A WorkLife Book Club Experience of Shared Learning and Personal Development

Lars introduced his team to Fika, a ritual he had grown up with in his native Sweden. He told them that although it’s often translated as a coffee and cake break, it really is much more than that. It’s a concept, a state of mind, an attitude and an important part of Swedish culture. He said Swedes believe it’s important to make time to stop and socialise because it refreshes the brain and strengthens relationships.

On his team, the host now rotates and has responsibility for planning the fika break for the rest of the group. They’ve played games, had show-and-tells, and more. At their last company offsite, they did an activity which they called ’Ten Pictures.’ Everyone shared ten pictures from the parts of their life that were important for them to share. They then each had five minutes to tell the stories behind the snaps. It had been a fun way to help the team to get to know where each of them had come from and what had been important to them along the way that had led them to become who they are today.

Today they were back in the office, and Lars was hosting once again. According to Lars, exactly what you eat during fika is not really important and that it’s more about spending quality time with friends and colleagues. However, whatever food the host chooses should be fresh and well presented. For Lars, that meant baking a cake at home to bring to work for fika. This time his cake of choice was a cardamon cake, baked using a beloved spice from the Swedish kitchen, making for an exotic-tasting cake that paired perfectly with the cups of coffee he had delivered from his friend Florian’s nearby cafe.

Smelling the coffee and the cake, his team arrived to fika (fika is also a verb). The theme of this fika was for each of them to share a book they enjoyed and what they liked about it.

WorkLife Book Club

Hugo: Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. I read it as a wonderful travel fantasy as a child. I remember the imaginative storyline taking me on an amazing adventure of strange and fantastic lands.

I was surprised when I learned some years later that it was intended for an adult audience. What I found fascinating when I re-read it as an adult was how a book written in the 18th century still has meaning for society today and encourages readers to think about topics such as politics, morality and ethics. And to further reflect on our role and purpose in the world.

Eva: Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle by Dervla Murphy. I loved when Murphy received a bicycle and an atlas for her tenth birthday; she decided she wanted to cycle to India. And how some twenty or so years later, she set out to achieve her ambition. I also loved how she gave short shrift to people who said how brave she was, with her response, “fear itself is the only thing to be feared.”

Her account of her epic journey that takes her readers through Europe, Persia, Afghanistan, over the Himalayas, and into India is captivating. She had a unique commitment to the value of human experience through her writing. She beautifully portrays the diversity of people and landscapes along her journey.

I love her love of travel and how she documented her experiences in exquisite detail. I also loved her humour and how she weaves it through her aptitude for beautiful descriptions. For example, “This is the part of Afghanistan I was most eager to see, but in my wildest imaginings, I never thought any landscape could be so magnificent. If I am murdered en route, it will have been well worthwhile!”

I enjoy cycling, and I’ve read many books on the subject. But they tend to focus on the cycling, whereas Murphy focuses on the experience of travelling. Travel is one of my preferred ways of personal development because I learn so much through different experiences. Whether through actual travel experiences or the experiences books take me on. Reading in general and travel books, in particular, enable my personal development because they open my mind to possibilities. This book is classic travel writing at its best. It is thoughtful, detailed and fascinating. I loved it for that reason.

Lena: Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. I was introduced to this book by my American friend, Mich, who told me that book had blazed the trail that led Morrison to win the Nobel prize for literature. She said it was the first book by a black American woman writer to be chosen for the powerful Book of the Month Club, a recognition that had been unknown to the black community for many years.

On reading it, I understood why. It’s beautifully written, with a lyrical flow that pays homage to African American speech and song. I liked how she used lots of characters, stories and conversations to explore the complexity of the black American experience in the 20th century. And I liked how she used the main character to also go in search of a better understanding of African American heritage.

She said this use of voices enabled her to break away from what she identified as a “totalising view” “totalised — as though there is only one version. We are not one indistinguishable block of people who always behave the same way … I try to give some credibility to all sorts of voices, each of which is profoundly different. Because what strikes me about African-American culture is its variety.”

I’m so grateful to my friend for introducing me to Morrison’s work, which I’ve loved ever since.

