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The Karmic Curve

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ABOUT The Karmic Curve

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Finally, as promised, here is a sneak preview of the opening sections of the book ...


Scott Fitzgerald's definition of an artist was someone who is capable of holding two conflicting positions at the same time, whilst continuing to function effectively.

Over the past decade, we have had lots of fun, got married, had lots more fun, had two great careers, had a daughter, had twin boys, and felt very deeply privileged, extremely lucky, and blessed.

Then we had an annus horribilis.

The death of William's* father was both sudden and tragic. The career side of things became comical bordering on farce. The kids were all essentially fine throughout, but winters in Brussels can be long, cold and dark, and when you have a 3-year-old and two 1-year-olds and everyone is ill all at the same time, and when both of you are really supposed to be in parallel meetings in two separate countries (neither of them the one in which you live) then something has to give. It did.

We both like to think that we have an artistic side, but even invoking Scott Fitzgerald proved to be woefully insufficient as it turned out. Enough Schadenfreude (for now), however. This book is not about what happened, but what we think we have learned along the way.

Because whilst many, if not most, people in the world have much more serious things to worry about on a daily basis (and we know that we are very lucky indeed), we are pretty sure that we are not the only household on the planet that is trying to juggle family responsibilities, corporate realities and the wish not to forget how to have fun.

So this is mainly a book about corporate leadership and its discontents, but not because we hold any grudge against either of our employers. We don't. Really. Both organisations were outstanding in the circumstances when things got tough.

But because in life, sadly, grandparents die, children get ill and parents get exhausted, or at least very tired. And they always will. These are immutable facts of life in times past, time present and time future. We might wish we could change them, but we can't.

The way that the world of work is organised, on the other hand, and the "narratives" that people live out - and maybe even, just occasionally, cling to - about "success", "leadership", "effectiveness" and all the rest can be changed. At least in theory.

We don't claim to know all, or quite possibly any, of the solutions, but this book is the sort of manual that might help you to apply the karmic brakes slightly earlier than we did. We hope, more than anything, that you enjoy it.


Modern corporate and political life is harsh. Few people like to admit it, but it's true. The signs are everywhere, from Barack Obama's grey hairs to David Cameron's bald spot.

The ultimate reason for this is the seemingly limitless human capacity for envy. While we may admire great leaders from Winston Churchill to Steve Jobs, we all know in our hearts that they had to climb greasy poles and deal on a daily basis with the seething resentment of their peers before ascending to the peak of invincibility in their respective fields, at least for as long as it lasted.

Now there exist a few people for whom this is nothing but an unalloyed delight. It may just be the case that Donald Trump, whatever his follicle situation, genuinely thrives on inculcating fear in others and worries not one iota about the grievances and antipathy that he creates along the way.

But most of us are not like this. And wisely so. For whilst talented people always will and indeed should strive to rise up the pecking order in organisations, few of them will have failed to notice the strains that corporate and political leadership places upon those at the pinnacle. Or to put it another way, why is it that in Game of Thrones the advisors generally seem to outlive the rulers?

Bookshops and Kindle stores are full of treatises on corporate leadership, both how to attain it and how to practice it once obtained. We humbly recommend these titles to aspiring Donald Trumps.

This book attempts something more subtle: to put on paper the sum total of more than forty years of corporate and government experience in the interests of assisting those who wish to be citizens as well as corporate citizens. That is to say, to have a career but also to have time for a life beyond.

Not by doing anything radical. You can keep the iPhone and video conference to your heart's content. You might want to think twice, however, about getting a reputation for always replying immediately to your bosses, or for delivering quantity rather than quality.

The early 21st century is dripping with information. Most of us are constantly drowning in it. Anyone seeking to exert domination or total control over the flows of data that represent our modern corporate lives will ultimately fail. But it is fun watching The Donald try, and we wouldn't want to you miss out on that either.

If, however, you aspire to getting the best out of both your career and your life, then this book is here to help you give it a try – and hey, even if it doesn't work out, pretty much the worst that can happen is that you'll smile a bit more often whilst staring at your screen.

How the book is organised

Charlie Parker, the great jazz saxophonist, was once asked how he could play with such virtuoso improvisation. His reply: "First you have to learn the rules, then you have to learn how to forget them".

