard-Smooth-Cool-Dry. Likely it will be either food or textiles : maybe you are wearing some cotton or synthetic material that is Soft-Smooth-Warm-Dry, or just ate a slice of pear, which was Soft-Smooth-Cool-Wet.

Now go outside. Here the challenge is reversed: it’s almost impossible to find something that is Hard-Smooth-Cool-Dry. Run your fingers over the tree bark that is hard but textured. The leaves that are smooth but soft. The grass that is soft and textured, cool and wet. The mud, the small pebbles. The only thing in nature that I could find that is Hard-Smooth-Cool-Dry are large sea-worn stones like on the beaches of Brighton.

Human history is a story of tools, and as we’ve moved through history, those tools seem to have become uniform in how they feel, from arrow heads on. Maybe it’s because of production techniques, materials that last, or some sense that things that are Hard-Smooth-Cool-Dry are modern. Maybe it’s the fear of germs, which lurk on surfaces we can’t clean easily, like those high pile rugs we won’t get until our kids are older or those sequined dresses you can’t tumble dry. Isn’t weird that soft and textured items feel cosier than hard and smooth things, but a cup of tea, the pinnacle of British comfort, is served in hard, smooth mugs?

We know deep down that there’s a simple joy of touching things which are in the outer reaches of my taxonomy of touch, toward the Soft-Textured-Warm-Wet corner. How much of the foods we crave as guilty pleasures are those we eat with our sensation-seeking hands — the snack foods your fingers feel out of the crinkly bag, the soft roll on a ham and cheese sandwich, the juicy cool watermelon which drips down your wrist, the still warm pieces of turkey you pick off the bone when no one’s looking? How much more joy would we have in life if we ate more of our food with our fingers?

2020 has been a tough year. And I can’t help wonder, looking back, if it’s been worse because we’ve been told not to touch things. Not to touch our faces even, our friends, doorknobs and elevator buttons, the sticky squishy rubber buttons of a pub’s PIN code reader, our neighbor’s new foofy puppy.

As we go into 2021, I have a resolution : to touch more objects that are not just Hard, Smooth, Cool and Dry. And to be more mindful in those moments of how what I am touching feels.

So maybe 2021 is the time to buy that Etsy knitted sweater for my tea mug, to eat rice with my fingers, and finally, a year behind the curve, to learn to knead my own sourdough bread.

All the best for safe, healthy 2021! And thanks, as always, for staying in touch.


p.s. If you are interested in the field of touch, let me know! I’ve spent some of my non-existent free time this year learning about the fascinating subject of touch, most of which didn’t make it into this blog. I have some cool findings and even more outstanding questions across the many disciplines this subject ‘touches’: the biology (can we learn to get better at touch? does it change as we age?), materials properties (how does the physical properties of a surface affect how we feel it?), virtual reality and haptics technology (will we be able to feel objects in VR? how? how would it be used?), product design and packaging (what are the rules for a good tactile experience?), role of touch in art (how do artists use touch as a medium and how would you even display it?), standards for touch in product design and manufacturing (a company called SynTouch seems to have identified a technical definition for touch; are there others?), transmission of touch data (how could you record and send a texture to someone else the way we do with voice?), role of touch in dreaming (why don’t we dream of touch?), history and anthropology (what % of time do we spend touching different surfaces and how has that changed over time?), … and many more. Love to hear your thoughts too!

The Coronavirus Generation

Last Sunday March 15 at 1 am, my 1 year old son Cooper became one of the newest member of the Coronavirus Generation. 

He woke up a fever which would become just a cough 2 days later. My husband, 4 year old son and I all went into 14 days of self-isolation here at home in London. Cooper recovered by day 5, the same day I started to get a sore throat and fatigue (but no fever).  We are all better today, but won’t know whether it was this corona virus Covid-19 or some other normal nursery bug.  When self-isolation ends, our nursery will be shut indefinitely. We are all working from home. A new era begins.

Covid-19 isn’t something that will pass in a few weeks. In the UK there’s no clear exit plan for how we come down from this emergency state and start reopening schools and restaurants.  We’ll be in this state for many months or more.

And this Covid-19 will not be the last virus to become a pandemic. If viruses like this break out and shut down society one or two more times in the next 5-10 years, life will change. We won’t be able to go back to the way things were on March 14th.  Indeed, I suspect pandemics will define baby Cooper’s generation.  