Ida: The Carpet People by Terry Pratchett. My introduction to Pratchett was through his first book, The Carpet People, and it was the perfect starting place. I remember it being both funny and scary, and although I don’t think I recognised it at the time, it also introduced me to Pratchett’s sense of humanity. I remember that point came back to me when Philip Pullman said, “There is nothing spiteful, nothing bitter or sarcastic in his humour.”

I also remember being saddened when I learnt he had been diagnosed with a very rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, which seemed such a cruel twist of fate for someone who had the ability to fire the imagination of millions.

I loved The Carpet People because it took me on an adventure and kept me intrigued. I also loved it because it led to my discovery of Pratchett and his other books. And I loved discovering his story: How he fell in love with science fiction and fantasy at a young age, perhaps at the age I was when I first read his work. How he published his first story in a school magazine when he was in his early teens. How that story was published later in Science Fantasy magazine. How he worked in publishing and public relations for many years before becoming a full-time writer. How it took time for him to realise a dream that had begun at a very young age and how he had remained steadfast in his pursuit of his dream.

Lars: Ego Is The Enemy by Ryan Holiday. I follow Holiday’s blog. I find his writing and thinking inspiring and insightful. In many ways, he has what I believe are old-fashioned values that go against the new age values that I consider to be the bandwagon that so many authors are jumping on with their books. Carriages that are full of noise. In contrast, I think of Holiday’s writing, and this book in particular, as the slow and quiet train, on a journey along which there will be many stops to get off at and explore with wonderment that comes from seeing things with fresh eyes.

For me, the book serves as a reminder to be humble and persistent. To value discipline and results. To recognise and own my ability and my shortcomings. Because that’s where improvement becomes possible. That's where meaningful learning and development can take place. Through the book, I discovered the practice of seeing myself with a little distance by getting out of my own head. Detachment is a natural ego antidote.

I’ve read the book a few times now. In fact, I get on that slow train at least once a year. I go on a journey which begins by asking myself: “What is it that I want to accomplish in my WorkLife?” It’s a question that brings me back to earth from the place I’ve built myself up to be at, and grounds me in reality and humility — which Holiday says are the cure for the symptoms of ego.

Epilogue

Words of Wisdom

The group ended their fika by saying what they took from the experience:

Hugo: I liked that we shared books that had impacted us at different stages of our lives and the world they had opened up to us.

Eva: I liked being reminded that it’s good to go back and re-read a book. I don’t know why but I tend not to do that, but I will, and when I do, I’ll be interested to discover what remains the same for me and what changes or impacts me in a different way.

Lena: I like how we’re learning about each other through our fikas. Things that don’t come to light in our day-to-day WorkLife. It’s really interesting, and I love the concept of fikas — that it requires us to be fully present for each other, and when we are, learning comes naturally, learning about each other and also learning something new through each other’s experiences.

Ida: I like the variation of our fikas — the ‘Ten Pictures’ we did last time and today’s ‘WorkLife Book Wisdom’. I feel I would like to do this again, but not every time, not as a book club per se, but simply repeating this experience while also mixing it up with other experiences as we have been doing.

Lars: I liked learning about everyone’s book choices, and I also liked learning about the stories of the authors — whether it was the time in which they lived or how they pursued their craft and their dream.

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Florian’s cafe was featured in my book, WorkLife Book Club Volume One Shoreditch.

This story is part of a series of stories that share insights into the characters in my book WorkLife Book Club Volume One Shoreditch. Stories that share insights that aren’t shared in the book to the main characters, the support characters and the behind the scenes characters. While the characters in the stories are not based on real people, they are representative of the people who are an integral part of Shoreditch life, the neighbourhood I live in, which is full of people with different WorkLife experiences.

Shoreditch is a special place, and I believe what makes it so is the incredible diversity of life paths that cross here, spanning the whole globe and many walks of life.

You may also like my Learning Through Reading Series: A collection of stories inspired by real WorkLife struggles and successes presented as case studies for group discussion. The case and the recommended book are the required reading for each book club meeting and help frame the subsequent discussion.