Well, life doesn't get much better than listening to Charlie Parker, so we are going to try to follow his advice. The book is therefore divided into four musically-themed sections.

The first section, "A Prelude to Karma" introduces the main ideas and concepts that we develop later in the book.

The second section, "Classicial Karma" gives you the techniques that we hope can help you to find a better balance between work, life and changing nappies (or similar).

The third section, "Jungle Boogie" goes off-piste and outside of the office to tackle those all-important coffees, lunches, cocktail receptions and – if you can stomach them – dinner parties.

And the final section, "Futuristic Karmic Jazz" tells you how we think things could become just that little bit more karmic in the future.


 - A Prelude to Karma -

1. Cracking ego (in secret)

All politics is local and so it is with corporate life. If you want to enjoy the privileges that come with insightful corporate living, you'll need to do a bit of work on yourself. This means getting to grips with your ambition. Not killing or choking it, just managing it.

Bosses hate this for one simple reason. The nakedly ambitious are among the easiest of office types to manipulate, by which read get to do more work for the same recompense. The core of this is pride – a recurrent theme of this book.

Our favourite example is "young man syndrome" or – for those with younger children and/ or longer memories – "Scrappy-Doo syndrome". If you need a reminder, Scrappy-Doo, nephew of the more insouciant Scooby, was the cartoon dog with the catch-phrase "Let me at 'em Uncle Scoob" whenever he was confronted with injustice or wrong-doing.

His enthusiasm wasn't the issue, nor indeed were his undoubted crime-fighting skills. The problem was that he had to have them permanently on display in the hope of getting a pat on the head. Psychoanalytically, it is perhaps not surprising that Scrappy's father seems not to have been around for much of his life. But that is for another book.

Back in the real world, we know many outwardly successful Scrappy-Doos fighting crime (mainly metaphorically, but in some cases literally) in corporate hierarchies the world over. They work hard all of the time, battle for everything, and then wag their little tails whenever Uncle, or Auntie, Scooby gives them a cookie. And bosses love them for it. Note also that scrappies may be bright and capable, but this is certainly not a requirement for moderately – in some cases hugely - successful Scrappy-hood, however exhausting it may be.

The karmic corporate employee must learn to smile inwardly at these cartoon antics. On one level they are childish, but they can also be a highly effective route to advancement under the protective wing, or paw, of Auntie Scoob. So we immediately come to a second central theme of this book: envy.

Now taking pride in one's work is a great thing, and without a bit of envy to go with it, many of us might start to question the value of getting up in the morning. At the very least, sales of higher-end personal grooming products would surely plummet.

But when 50- or 60-hour work weeks are normal, with emails and texts into the evening, and Twitter to keep an eye on too, it is hard not to develop a resentful streak regarding the Scrappies, Scoobies and indeed anyone else who seems to be ascending the corporate ladder at a faster pace than oneself. This way madness lies.

From envy to action

So here are a couple of simple techniques for dealing with envy and resentment as you feel them starting to build. In our experience the trick is to act immediately to let the poison out, because festering jealousy is a bitter and bilious potion.

Tip 1 – Create an anger email address … and use it

You could set up as the recipient address for your bile. But we are fairly sure that this one is already taken! Use your imagination, but the key point is that only you must have the password to this account! Once it's set up, you can safely fire off your feelings when the need arises, to be laughed at and deleted later on in the comfort of your own home with a glass of wine in hand.

As an additional safety measure for the cyber-paranoid, or if Scrappy happens to work in IT, you may need to permanently delete these emails from your office out-box after sending. But this is a detail that, in our experience, only mildly attenuates the soothing cathartic effect of releasing some pent up emotion into electronic oblivion.

Plus, think of all the problems you have avoided by not sending some ridiculous venting email directly to colleagues that you would only live to regret…

Tip 2 – Write it down so you don't have to say it

The snail mail equivalent comes into play if you are sitting in a meeting full of garrulous scrappies. They may not know what they are talking about, the objective of the meeting may not be clear, but that will not stop them from yapping. Yapping is, after all, the Scrappy way.

Even the most karmic corporate co-traveller can find these experiences tiring when repeated too often and in too similar a fashion. And it only takes a broken washing machine or a difficult morning school run to put you into just that place where you might break your Zen calm. This could lead to you doing something truly unwise, like speaking honestly and informing the room just how pointless this particular gathering is.