Three years ago I guessed what the world would like for my son Hunter when he turned 18. (  Now here’s my punt on what the world will look like when baby Cooper and other members of his Coronavirus Generation turn 18 in 2037:

  • Everyone will know how to properly wash their hands.
  • Virtual reality video calls will be absolutely normal and natural.  Since we’re in self-isolation this week, my 4 year old Hunter has started having video playdates to break the social isolation; as adults, we are planning virtual board games. Video communication has not been great so far because we need too much data to get high resolution images, and there’s a delay (latency) which breaks the natural connection we have in face-to-face conversations.  But in his fascinating book on virtual reality, Jeremy Bailenson notes that we’ve pretty much solved both of these problems. A company called Faceshift categorized the face into 51 ‘morph states’; by using these to render an photorealistic avatar of your face, it feels like the person – or a cool avatar.  It’s better than a video stream : it’s faster as it’s only 51 data points, conveys the most important info (your expression), doesn’t distract you with unimportant stuff (your phone wiggles, the lamp behind you). Apple bought this company in 2015. I wish I had.
  • Friendships will be constrained only by time zones, not distance.  As people move schools or jobs or cities, they will be able to stay even closer than today — as much more of our social lives will be by video. 
  • Cooper’s social groups will be constrained by how many faces fit comfortably on his screen — maybe just 2 or 3 people at a time. (Of course, screens will get bigger, driven by middle-schoolers social needs to have just a few more people in their group.)
  • Kids will keep their rooms clean. With everyone seeing their rooms as they video chat, having a tidy place with a nice picture on the wall will be more important. (Or so this mom hopes!)  Kids will talk about interior design over lunch. IKEA will thrive.
  • In school, grades will be continuous, based on regular coursework.  Just in case another pandemic strike cancels year end exams.
  • When Cooper starts to think about work, he will have to decide between the two big categories : physical or virtual.  That physical/virtual divide will replace the antiquated white collar/blue collar terms. Physical jobs will be those that require actually touching things and people (doctors, plumbers, waiters); virtual ones can be done remotely (managers, lawyers, maybe even teachers). If he picks the virtual route, Cooper may feel peer pressure to go into pharmaceuticals — they’ll always be in the news.
  • Unfortunately competition for virtual jobs will be intense. UK and US immigration laws that keep trying to keep out physical workers won’t be able to keep out virtual ones. Until this month, the full promise of ‘offshoring’ was blocked by the still high value of in-office ‘face time’ and ‘water cooler’ conversations. But as we spend months working from home this year and in future pandemics, everyone will need to find a way to make a virtual water cooler; and everyone, no matter where we are living, will be able to have a drink at it.
  • Physical jobs will therefore gain in status, and wages for them will go up.  Plumbers will continue to do very well.
  • Urbanization will decline. Virtual jobs will no longer be time or place-bound. Rush hour will disappear. People will live in larger homes, away from pandemic-ridden urban centres. The services we city-mice love — entertainment, restaurants, crowded spaces with lots of other people — will start to thin out and become less vibrant.  And who cares about living near a good school when it could close any day?  Property prices in city centres like London will remain stagnant or decline, as people move to larger homes in suburban, rural or — heck — sunnier places.
  • Where ours was ‘Generation Rent’, Cooper’s will be Generation Buy. Their strong childhood passion for interior decoration plus the more moderate house prices mean they can even afford to buy and refurbish places. (Just maybe not quite enough to pay for a professional plumber.)
  • Dual career families will sharply decline. The practicalities of looking after (young) children while on work calls will force all but the most determined to boil down to a one career family, as schools remain shut and families forced into self-isolation. The optimist in me thinks couples will share or alternate who focuses on their career each time; the pessimist thinks that decades of progress in gender equality will fall apart, and women will end up taking care of the kids.
  • In good news for gender equality, though, the ‘travel bias’ against women won’t matter anymore. I have a theory that travel is a big reason for the glass ceiling in corporate jobs : high status jobs assume a willingness to travel, for instance to win sales, manage regional or global teams, or close deals. Yet people assume that women with kids won’t travel, while men of course will. If no one travels, that bias disappears.   
  • Unfortunately, though, poor Cooper, who will have grown up in a pseudo-virtual world and afraid of germs, will have no idea how to date those more equal women (or men). The shift in focus to virtual everything and spending so much time in their rooms will make him a bit awkward. As a result the Coronavirus Generation will end up settling down much later in life. And I’ll have to wait longer for those grandchildren.
  • So where on earth will Coronakids go to connect with other real (non virtual) people?  I suspect it will be places where they can’t do things they could do at home (so not places where they could drink coffee, watch movies and have a chat). But probably places where they can actually physically run around :  playgrounds, sports fields, pools, gyms, squash courts, and tennis courts.  And so social circles will once again, perhaps, revolve around the local sports club.  Just this time, unlike New York City in the 1970s, not be for boys only. 
  • Perhaps most significantly though, a centuries long trend of individualism in the West will be replaced by a sense of community. Coronakids will come to see themselves as a piece of a bigger social puzzle, having long been taught the importance of self-isolation to protect others, only buying what you need to not stock out critical supplies, and caring for the elderly and vulnerable.  Their sense of identify will be an We, not an I.
  • The pressure on climate change will ease (somewhat). Partially as global supply chains reorganise to more local and lower supply, partially as the economy continues to slow down year after year, partially as the illnesses take their tolls, partially as people hold off on having kids — and partially as Cooper’s generation realises time and time again just how much toilet paper they really need to be happy.
  • Unfortunately since many airlines will go bankrupt every few years, flights will be extremely expensive on those that are left.  So it will be harder for Cooper to see the world first hand.  When Cooper turns 18, I’l give him a round-the-world plane ticket; I may need to save for it starting now, the way other generations have saved for university tuition. At last tuition will be cheaper than it is today – and maybe he won’t bother going to university by then anyway. After all, 17 years is a long time away.

