• Carolin Kassella

Current Top Picks – Nº 4

Special find of the month:

The Harvard Gazette's "Focal Point" series featuring various Harvard professors, presented interview-style

The Harvard Gazette (THG) is the official university newspaper of world famous Harvard University. I am generally astounded and pleased about the high quality of THG and the special care with which it is maintained. It offers a variety of topics ranging from the institution's newest research efforts, student life, alumni stories to much broader affairs – basically everything a well-rounded university newspaper should cover – yet it does not appear over-loaded with content or too one-sided towards one particular category. In addition, I also adore the style of its layout which could be characterized as a blend of minimalistic and sophisticated, hence making it easy to read and highly appealing to the eye.

One series which has recently been established has caught my special attention and is my absolute favorite online find of the past few weeks. In the so-called "Focal Point" series, THG asks its renowned professors of various and very diverse disciplines always the same, and just this one single question: "What is one thing wrong with the world that you would change, and why?" So far, leading Harvard scientists such as cognitive psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker, theoretical physicist Avi Loeb or political theorist and advocate Archon Fung have been interviewed. I have found all of the articles stating the professors’ answers and the reasoning behind them quite wonderful, concrete, elaborate yet intuitive and helpful, since the interviewees make sure to include tips and techniques on how to apply and integrate potential solutions and concepts among society and its individuals on a day-to-day basis.

The latest article of the series features psychologist Ellen Langer, who in her work has focused on the areas of aging, decision-making, illusion of control and mindfulness theory. Her advice at first struck me as quite unconventional (especially within the form of a science-focused university newspaper) and she offers a slightly more practical response compared to the previous interviewees.

She claims that we as individuals should be way more concerned with, and regularly practice, mindfulness – a term that has continuously gained popularity among various generations and social groups as well as in the corporate world. Still, her answer suggests that this has so far only scraped the surface of what could actually be achieved through the practicing of mindfulness and needs to be taken much more seriously as a basic need according to our value system and for us to prosper in various areas of our lives. Especially, since she establishes a direct relationship between the art of mindfulness and one of the fundamental human traits inevitable for our peaceful society to function, which is empathy. She also questions the value of absolute certainty – a state many humans, including myself, inherently so eagerly desire – and prompts us to think beyond our habits and beliefs.

Following Langer’s advice might be more easier said than done, however, she provides a unique perspective at the intersection of rational, analytical science and human emotionality. I am already curious to see who will be interviewed next in the series and hope you enjoy it as much as I did.


The New Yorker; 07/22/2019: "Rediscovering Natalia Ginzburg" (by Joan Acocella)

This article about late Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg (*1916 – †1991) is quite dear to my heart since, in my view, it carries two important messages. It describes the recent emergence of various of Ginzburg's novels as well as a rediscovered biography on her by German author Maia Pflug, which all continue to be printed in low runs. Frankly, it is quite a shame that many European authors, e. g. Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, as well as many other Eastern European ones, are not as widely known and established as their American and English peers due to low print runs and limited circles for word of mouth to flourish.

This circumstance is especially tragic since many of them cover traumatic and historically prominent, important topics such as Fascism (in Ginzburg's case), war, terrorism, poverty and other individual tragedies from the heart of European societies during the 20th century. Joan Acocella describes Ginzburg's style as "poignant yet unsentimental", which is relatively rare for female authors of the past. This is also where the article touches on another, crucial yet universally neglected theme: her writing style might partly be this rational and seemingly "cold" as a means to gain credibility as a writer and to establish herself among her male-dominated professional writing community. The article made me think of this quite unfortunate circumstance in a much broader sense, since it continues to be highly relevant and applicable today.

Women are still largely underrepresented and in most cases also disadvantaged within many professional areas and job fields. During recent decades, this has often times led the few (leading) women in those fields to try and establish dominance through adopting what is generally considered "male" behavior and the corresponding traits, i. e. exorbitant rationality, hyper-competitiveness, bluntness and an observable tendency towards authoritarian leadership styles (sidenote: I am well aware that there are exceptions to this pattern of male behavior in the professional world, however, there have been numerous studies clearly indicating a pattern leaning towards those characteristics among large samples of data. Secondly, there are also many positive traits and nuances that result from male-associated leadership styles, which I have left aside to focus on this particular view point of mine).

But do women really have to adopt these sets of "male" behavior to rise to the top and be considered successful in their professional fields? Or is it time for female role models to step up and set an example by showing a different leadership and working style, which is more in tune with female-associated traits such as communicativeness, empathy, community-orientedness as well as regulated, balanced emotionality? In my view, this is a discussion that has been due for a long time now – let's hope it gets picked up through continuing und sustained promotion of female role models and leading figures in their fields, such as Natalia Ginzburg.


The New York Times Opinion; 06/07/2019: "How To Live Your Life? You'll Need a Plunger, for Starters" (compiled by Kathleen A. O’Brien, Lisa Tarchak and Rachel L. Harris)

This is a compilation of valuable life advice assembled from over 800 responses of readers who are mostly middle-aged or senior in age to whom the NYT had previously reached out. As the title and content stands for itself, there is not much to comment on it, except that I found the mixture and key takeaways of the various responses very apposite and precise.