But out is better than in. Repression constipates. And constipation is not cool. If e-mailing in meetings is accepted in your organisation, you may need look no further than shooting off a rasping missive to "venomous.thoughts".

Alternatively, you can go old-school and simply write down your feelings on a sheet of paper. It will just look like you are taking a few notes. Plus you get the added pleasure of ripping the papers to shreds after your meeting has finished.

Tip 3 - There is no cure for pride and envy

Nor should there be. They are normal parts of the human psyche. The challenge for the karmic co-worker is simply to marshal these emotions in order to hit deadlines when needed and to generate some drive, rather than being ruled by them and pushed into full corporate prostration.

You'll only end up with a stomach ulcer.

The trickiest part of the art of self-ego management is that you can't flaunt it too publicly, and especially not to the chiefs. Even in the most enlightened organisations, managers need to generate ambition and purpose in their underlings: poking pride and envy inevitably become part of the policy mix.

Any whiff of sedition by not playing along with their game, however benign its intention, will certainly be picked up and quite possibly lead to a punishment of some sort. So be discreet.

To help you on your clandestine mission, Lucy Kellaway, the Financial Times columnist and one of the sources of inspiration for this book, developed the concept of the "office spouse" in one of her regular Monday articles on life in the modern corporate workplace.

The office spouse is a long-term office friend with whom you can exchange gossip, ideas and generally de-stress. But Lucy has worked in the same, relatively high-internal trust, newspaper environment for the last 25 years.

If, on the other hand, your working environment involves swimming with sharks on a daily basis, then we would err on the side of an extra private e-mail address and glass of wine once the kids are in bed.

You'll figure out what works best for you.

2. Should I stay or should I go?

If you've picked up this book, then the chances are that you are not completely happy with your current job. It probably isn't the worst job you've ever done or could imagine doing, but there are at least a few things that could be improved. This puts you in a tiny minority that includes nearly every other corporate worker on the planet.

But knowing that you are not alone does not help you to work out whether you need to take some action or just stick it out for a while longer in the hope that things will improve.

There is a nice story about the Head of the Business Decisions Division in a large consultancy firm who was agonising over lunch with a friend about whether to move to a position at a rival company. His friend, a lawyer, said: "Look, this is a business decision, surely your professional expertise should tell you how to analyse the problem?" "Yes", replied the executive, "but this is serious".

We have come across many models, plans and theories for optimal decision making and yet we still generally prefer simple rules of thumb. Charles Darwin's chosen method was to draw a line down the middle of a piece of paper and write the arguments in favour in one column and the arguments against in the other. But that was way back in the 19th century. Things have moved on massively since.

Tip 4 – How to rate your current job

First, draw a line down the middle of a sheet of paper. Second, in the left-hand column, write these three phrases:

- Do I respect the people I work for?

- Do I respect the people I work with?

- Do I work on things that I find interesting?

Third, after an appropriate period of reflection, answer each question by putting a score between "1" (yes) and "0" (no) in the right-hand column. Now add up your total score (hint: the result should be between 0 and 3). That's it.

If your score is significantly above 2, then you can probably give this book to a friend and stay put where you are. If you scored less than 1, you should start arranging some coffees and lunches with your best contacts pronto (on which more later). And if, like most people, you are somewhere in the middle, then we suggest that you stick with us for a little while longer so that we can help you to refine your ideas.

The first point we want to make here is that moving may not necessarily mean changing industry, apartment, spouse and country of residence all in one go. Based on extensive field research in company restaurants and cafeterias the world over, we can confidently report that the scores in our test vary enormously even within the same organisation, and often even within the same department. The test is useful because it's personal to you.

This is because so much depends on people, and all people are political (small p). Factions, tribes, sub-groups and splinter groups have been around since before the People's Popular Front of Judea developed their specific doctrinal shift. And they are here to stay. So we can't tell you whether to go to accounts, marketing or sales, but we can help you to work out whether it's time to make a move.

The second point is that all major change is stressful on some level. We reckon that we've developed quite a few of the tips in this book based on our own experience, but sometimes you just have to acknowledge that someone else got there first. Here it's the Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross who published her famous work on the human psychology of grief in the late 1960s.