In the meantime, here are the things that won’t change:

  • Great music will bring us together.  The Coronakids will be some of the most amazing artists of all history.  I just won’t like their style.
  • Paracetamol / Tylenol (acetaminophen) will continue to cure many problems with no side effects, and be the most amazing pill of all time.
  • And you, Baby Cooper, will always be our baby.

Stay safe, stay healthy, and keep washing those hands.

On Belonging

What can I teach my boys, now 8 months and 3 years old, that would help them live happy lives? Is it helping them find purpose? Achievement? Comfort? When I looked at those around me, and back at my own life, and I was surprised to see that the thing that really mattered most was actually belonging. We are happiest when we feel we belong with our families, partners, friends, peers, teammates, classmates, colleagues, countrymen, generation. And we are miserable when we don’t feel we belong.

I actually shouldn’t have been so surprised. Belonging is a core need. In Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, I remembered the basic needs (food, clothing, etc.) and the highest ones (similar to purpose), but when I looked again, right there in the middle holding it all together is ‘love and belonging’.

Without feeling like we belong, we can’t perform; in the ABCs of Learning, chapter B is for ‘Belonging’ for that reason. Jonathan Haidt’s Righteous Mind explains that the main reason we argue about politics is not to convince others to change their minds (they won’t), but to strengthen our bonds with others who already share our views. We are passionate about politics because it helps us feel we belong.

I even realized that belonging is the main reason I care about achievement or purpose in the first place. If I fail at school, will I be excluded from my peer group of nerds? If I don’t succeed at work, will I be able to afford to live in this community in central London? If I don’t have a job that does good for the world, will my friends still like me?

Ok then, since belonging is so foundational, I just have to teach baby Cooper and brother Hunter how to feel like they belong. To uncountable set of social groups they will come across. Throughout their lives. For the next ¬100 years.

How the hell do I that?

The traditional solution to making people feel they belong is to design ‘inclusive’ institutions. If we only build the right campus dorm structure or ‘diverse and inclusive’ corporate culture, everyone will feel like they belong. Indeed Stanford’s president just announced they’ve restructured undergraduate housing in 700 person pods to inspire undergrads to gel better. So taking this ‘institutional’ approach toward parenting, I’d construct a lovely, sheltered, design-engineered bubble of people and interactions and arranged marriages so my poor little munchkins can easily feel like they belong.

That’s not going to work.

Fortunately, the other day my 3 year old Hunter did what kids do best : teach us how to raise them. In our neighbourhood there’s a playground with a big swing, in the middle of a local council estate. In my mind, Hunter and I didn’t belong there: we don’t live in that council estate or indeed any social housing, most of the kids are older (5 to 10 years old), and they all know each other already. But Hunter liked the swing, and the kids seemed kind and open to playing with him, so we started going there. Over time, he’s become part of this group. And I’ve gotten to observe how my skillful 3 year old fits in.

Belonging is an art and skill. It’s innate, and it can be learned and honed. Actually it’s three skills: First, you have to be able to be accepted by those you want to belong with. Second, you need to know when it’s time to move on. And lastly, you need to know what you who want to belong with.

Skill 1 : Being accepted

Babies are born knowing how to breathe, pee and poo, drink milk, and be accepted by their parents. They compel us to carry them with us everywhere (yes, even into the toilet when we need to pee on an airplane). At 4 months, Cooper would cry when he was on the floor next to the table instead of up at the table with us — he learned how to fit in at the table before he could eat or sit up. At 3 years old, Hunter refused to wear his nursery uniform outside the nursery, lest he stand out, but wears it inside — as long as everyone else is too. The skill of fitting in and being accepted is innate. They will continue to master how to fit in by watching and emulating people who already do. And so, in Montessori style, my job is to not let my boys lose this innate skill as they get older.

But if and when they do, there are now loads of places to learn it the nerdy way : acting classes, MBA, ‘soft skill’ trainings at work, blogs, books, and even fashion magazines can teach small but powerful tips like mirroring people’s behaviour, taking up the right amount of space, and intonation. They’ll figure it out. Other than during middle school, we all have.

Skill 2 : Knowing when you don’t belong anymore

Belonging is a skill, not a state. We don’t accumulate a sense of belonging over time; we move through moments of feeling like we belong, and then suddenly, we realize we don’t anymore.

There are three reasons why we stop belonging: we’ve changed, others have, or we never really belonged in the first place.

Here’s the trick : there will always be a time that you don’t belong anymore. Maybe you are at a wonderful, laughter-filled dinner party and the host starts tidying up the dishes; maybe after an election you find your political party has drifted too far from your values; maybe your neighbourhood gentrified; maybe you have. Or maybe you just tried a new group, gave it a whirl, but it just didn’t resonate with them in your heart. It’s time to move on.