A read-through can first and foremost serve as a reminder to what is truly important in life, since in most passages the respondents elaborate on who or what people seeking joy and fulfillment in their lives should ideally focus on. In some readers it may also spark some first thoughts and ideas and it may lead them to think more deeply about various aspects of their lives and their future. Lastly, I also found myself questioning my own sets of behavior and current belief systems, thus using it to give myself a reality check, in a way.

Anyway, I recommend grabbing a cup of tea or coffee and spending a few minutes of a quiet afternoon to take it in and reflect on the messages, if you are into it. And while you are at it, take a peak into the comments section, you might find some additional gems there..

Deutschsprachige Empfehlung:

Deutschlandfunk Kultur – Politisches Feuilleton; Beitrag vom 26.07.2019: Kommentar der Soziologin Stefanie Graefe über geforderte Resilienz vs. Kritik an Organisationen, Systemen oder einzelnen Personen in der modernen Arbeitswelt

Bei dieser Empfehlung handelt es sich ausnahmsweise nicht um ein literarisches Fundstück sondern einen Kurzbeitrag des deutschen Radiosenders Deutschlandfunk Kultur (Dauer: 4:25 min.), der unter dem oben hinterlegten Link auch in der DLF Kultur Mediathek nachgehört werden kann.

In ihrem Gastbeitrag kontrastiert die Soziologin Dr. Stefanie Graefe auf interessante und tiefgründige Weise die immer lauter werdende Forderung von Arbeitgebern und sonstigen Akteuren in der modernen Arbeitswelt nach Resilienz und gesteigerter Belastbarkeit der Angestellten durch neuartige Methoden (z.B. Meditation und sonstige Selbstoptimierungstechniken) mit der dadurch verstärkt in den Hintergrund rückenden Kultur offener und konstruktiver Kritik an Führungskräften, Kollegen, Organisationsstrukturen und Regelwerken. Sie greift meines Erachtens das grundsätzliche und vermehrt totgeschwiegene bzw. verdrängte Dilemma auf, bei dem zunehmend Anforderungen an das Individuum der modernen Gesellschaft gestellt werden, und der Vorwurf mangelnder Resilienz (sog. Buzzword, auch: psychische Widerstandsfähigkeit, emotionale und mentale Robustheit) als Freifahrschein und Rechtfertigung missbraucht wird, um unmenschliches (z.B. respektloses) Verhalten und menschenunwürdige Bedingungen für die Arbeitnehmer zu überspielen und verharmlosen.

Ein äußerst hörenswerter Beitrag, angenehm vorgetragen, der mich zum Nachdenken angeregt und in meiner Auffassung bestärkt hat. Während individuelle Kritikfähigkeit und gesunde Selbstreflexion unerlässlich für das Fortbestehen einer intakten, friedlichen und von westlichen Werten geprägten Leistungsgesellschaft sind, müssen Tugenden wie respektvoller und achtsamer Umgang mit Arbeitskolleginnen und -kollegen, angemessenes Führungsverhalten und gesellschaftlich verantwortliche sowie nachhaltige Arbeitsgesetze sichergestellt und aktiv gelebt werden. Schon oft wurde ich selbst bereits Zeugin, wie emotional reife, leistungswillige, intelligente Menschen Opfer von destruktiven Verhaltensmustern verantwortlicher Vorgesetzter oder Kolleg*innen und ineffizienten Organisationsstrukturen wurden. Da hilft dann, wie Frau Graefe in wunderbar sachlichem und rationalem Ton anmerkt, auch kein übermäßiges Meditieren oder jährliches Backpacking mehr, sondern einzig eine offene sog. Feedback-Kultur, bei der Arbeitnehmer auf Augenhöhe und ohne Angst vor persönlichen Konsequenzen mit ihren Vorgesetzten den sachlichen Dissens ausleben können. Daher wird die Fähigkeit zu emotional intelligentem Handeln im Austausch mit den Kollegen, Führungskräften und auch im Privaten fortan umso wichtiger, um immer wieder selbstständig abwägen und reflektieren zu können, von welchen Faktoren kritische Situationen, bedrückende Umstände oder andauernde Konfliktfelder maßgeblich beeinflusst sind und wie hoch das eigene vorangegangene Einwirken sowie die eigenen Einflussmöglichkeiten in der jeweiligen (Unglücks-)Lage sind. Zuletzt kann die von Frau Graefe angeregte Grundsatzdiskussion auch in der Frage resultieren, ob und wie der Mensch sich in seinem beruflichen und privaten Ich unterscheiden kann und sollte. Dies ist wohl ein Diskussionsthema für sich; allerdings haben wir als Gesellschaft noch einen langen Weg zu gehen, da diese und weitere verwandte Fragestellungen während der letzten Jahre meines Erachtens weder in der nötigen Tiefe noch mit der angemessenen Ernsthaftigkeit diskutiert worden sind.


Enjoy und viel Freude beim Lesen & Hören!