Tip 5 –Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance

 The only thing that you need to do regarding this tip is to remember it (which is often easier said than done in times of high stress). Kübler-Ross was studying how humans respond to the extreme distress of death and dying and she defined five phases, which people experience in sequence:

 - Denial: in which people flatly reject what has happened.

- Anger: in which frustration at the situation boils over.

- Bargaining: in which people try to find a way out, however fanciful.

- Depression: when the truth starts to hit home.

- Acceptance: when you can start to move on again.

The work has since been extended and various authors agree that the same simple model can be applied to virtually all cases of major change in people's lives. Most circumstances – thankfully - don't take as long to resolve psychologically as deep grief, but it's worth remembering that if you just got a terrible new boss, or if your beloved project has suddenly been taken from you and given to a colleague, it may take a bit of time before you can think straight.

Tip 6 – Don't make plans when you're tired or hungry

Most, if not all, human beings are capable of making terrible decisions if the prevailing context is not propitious. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's central insight was to go easy on yourself if you are angry or depressed. We further recommend a Kit Kat and a cup of tea, perhaps preceded by a couple of good nights of sleep, to aid the process.

Thus equipped to analyse your situation and think about what to do next (including staying put, or moving just along the corridor), we're ready to look at a few more karmic corporate lifestyle tweaks...

3. Getting in

 The main purpose of this book is to help people to thrive within, rather than strive to enter, corporate hierarchies. Many bookshelves are already lined with manuals on CV and interview techniques and our own skills are somewhat rusty. Nonetheless, we thought we'd better include a short section on interviews given that this will probably be an important element of any plan you may hatch to move on from a position that isn't up to scratch.

Tip 7 – Well-trained, well-educated, enthusiastic

We may be woefully out of date, but we struggle to improve much on the ancient advice on how to succeed in an Oxbridge interview. Well-trained means you know your stuff. Well-educated means you have some breadth, knowledge of the world, and at least an inkling of the social skills you'll need to get on over time. We can't teach you these things here, but any good interviewer will certainly test them.

And then comes the kicker. Enthusiastic sounds like the easy one. Don't be so easily fooled. As a little test, try recommending with real enthusiasm to a good friend to go and see a movie, or to read a book, that you hated. How did it go? Alternatively, just sit and watch them try to do same thing with a mutual friend when the three of you next meet up for a drink.

It turns out that feigning enthusiasm that you don't genuinely feel is very difficult, unless that is you're a highly-skilled actor or have the misfortune to be suffering from a psychotic condition.

This, by the way, is one reason why you tend to find out much more about people's true personality in high-stress situations. It's much harder to lie when you are in state of high emotional engagement. Or, to put it another way, not all diplomats were born ice-cool.

And this is why enthusiasm is such a powerful selection tool. Most interviewers want the person opposite them to genuinely want the job, for the simple and rational reason that an enthusiastic applicant is likely to work much harder if they are subsequently given the position.

There is some implicit karmic guidance in all of this. We are certainly not saying that you need to deliver an Oscar acceptance speech the next time you are interviewed for a job. But thinking about how much enthusiasm you can credibly convey is a good test of what your real emotions are likely to be when doing the job itself.

Happiness, after all, is mainly about living in phase with your values and emotions. So we reckon that the enthusiasm test is more significant than it might seem at first glance.

Oh, and don't forget to polish your shoes and read the morning papers.

4. Starting well

Sometimes the Scrappy-Doo way is the only the way. There is no use envying the woman in the corner office when you first arrive or being too proud to get stuck in and do some of the dirty work. You just have to roll up your sleeves and get started.  For all eyes are on you at this moment, even if you are not aware of it.

Tip 8 – Your first piece of work is crucial

 Psychologists claim that once we have formed a first impression of someone's personality type, it takes over 100 specific examples of contrary behaviour to change that impression. Life is definitely not fair. The upside, however, is that if you can start off well, you've created a tail-wind to help you to get up and running swiftly.

 So the first time that you do a piece of work for a new boss or someone important in the organisation, it is imperative that you do it well. This may involve some Scrappy-Dooing.

Thinking can only get you so far in this world. Hard work and good fortune are just as important. So if you need to burn the midnight oil or miss a couple of bed-time stories to get off on the right foot with your colleagues, then just do it, it's a corporate karmic investment that will pay off.