In Grouped, Paul Adams points out that changing social groups is absolutely natural. He says we typically keep only around 4 friends from any shared social experience — like high school, college, different places you’ve worked, your kids’ school community, that time you lived abroad. Yet social media (Facebook, WhatsApp, this Aabservation mailing list) persists in a bizarre way over time, with no good way to let old acquaintance be forgot, without a painful ‘Liz has unfriended you’, ‘Liz, please unsubscribe me from your Aabservation list as I don’t even remember where we met’ or ‘Liz has left this WhatsApp group’. Having 1000+ Facebook ‘friends’ makes me feel I should belong to a group of people I once belonged to. We shouldn’t. We can’t. We don’t.

Yet while moving on is absolutely natural and common, it can be absolutely painful. My husband and I were in denial for over a year that our social life and indeed our friends changed when we had Hunter 3 years ago. And we were in denial yet again that it had changed yet again with the birth of baby Cooper. We’ve tried to get brunch on the weekends with friends that don’t have kids; but between the constant interruption/distractions, the mis-synced timing (by 11am they are getting breakfast, but we have been up for 5 hours and are on our 3rd meal), and the topics of conversations… it’s just not the same.

There is no ‘settled’. I’ve seen the other side of the timeline, as my parents’ generation goes through health challenges and death. Couples that had always belonged to each other suddenly find themselves not belonging to someone anymore. As they retire they lose the work colleagues they belonged to, the friend groups they belong to, maybe their kids now have their own kids and have moved far away (hi, mom and dad). And this loss happens at a time when they are most out of practice at the skill of finding new people to belong to.

So assuming I’ve taught my boys to recognize when it’s time to move on, how do I help them actually go through that painful process of saying goodbye?

Here I think Marie Kondo, of tidying fame, has some brilliant insights. You get rid of things by thanking them.

If it’s people you really connected with, thank them for the beautiful memories, for how they changed your life in little or big ways, for what they taught you. You don’t have to thank them to their face or even out loud. And it’s not permanent; there may be a time later in your life when you reconnect again, either because the situation changed or you did.

And if it’s people you don’t connect with (colleagues, a relationship, a group of friends, an activity club), thank them for teaching you where you don’t fit in. Or as Marie Kondo puts it, thank you for teaching me that I don’t like this kind of shirt.

Skill 3: Knowing where you want to belong

So poor Hunter and Cooper have a lot to learn! But perhaps the hardest, the most lifelong, is learning where they want to belong. Instead of asking ‘who do you want to be when you grow up,’ maybe we should be asking ‘who do you want to be with?’

We tend to feel we belong with people either because it resonates with something inherent in us, or because it’s familiar (like how just by hearing Britney Spear’s ‘Toxic’, I now can’t help but smile).

We like people we are used to. Few groups or people feel natural ‘at first sight.’ The first time Hunter stepped into the swing playground, I felt like I didn’t belong. The 20th time, I felt at home.

So to help feel more at home among new people, keep at it, at least 3, maybe 5, maybe 10 times. Don’t drop the awkward social experience because it was awkward the first time — it always is. With more familiarity, it will feel more like they belong.

But there’s a limit. We won’t feel like we belong with everyone. There’s something inside us, that resonates when we have found the right person or group or community. There’s something that just feels right. As Marie Kondo would say about a piece of clothing, we develop an intuition that this just ‘sparks joy.’

So how do I help my boys find their resonant frequency, that sparks that joy for them? By helping them try out new groups, meeting new people, and continuing to meet new people for the rest of their lives.

I am currently overcoming a lifelong fear of clothing shopping. Because I felt awkward (actually, terrified) buying clothes, I avoided it until I absolutely had to. Then someone whose fashion sense I trusted would rescue me by buying clothes for me; first it was my mom, then my sister, then good friends, now my husband. Which worked until my next fashion crisis.

Wrong. Having other people buy me clothes wasn’t the solution, it was part of the problem. A few weeks ago a friend told me, ‘Liz, are you kidding? I never shop with others. I only shop alone.’ She advised me to go by myself to the huge Westfield shopping centre in London and just wander about for a couple of hours. And it was so much easier! Suddenly, I had only myself to please. I didn’t have to see if this clothing suited me and also my mom/sister/friend/husband’s image of me. I didn’t have to pop out of the dressing room in a shirt that didn’t fit properly and ask, How do I look?

And yet we hold the same crazy requirements to belonging as I did to clothing : we usually only try out new social groups when we are with people from our existing ones. Which makes it seriously hard to belong in a new group.

Remember the movie Grease? Sandra Dee meets her true love Danny only when they are by themselves, away from the social pressures of high school. It’s true : when we are allowed freedom to meet others one-to-one, outside the peer/family pressure of their existing groups, we can find the one that we want, oh hoo hoo, honey.

