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Booknotes #1

This is the start of a monthly catalogue of what I’m reading. It’s a riff off ‘weeknotes’ but about books.

Professional diplomacy

Sir Brian Barder, What Diplomats Do: The Life and Work of Diplomats  (view on Amazon

Helen McCarthy, Women of the World: The Rise of the Female Diplomat (view on Amazon)

I’ve been working on projects that involve policy and a wide range of stakeholders. In these situations, for reading I always like to read ‘up’ to the professionals. Who are the professionals in the long game of policy change? Diplomats. Not that I knew anything about diplomats.

It turns out I’m not the only one with nothing more than a vague idea of what diplomats do. Which is where Sir Brian Barder’s What Diplomats Do picks up. It explains this through the career of fictional diplomat Adam (and his wife Eve), along with stories from the author’s experiences.

What I found from this was:

  • it’s never to early to start building trust with other people – you never know when you’ll need it
  • often the most important information you can get is off the record in late night phone calls
  • understanding hierarchy does matter. Following etiquette allows  space for the real conversations to happen
  • build momentum on solving tricky issues by starting with the ones where it’s easiest to agree.  It can also be helpful to use holding statements in some places at the start so that they can be looked at later

The author also worried abut the Civil Service’s push on the ‘best and brightest’ pushed out steady people.

The book followed a couple. This was a perceptive choice. In the book Eve discusses the sacrifices she has to make and how in the early days she was unpaid labour. This female experience in the Foreign Office is the focus of Helen McCarthy’s Women of the World: The Rise of the Female Diplomat. It’s a reminder of just how recent equal opportunity is. Until 1946, no women could officially work as a British diplomat abroad. There were a few women (such as Gertrude Bell, Freya Stark, and Nancy Lambton) who managed to unofficially work in foreign policy, and even thrive. Yet these women weren’t enough proof in the 1930s to let women in. Instead, they were seen as exceptional, and so not representative of women.

Some points that I took from it were:

  • trailblazers can’t always shatter a glass ceiling – they may be seen as exceptions and the ceiling fixed behind them
  • unfortunately big change sometimes happens because of external reasons. Women finally entered the Foreign Office after World War II because they had already done men’s diplomatic work during the war

Smarts against class

Joan Freeman, Gifted Lives: What Happens when Gifted Children Grow Up (view on Amazon)

While being in the Foreign Office was the reign of men, until the early 20th century it was also the place of upper class men. This was partly financial: the salary wasn’t enough to keep up appearances. But it was also because their confidence helped them keep their more educated European counterparts in check.

The book ‘Gifted Lives’ explores this conundrum of intelligence and confidence in more detail. In the 1970s, the author began a study of  ‘gifted’ children and then kept in contact with them over the years. Most were working class from the North West of England.

Surprisingly, the book suggests that intelligence and mental illness are not related. Gifted people are no more likely to be bipolar or have depression than anyone else. Freeman does note that gifted children can be victims of their own perceptiveness. Some of her subjects felt the need to perform and ‘be gifted’ rather than being prepared to try things out and fail. Others in abusive households were likely to take on roles.

The author also builds a strong case against children skipping years and going to university early. This seemed particularly the case with working class children. Most that went to an Oxbridge University weren’t emotionally ready and also were victims of  class snobbery. Most took some years to regain a sense of identity. Others that took a slow route seemed to find this pay off later.

Some points I took from this were:

  • valuing genius or virtuosity is risky – it’s better to encourage process and mistakes
  • encouraging intellectual development without emotional or social development is also risky. This is especially true when people have to cross class barriers
  • smart people are no more or less likely to be damaged than anyone else – but they may have absorbed more