Tip 9 – Walking should precede running

As any toddler quickly learns, doing things in the right order is important. You had to learn to walk before you could run back then and things haven't really changed since.

This is particularly difficult for our good friend Scrappy. So certain is he of his powers, and so strong is his hunger for a cookie and a pat on the head, that he is liable from the get-go to bound headlong into all sorts of power lines that he never even imagined could exist. Let him, by the way. There will be no thanks and no reward for saving him.

But if you can reign in your enthusiasm enough to observe who knows whom, who has been around forever, who the boss takes for lunch now and then, and how long it takes before you are invited for a drink - or whatever the ritual may be - with the team, then once again your karmic investment will pay a long stream of future dividends.

For these are some of the keys to knowing where the real power lies.

It is therefore far better to learn that Jenny, the mildly autistic senior manager, relies on Geoff, the stalwart of the IT department, for essential office gossip before you scream down the phone that someone needs to come and fix the printer immediately so that you can meet an urgent deadline. For example.

5. Getting noticed

Thus having avoided total career meltdown from day one and with a few decent pieces of work under your belt, it is time to turn to getting on a bit. Karmically, of course.

Tip 10 – Bosses will steal your ideas, it's what they do

One of us was once sat in a restricted, formal meeting of very senior diplomats* in which a French* official was complaining about how a high-ranking Indian* counterpart had done the dirty on him by "stealing" some ideas they had discussed privately in the midst of a very sensitive negotiation.

Now all cultures have strengths, but when it comes to straight-talking feedback, Finns are in a class of their own. After the complainant had finished, the Finnish Ambassador* gently pressed the button on his microphone, turned to his colleague and said: "It's life, get over it".

We are, of course, right back to the recurring theme of personal pride. For, as we have already seen, it is one of the central means by which large organisations perform the daily miracle of getting intelligent people to give away their best ideas for the good of the company.

Because this is what you will be doing – in return for salary and benefits, naturally.

This can come as a shock to some. It is, after all, only natural to feel some resentment towards a boss who gives a presentation you have prepared, or who does not copy you in on that strategic email to the top brass over which you have been agonising for weeks.

Read on for a few tricks that you can deploy to try to avoid this happening too often, but when it does occur, because it will, think back to the Frenchman*, the Indian* and the Finnish Ambassador*. And maybe fire off an email to "venomous.thoughts". It works for us.

Tip 11 – Truth is bilateral

Once you have accepted that your ideas will be stolen (for a pre- agreed monthly fee, hopefully with healthcare included) you can focus on the karmic task of influencing how and when this is most likely to occur.

Unless you are the boss, in almost all organisations, it is a cardinal sin to have good ideas in public, by which we mean in meetings with a mixture of juniors and seniors present. The only exception is if you have pre-briefed your bosses accordingly.

The go-to guru on this issue is Sheldon Cooper's mother. For those of you too busy to be familiar with the "Big Bang Theory", Sheldon is – in the hit comedy series - a theoretical physicist with an IQ of 187 and the catchphrase "I'm not insane, my mother had me tested".

Well, Sheldon's mother's savvy does not stop there. One of her great, and repeated, lines to her son is that: "You've got to stop doing that 'showing everyone else how much smarter than them you are all the time' thing". When a puzzled son asks why, Sheldon's mother fires back the immortal truth: "Because people just don't like it".

In corporate life it is less painful all round to learn from observing other people's mistakes rather than from making your own. So let Sheldon's mother be your guide. If you are going to go to the trouble of having good ideas on a regular basis, you'd be well advised to see things through to the end and think just as carefully about how you communicate them to the holders of power.

Tip 11 the hard way – Gyms, clubs and dinner parties

Just in case you haven't grasped it already, we're going to spell it out for you. If you want to get noticed for having good ideas rather than the ability to simply work harder and take more pain than your colleagues, then you are going to need to find a way to communicate to your bosses in private.

This is inherently somewhat seditious, and so, once again, you need to exercise caution and restraint.