Branching out to new groups often starts with just one person. One person outside our normal world, that we’ve met somewhere outside our normal world, that is totally unfamiliar — and yet we resonate with them.

This one person can pull us into their world like a thread through a cloth. These Threaders are the magic key of belonging. If I think back to Hunter integrating into his playground group, the turning point was when one friendly girl asked to play with him.

Threaders sometimes pull you into worlds you end up not liking. That’s fine. That was the other lesson of my shopping spree at Westfield : it’s okay not to like every shirt and every store. It teaches you what you don’t like.

And so in sum, dear Hunter and Cooper, here’s how I will try to teach you the lifelong skill of belonging:

I will not shelter you in a design-engineered bubble of people that I think you will like.

Instead, I will try to give you chances to learn the subtle art of fitting in, through encouraging you to watch and emulate others, acting classes, and sharing tips.

I will give you lots of opportunities to practice in new social situations, even if I find them uncomfortable myself.

I will encourage you to stick it out a little bit in those new settings, so you can tell if it’s a bad fit only because it’s unfamiliar, or because it doesn’t resonate with you.

I will give you space and privacy to shop for your friends alone.

I will comfort you when you need to leave groups and people you’ve belonged to, and help you notice when it’s time to move on.

I will watch you and continue to learn from you.

I will ask you to teach me and remind me as I get older, and out of practice just at the time I need practice the most.

And above all, I will do my best to make sure that our family always feels like somewhere you belong. I will save those childhood Smurf sheets for your visits back home. And maybe, one day, for your kids’ visits too.

How to play with others

“Most parents do not play with their children,” the book explained, “and all too often the reason is simply that they don’t know how.”

I read this line again, first thinking I’d read it wrong, then rolling my eyes. What do you mean, don’t know how to play?  Who doesn’t know how to play?
But as I read the next 9 pages of Dr Carolyn Webster-Stratton’s The Incredible Years parenting book, I realized I was ‘playing’ with my 3 year old son Hunter all wrong.

The core of her recommendation?  Essentially : watch what your kid is doing or saying, accept it, repeat it back to them, and build on it.  Watch, accept, repeat, build.
I tried out this approach out on my son the next day over some Lego. Previously Hunter would build a car, and I’ll grab some Lego next to him and build another car of my own, and then try to get them to drive around together. Wrong. The advice from the book was to not build my own thing, but instead to just sit and watch what Hunter does, and comment on it out loud, like a sportscaster.
So, awkwardly, I did. Hunter started taking the tires off his Lego motorcycle and then putting the wheels back on, without tires. My instinct was to correct him, to say ‘No, Hunter, that’s not right.’  Uncomfortably, I bit my tongue and just sports-commentated. ‘I see you are putting red wheels on the motorcycle.’
‘Yes,’ he replied excitedly, raising the bare-wheeled Lego up into the sky. ‘It’s a super flying motorcycle!’
I was gobsmacked with how much more awesome his motorcycle was than my ‘correct’ version would have been.  How much my son had to teach me about playing!
We played for a while longer, him taking off wheels and putting them on, only asking for my help from time to time when one got stuck.  He loved playing with me in this way, and I loved it too.  First, it was a lot less work than trying to come up with a super awesome Lego of my own.  And even better, I got to peer into his mind and glimpse, with wonder, how he sees the world.
In the weeks since, our relationship has blossomed. I am 9 months pregnant, due with his little brother any day now.  I had thought he was avoiding me either because of jealousy of the incoming new little brother, or boredom because I’m too tired and immobile to run around with him.
But actually, I realized, he didn’t like to play with me because I didn’t know how.
It’s silly.  In retrospect I have been taught how to play many times in my life: in improvisitional theatre class in college, in ‘active listening’ classes during my MBA, in ‘coaching’ courses at Shell, in articles, in books, on the volleyball court, in the sandbox.  And while they use different words, the approach is always the same : watch, accept, repeat, build.
In Keith Johnstone’s book Impro about improvisational theatre, it’s called ‘accepting offers.’  If an actor during a skit says to you, ‘Doctor, my leg is broken,’ you can instantly kill the scene if you reply with your own idea about what the scene is about, like, ‘I’m not a doctor, I’m your aunt.’  Good improv actors watch attentively to see what story the other person ‘offers’ them, ‘accept’ it and then build on it.  ‘Oh wow,’ you might say instead in your best doctor voice, ‘I see that your leg is horribly broken! Come this way into my operating room!’  The audience (and actors!) now wonder with excitement : what will happen next?
Similarly in ‘active listening’ class, I was taught to ‘park my thoughts’ to help listen better. Say your friend is telling you about a stressful meeting she had with a colleague at work. You think, ‘Wow, I had a similar situation at work with Bob, which I handled by…’ You then zone out, waiting for your friend to pause, so you can tell her about your own meeting with Bob and what you did. All the while, you aren’t really listening to what she’s saying, and miss the fact that she’s upset and seeking comfort and advice. You missed a perfect chance to be a good friend to her, to get some insights into her life at the office, and get to know her better. You’ve missed a perfect chance to play.
To prevent this zoning out, my active listening teacher told me : park your brilliant thought and go back to listening.  I (still) find this hard to do, as I have lots of random thoughts from my life I’d like to share. Yet when I’ve succeeded at doing it, when I’ve just listened, repeated back what the other person they just said, and then asked questions that built on it, I’ve found that my friends and colleagues enjoy those conversations and get a lot of out of them.  And I do too.
There’s one more place I’ve been taught the same lesson in a different guise, which is timely for this season. What should I get him or her for Christmas?
The advice? Watch, accept, repeat and build. Listen for what people say they like and would want.  Accept that they like that.  Repeat it back to them to confirm that is indeed what they’d like (and maybe get some detailed specifications at the same time!). And then either get exactly that thing or something that builds on that concept.
I bought my son some stamps, thinking I’d like him to do more crafty things.  My ever wise husband Oyvind, however, has followed the rules above and bought him the same toy he has a dozen of already, because he loves them so much : a police car.  (‘He’s a collector,’ Oyvind explains with a grin.)  I suspect come Christmas day, he will play for hours with the car, and not at all with the stamps.
So this holiday, I wish you have time and the chance to practice playing with others.  To play with your gifts. To play with your relatives (even those with different political views). To play with your guests who brought food you don’t normally like. To play with your friends going through great times, and with those going through rough times. To play with your kids and to learn how to play from them.
Watch, accept, repeat and build.  And see what super flying motorcycles we can make together.
Happy holidays,

On Being Deliberate

After some deliberation, I’ve decided to deliberately share my 2018 New Year’s Resolution : to be more deliberate.

Deliberate. It’s an awesome word that has popped up during 2017 and over the past 2 weeks in particular.

Being ‘deliberate’ is the ‘D’ in chapter D of the ABC’s of Learning, a cool book I’ve been reading this Christmas about how we learn (and teach) best. ‘Deliberate practice’, like free throw shooting drills, helps breaks out of the performance plateau that you get if you just play a game of basketball every weekend. You can practice a skill like a foreign language for hours; but deliberately drilling hard things with coaching and feedback — that’s where the real improvement happens.

Being deliberate came up as I watched videos of swim coach Terry Laughlin talk about his ‘total immersion’ technique of swimming: making each stroke deliberate, concentrating on where your body is positioned, putting your hand at a consciously chosen x/y axis point in the water. By being deliberate, you can use teach yourself to use less energy and get more distance each stroke.

Being deliberate has come up as my husband and I organized our kitchen over the Christmas break (yep, we’ve become those people!). We analyzed how we use our kitchen space and realized we had our mugs in a hard-to-reach high shelf while our most accessible shelf was cluttered with useless junk. We spent half an hour deliberately throwing out the junk and moved our mugs to the now freed up lower shelf. It was a cup of tea!

And as usual, I’ve gotten inspiration from my husband, Oyvind, on this too. Being ‘deliberate’ is one of the four values he introduced at his company, Poq. It asks everyone to make conscious choices about what to do to — and not to do — from what clients to take on, to what software to develop next. It works, and his company is thriving.

But what does it really mean to be ‘deliberate’? And how is this a New Year’s Resolution?

According to the dictionary, ‘deliberate’ means ‘done consciously and intentionally.’

I love that definition. To think carefully about what to do. And then to do it with purpose, knowing why you do the thing you are doing. Asking, what are you trying to achieve? And is this the best way to achieve that?

It sounds simple, but it’s a big ask, and one I don’t think I’ll be able to achieve (like most New Year’s resolutions!).

For me, being deliberate in 2018 means thinking consciously and intentionally about how we organize our home (beyond our mugs), where we put our stuff, what we put on the walls, what stuff we have and don’t have. That will require effort on the weekends, with some trash bags, and trips to the charity shop.

It means being deliberate about how I spend my time. Where, with whom, doing what. Both at work and not at work.

It means being deliberate about how I sit, stand, hold my posture, swim.

About what I eat and drink.

About what I read, watch.

What I write, say.

About what I practice.

About what I preach.

About how I listen.

So I’ve shared this with you as an Aabservation, deliberately. To see if it resonates with you and to get feedback.

And to ask you to help me stick to this resolution!

All the best for a happy and healthy 2018,

The 7 Ps

In the past year I’ve had a number of career chats with friends who were considering different job options or paths. Traditionally people frame their job search in terms of industry and job description. But thinking about the three “careers” I’ve had — finance in NYC, consulting in China and now energy in London — I keep finding the ‘industry/job description’ framework both too specific and too limiting.