The old-fashioned advice is to work out where the bosses hang out and then join them. But in our experience there is always a tedious quid pro quo. The associated ritual humiliations can come in many forms. It may mean having to lose repeatedly to your manager at squash, your partner having to endure a goading over dinner by the ultimately deeply insecure and frustrated boss's partner, or joining some hugely over-priced health club in the hope of bumping into the Chief Executive at the water fountain.

Now we have conducted some research that shows that regular exercise with a given colleague can lead to trust-building (see next chapter). A member of our Sangha (see tip 35 in chapter 13) was even willing to endure a series of spinning sessions to test out this theory. But after long discussions, she is willing to accept that this only really works with one's peers.

In any social situation that you have engineered with your hierarchical seniors, the boss will always require you to endure some ceremony of self-sacrifice before they will grant you your five-minute private audience in which to present your idea. And then you always run the risk that they are hung-over, not in the mood, or just don't like the look of your face.

Tip 11 in the 21st century – The Sunday morning email

 Technology can be a menace, but it also has upsides. Whilst many corporate titans are addicted to their Blackberries and iPhones, constantly checking them for signs of the next threat to the share price, it is certainly the case that no serious corporate boss can spend a whole weekend without reading their emails.

Now maybe there exist some hyper-wired organisations in which everyone is "on it" 24/7 and no time of any day or night is sacred any more. Our sense is that in these places, Donald Trumps only need apply. For they have forsaken any scope for karma whatsoever. As we indicated in the introduction, if blood and the chance for honour are your only motivational drivers, then pick up one of the many luridly coloured books with capitalised titles on "winning" and "leadership" the next time you are in an airport bookshop. Our vision is different.

For the karmic corporate employee seeks and identifies niches, and we know of enough organisations in which the pace of electronic life slows at the weekend to think that we have a neat short-cut for you: the Sunday morning email.

You don't have to write it on a Sunday, you don't in general have to work on Sundays, but an email sent at around 11.30 on a Sunday morning should be read by most bosses on Sunday afternoon, just around the time when they are thinking about how to structure the next week, or maybe even the next few months, of business activity.

Most senior managers spend far too much time in meetings and have a lot less discretionary time than they would like. They also like to appear clever, but have too little time to think seriously and strategically about the business because in real life people fall ill, make mistakes, cheat, lie and get up to all manner of things that need to be, for want of a better word, managed. Even Donald finds this tiring, on occasion, or so we are told.

So late Sunday morning is your window for a crisply-worded, introductory email with one simple attachment sent straight to the power centre. They might not respond immediately to your initiative, but we guarantee they will read it and, quite possibly, think about it.

And they too will probably be relieved that they didn't have to work up a sweat on a squash court, argue with their partner about dinner menus and seating arrangements, or get irritated by some over-enthusiastic underling at the one sanctuary they have managed to arrange for themselves: their super-expensive health club.

The very worst that can happen is that your idea gets pinched for free with no direct feedback or reward. But then that was pretty much what was going to happen anyway.

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We were going to give our book the strap line: "One marriage, two careers, three children and some major life events", but that sounded a bit too much like a 1990s film starring Hugh Grant.

The book is inspired by Anne-Marie Slaughter's recent "Unfinished Business" and Lucy Kellaway's regular articles on office life in the Financial Times.

The basic idea is that you can't have it all, all of the time. Sorry, folks... But we do think we've put together some hints and tips that can help professional couples (with children) to chill out a little and have more fun, while still
making progress in their careers. At least we hope so.

The Karmic Curve itself (see chapter 19!) is our attempt to further stir the debate that Professor Slaughter has already kicked off on the extent to which women (and men) can have it all in the modern corporate world. 

 Finally, we should probably add that the authors are a professional couple with three young children, who were previously based long-term in Brussels, Belgium but who have recently moved to Varese in Italy.

The pictures on our web-site are possibly a little misleading therefore, but we are not that great at photography ... and we thought they looked cool.

If you want to send us any (constructive, if we may) thoughts and feedback,
please e-mail us at:

You can also follow us on Twitter via @MIWilliamauthor

October update​ - We just had our first review in Italian!

[★★★★★] Come sopravvivere nel mondo del lavoro, con un pizzico di ironia.
 Lettura rinfrescante, con molti aneddoti, riflessioni e con una sana dose di ironia e prospettiva: non salveremo il mondo del lavoro, ma speriamo di sopravvivere...