Instead, I found seven fundamental things that have determined whether my friends and I love our jobs or not. The seven things that matter most, I think, when deciding a job or career. I call them the “7 Ps“:

  1. Place : Where geographically do you want to work? The city/country you are based in and your commute affect how you spend your time, and who you spend your time with, both inside and outside work.
  2. People : Who specifically would you work with on a daily basis? Do you like them? Does your boss care about you and want to see you succeed?
  3. Pay : Does the job or sector pay you enough to live the life you want? If not, will your pay will increase in a few years in this career path? Or, are you happy to change your lifestyle to accommodate a lower salary?
  4. Progression : Will you develop skills, knowledge, a network or a reputation that will help you move forward in your career?
  5. Perception : How do people react when you tell them what you do? Whose opinion do you really care about, and how important is that to you? (Of course perceptions of jobs and industries change over time. As a case in point: almost nobody outside finance had heard of Lehman Brothers when I started there in 2001… )
  6. Purpose : What is the company or organisation trying to achieve, and do you support that? It’s not just millennials that want to work on something they believe in.
  7. Procedures : The last P, the one I always forget but that most traditional job searches start with : what do you actually do in the job? Are you spending your day on the phone, or sitting reading stacks of paper, or crunching Excel, or standing on your feet in front of 25 teenagers? And do you like doing those things?

I don’t know many people who ever get all 7 at once in one job.

And the weighting of the 7 Ps varies over time. Perception and Purpose may matter more while you are starting out, while Pay and Place may matter more when you are starting a family for instance. But all are worth considering at any stage.

Happy to hear your comments on my 7 Ps — and of course, any Qs!


When Hunter turns 18

As baby Hunter nears his first birthday, I have been wondering what the world will look like when he’s 18, in 2033.  Here are my predictions — or really punts — enjoy!

  1. He won’t use cash, ever.  He may, though,  have a ‘cash collection’, the same way I used to have a stamp collection.
  2. Neither he nor his friends will have a drivers’ license. He will either use public transit, bikes, taxis, or self-driving cars.
  3. Neither he nor anyone he knows will smoke cigarettes. There will be fewer cigarettes sold than marijuana joints in the western world.
  4. He will not have any passwords. All his access will be fingerprints or facial recognition.
  5. He won’t need a passport, or any ID.
  6. He will be as practiced in making music and videos as we were in writing essays.  And he’ll use them to express his ideas, both academically, extra-curricularly and socially.
  7. He will apply to university by providing the school a database with every homework assignment, test result, school newspaper blog entry, social media post and music video he’s done. The universities will then run their artificial intelligence algorithm to build a class that optimizes for cultural fit, future potential and diversity.
  8. Flights will be three times as expensive as they are now, and he will travel half as much.
  9. Meat will be three times as expensive as it is now. He will use it as garnish rather than a main part of a meal.
  10. Streets will be quieter, with more public transportation and electric vehicles.
  11. He and all his friends will speak Chinese.
  12. He won’t be able to board an airplane if he’s sick, to stop the spread of some global pandemic. Health scans will replace security scans at the airport.
  13. He will feel safe from crime, as police departments are given more powers and technologies to prevent criminal activity.
  14. He will fear the government, though, which will have expanded its powers to combat an ever more vague definition of terrorism. He will find himself self-censoring what he says online to avoid seeming anti-establishment in the years before applying to university.
  15. 90% of what he learns in school will be fascinating to him, and stick with him. He will be an agent in his own learning, actively exploring topics, pursuing his interests, and connecting with others inside and outside his school that share his joy of learning. His daily curriculum will not be History, English, Math, etc., but some cross-disciplinary, immersive, skills-focused new thing I can’t even imagine.
  16. He will assume almost everything is knowable. Instantly.
  17. He will be addicted to getting the latest information about everything from politics to fashion to friends, and be 100x better at quick analysis than deep analysis.
  18. He will get his grocery deliveries by drone.
  19. Half his friends will live with their parents when they start working; the other half will sleep on lofted beds to save space. He and his 3 friends will live in a 600 square foot flat and pay over 50% of their income doing so. Owning a home in London will be reserved as a ‘post-IPO’ fantasy.
  20. He will not apply for his first job; his employer will select him based on the online reputation he has built for himself in that field.

And things that won’t have changed:

  1. He will be tired and stretched too thin from all the academic, social and extra curricular things he wants to do.
  2. He will celebrate his 18th birthday with a cake, candle and the Happy Birthday song.
  3. He will still get the common cold.  Tylenol/paracetamol and a cup of tea will still be the main treatment.
  4. He will still wear jeans on the weekends, and a button down shirt to important meetings.
  5. He will still develop a crush on the popular girl. And though he makes her the subject of his music videos, she will not know he exists.
  6. And of course, when his first love breaks his heart, or he runs out of money, or fights over dishes in the sink with his flatmates, he will always be welcome home to mom and dad.

On Binaryism

Before having baby Hunter, I would subconsciously score each experience on a graduated scale from 0 to 100.  A dinner out would get maximum points for great conversation, food and ambiance. A walk through a park would get bonus points for having roses in bloom and the sun streaming through poofy white clouds.

But now, I score my life on a binary scale : 0 or 1. Did I go to dinner or the park, or not?
The other day, I was two hours late to dinner with some friends, as my 8 month old baby wasn’t settling easily down to bed. The food was good but not mind blowing, and some people couldn’t make it.  But instead I just thought : I made it out to dinner! Check!  1 point!
For someone who cared a great deal about the difference between an A and an A minus as a student, it feels counter-intuitive that this ‘pass/fail’ system would be so rewarding, and so liberating.
But it is.
And it takes so much of the pressure off of being a new parent.
Take ‘baby cinema’ as an example. On a Monday at 11 am, parents and their babies go to a theatre to watch a movie. Pre-baby Hunter, I might score the experience as less than half as good as seeing a movie without the baby. After all, I missed the beginning waiting for the baby to wake from his nap, the key moment while I was in the bathroom changing his nappy, half the dialogue thanks to the other 30 babies crying and half the plot due to my own sleep deprivation.
But under binary thinking, I thought : who hooo!  I made it to a movie!
Binary thinking is essentially a shortcut for optimism: seeing the glass as half full, rounding up.  And it’s made me appreciate much more of the past 8 months of maternity leave.
I admit, it’s a strange time to become a “binaryist”. The internet has made micro-optimization ever easier, whether it’s planning your route, finding a phone plan, or meeting new people. My generation, and especially the ones after mine, will come to expect everything to be optimal, always.
So perhaps then it’s the right time.  As despite the advances in technology and civilization, not everything is always as good as you might have hoped. Binaryism gives us an easy way to handle times when it isn’t.  And to enjoy each experience for what it is : itself.

On becoming a mother

It hit me that I am now a mom the way that rain drops make you wet : one drop at a time. Our son, Hunter Aab Henriksen was born Thu Dec 3rd at 10:20am, 3.62 kg (8 lbs), without complications at University College Hospital in London. My husband Oyvind and I are very much in love with the little man.

The slow process of becoming a ‘mom’ started when I found out that I was pregnant. It got a little more real after our 12 week ultrasound when we saw the bambino for the first time, dancing to each heart beat. It got more real still when I started telling people I was pregnant, and as my bump became visible. Even feeling him kick was gradual — was that a kick or just gas? At 20 weeks we saw on the scan that he was a boy, and it hit me a little harder : we weren’t giving birth to a baby, but to a person, a boy who one day would go through puberty and become a man.

By the last two months, as I sported my ‘Baby on board’ pin to get much needed seats on the Tube and bus, I was very ready to be a mom. Or at least to not be pregnant anymore!

Then came the big day. I’ve heard some women say they feel an instant surge of relief or joy the moment their baby is born. For me, it took a few days. The first few hours in the hospital, I was just too physically spent to really process anything. Having just had nearly three days and sleepless nights of contractions and 9 hours of labor, my new mom thought process was more like, ‘what on earth just happened?’

When Oyvind and I were alone with our son for the first time in the hospital recovery room, it started to sink in. And there was a moment, when little Hunter looked up at me for the first time. He’s so cool.

So drop by drop it has become more real these past 5 weeks, as the exhaustion and aches of labor have faded, and a new routine of being a parent begins. It will continue to dawn on me that I’m a mother now, little by little : each time I fill out ‘mother’ on a form, or see my parents sing their grandson ‘rockaby baby on the tree’ the same way I was sung to.

5 weeks down in learning to become a mom. The rest of my life to go.


On married hugs

My dear friend Jo asked me to prepare a blessing for her wedding this past weekend, about something important in a marriage. Here it is (insert a perfect New Hampshire mountain backdrop and a perfect couple!):

On the blessing of married hugs

Jo, Scott, You will have many blessings in your marriage. One of the best is married hugs.

Hugs are the best.  There is no easier or more effective way to love and to feel loved than a hug, both in times of celebration and in rough times.

While the kiss is the highlight of the wedding, the hug is the highlight of marriage.

What is a married hug? The word, hug, comes from the Norwegian word hugga, meaning to comfort. So it’s something comforting. And something about holding someone in your arms.

There are many types of married hugs:

  • The casual ‘just got home’ hug;
  • The ‘bone crushing’ squeeze hug;
  • The ‘Netflix on the sofa’ hug;
  • Various private hugs; and
  • Various public hugs, including one you’ll use today called the ‘don’t mess up my hair’ hug;
  • And perhaps one day the awkward but awesome ‘pregnant hug’,
  • Which prepares you for the inevitable future ‘beer belly’ hug.

Of course, you’ve hugged and been hugged since the day you were born. So what’s new and so special about married hugs?

Starting today, you are now each others’ go-to hugger, more than any other relationship you’ve had. You’ve both lived and traveled far from family and friends. But while you will still spend time apart from each other, your marriage will feel most complete when you are back in hug radius.

And for those times you are apart, look at your hands, at the wedding rings you are exchanging today. There are many things that a wedding ring symbolizes, of course, but I like to think they symbolize a permanent hug.

Jo, Scott, may you enjoy the many blessings of married hugs, as you promise to not just have — but to have and to hold — each other from this day forth.

Liz Aab