The Stuff I Carry Around With Me

We all carry stuff around with us. Some of it is material, tangible, and more or less heavy, bulky, or cumbersome. Some of it is immaterial – which doesn’t necessarily make it any lighter. Most of the time, I write about the latter. This time, however, I’ll write about what’s actually in my bag when I take off for work[1].

One preliminary remark, for those who don’t know me: My work, these days, is consulting. I work with leadership teams of large companies and non-profit institutions, diagnosing their strategic, organisational, or relationship challenges, and helping them find perspectives, pathways, or processes to overcome obstacles and realise their ultimate goals as swiftly as possible[2].

So here’s what I carry around with me:

Firstly, notebooks. Although, of course, I’m a user of electronics (see below), I’m also addicted to physical paper. Whenever I pass a stationery shop, I’m conditioned to buy yet another beautifully bound notebook. Quite often, I admit, only the first page of the notebook will be scribbled on, with the remaining pages never being filled – but rather filling my shelves. Anyways: There are four notebooks (all made by Moleskine) I carry around with me, and each of them has its specific purpose:

  1. The lilac notebook (second from the top) is my main notebook, in which I take notes during meetings and telephone conferences. It’s strictly chronological, covering notes from all projects I’m working on in parallel, so it serves as a reservoir of things to remember and agree-upon todos. It doesn’t have to be lilac, but I usually choose a colour that stands out so it’s easy to find in a pile of paper. It’s also small enough to fit into my handbag. Absolutely all notes from client interactions go into this notebook. I’ve found that my memory works well with the chronological order –  whenever I need to retrieve a past conversation, I’ll easily remember that it happened around Easter, just after summer holidays, on a stormy fall day, or before my birthday.
  2. The turquoise notebook (at the bottom) is my creative playground. This is where I sketch out ideas for interview guides, workshop outlines, or strategic storylines; this is where I brainstorm with myself about blog posts, professional projects, or personal priorities; this is where I jot down solutions for world peace, universal freedom from violence and hatred, or everyday enlightenment. This notebook, too, doesn’t have to be turquoise, but I usually choose a colour I find inspiring. It is bigger than the lilac one, because I prefer to have plenty of space for thinking broadly. This is the notebook you should secure when I disappear, as it’ll answer all the questions you never asked.
  3. The small black notebook (on top) is my personal diary. It’s Moleskine’s classic “Daily Diary” with one (lined) page per day. I use this notebook to keep track of the skeletons of my days: Wakeup times, bed times, travel locations, professional  (sometimes serving as pointers for the lilac notebook) and personal meetings, hotels, restaurants, shops. I document all this to have a record of what I do where and when, so I can leaf back to recover details about the outdoorsy bar in San Francisco where I had drinks back in 2004, the lush hotel in Kathmandu  where I had lunch back in 2009, the business trip to Moscow in 2003, the vacation in Cape Town in 2006, the day I first met a dear social media friend in person, or the day I last saw a favourite uncle of mine before he died. Other than dates, times, places, and people encountered, this notebook has nothing intimate, so there’s no point in trying to get hold of it if you want to compromise me in any way.
  4. Finally, the medium-sized notebook (second from bottom) is where I keep my “Morning Pages”. “Morning Pages” – for those not familiar with the concept – are one of the basic tools from Julia Cameron’s book “The Artist’s Way” (1993), defined as “three pages of longhand writing, strictly stream-of-consciousness […]. They might also, more ingloriously, be called brain drain, since that is one of their main functions” (ibid., p. 10). I confess that my morning pages are mostly only two pages long, and that I don’t write them every day. For me, the morning pages actually connect with a habit I had as a student, when I wrote one-page stream-of-consciousness rumblings in school notebooks. Those, just like today’s morning pages, serve no purpose whatsoever. This, and the fact that people keep telling me that my handwriting is utterly illegible anyways, should keep anyone but myself from taking any interest in them at all.

With notebooks comes the question what to write with. So, secondly, there’s writing implements – simply put: Pens. Over time, I’ve come to get accustomed to five pens I use regularly – but with different reasoning:

  1. A nondescript, cheap ball pen (highest up in the picture) is always in my handbag (and another one is usually on my desk, unless my son hijacked it for some higher purpose of his). Its only reason of being is that I need to be sure I have something to write with. It’s neither beautiful nor special, doesn’t carry any memories, hopes, or fears, and is totally devoid of meaning in all dimensions. It’s there for writing.
  2. A slightly less nondescript (and sometimes openly branded) ball pen plucked from some hotel’s or client’s meeting table is usually also floating around in my handbag. Often, there are several marketing give-away pens like this, as I like to use (and take) them, but then forget about throwing them out. The disadvantages of these pens are that they’re usually running out of ink way too fast and that – depending on context – it might be inappropriate to sport one client’s branded pen at another client’s board meeting. The pen in the picture (second from top) is one of the more beautiful specimens of its kind, inherited at some nature conservation foundation’s annual meeting.
  3. A pencil (third from top) has become my fallback solution should all other writing paraphernalia fail. This is Faber Castell’s “Der perfekte Bleistift” which comes complete with eraser (on the pencil), length extender (the silver shaft on the right), and pencil sharpener (in the shaft). Mine is the simple aluminum edition, but for those aiming higher there are version in sterling silver and platinum (just saying). I use the pencil whenever the pens don’t work because of temperature, moisture, writing surface, or need for erasability. Plus, I like this particular pencil’s blend of elegance and practicality.
  4. A fountain pen with a retractable nib, namely Pilot’s Capless, is second from bottom in picture. This pen was a present I got from colleagues when I was elected partner at McKinsey ten years ago. For me, it’s the perfect solution to the dilemma of liking to write with a fountain pen, but being reluctant to carry one given its propensity to ink spills in unwanted places and situations. It lives in my handbag most of the time (unless I forget to pack it because I’ve used it at my desk). I run it on cartridges which last for about 6-8 pages of longhand writing. Its only disadvantage is that the cartridges are sometimes hard to find (and quite expensive).
  5. My favourite fountain pen ever is my Montblanc Meisterstück with its iconic “4810” nib. I’ve had this pen for at least 25 years, and it survived my rage after several severe ink spills (see previous paragraph), my anxiety after its getting lost (and found) on airplanes, and my despair after its five story fall through a client’s open staircase (followed by some serious pen surgery though). There’s no other pen I so enjoy writing with. However, these days, I rarely carry it with me, but rather indulge in its perfections when writing at home. It’s my preferred muse to inspire bedazzling images, piercing logical structures, or gently flowing storylines. It runs on real ink from a real ink pot the colour of which changes from time to time from black to blue and back to black. Right now, it’s black.

Underneath the pens, you’ll spot another pad of paper which I didn’t include in the notebook section above. This, thirdly, is my indispensable yellow pad. I took to using yellow writing pads in my time at McKinsey, where the – firm-branded and two-sided (with one side providing the outline for a landscape powerpoint slide, complete with action title, subtitle, and all that jazz) – yellow pad was as much part of being a consultant as issue trees, trolley suitcases, confidential waste bins, or team-room pizzas. The advantage of using yellow pads is that the colour of the paper stands out in any pile of disorganised personal notes, scribbled charts, broker report printouts, or scanned meeting presentations. Today, I use the yellow pad for my personal todo lists (which need to stand out), for very preliminary sketching out of random thoughts (that are too transient for the turquoise notebook), for drawing of so-called “dummy charts” (that need to be handed over to others for meaningful completion and production), for financial considerations (that feel meaningless to me, such as pre-calculations of potential pre-tax pre-payments) – or for anything else that is more likely to be trashed than to be kept. Success is when all yellow pages are done with and can go to recycling. By the way: The yellow pads I’m using now are Cambridge Legal Pads, ordered online in packs of ten.

The four things in the picture that I haven’t talked about are:

  1. The voice recorder: I use a voice recorder to record interviews I do during the diagnostic phases of my projects. These interviews are alway confidential, so I deliberately use a device that is not connected with any other technological ecosystem and saves recordings on a memory card that can later be physically filed (or destroyed). My favourite device for the past five years has been the Olympus LS-11  (pictured), which produces .WAV or .MP3 files (plus some other formats) with superior audio recording quality, although recently it has occasionally let me down on battery life and memory card preferences (it unpredictably chokes on some memory cards). Given these hiccups, I might have to replace the recorder some time soon, which makes me sad.
  2. The tissues: I always carry a pack of tissues, not only for blowing my nose (an inevitable physical need when travelling on planes and meeting in air-conditioned conference centres), but also for mopping up spilled ink (see above), tea, or red wine; for stabilising wobbly tables in meeting rooms, cafés, or restaurants; for producing make-shift bookmarks for magazines, novels, or airport-kiosque business bestsellers; for keeping windows open or doors shut; for wiping computer screens, projector lenses, or steamed up sun glasses; and for generally being prepared should a need arise for a spontaneous origami session, an individual or collective tear-shedding, or a real-life presentation of rock, scissors, paper. The tissues on the picture are SCA’s Tempo, but I use other brands when they come my way.
  3. The lipstick: I never leave home without a lipstick. I actually feel naked when going outside without wearing lipstick. I don’t experiment a lot with the colour, so I’m pleased when a certain brand keeps its colour stable over time. This one is Chanel’s “Rouge Coco Shine 09 Mélancholie”, which is a subdued orangy-browny red with a metallic hue. As an aside: My mother never wore lipstick, and after her death last summer, I couldn’t find my lipstick for several weeks. I stubbornly refused to read anything into this coincidence, so eventually the lipstick reappeared at the bottom of a handbag I had forgotten I had used.
  4. The sweets: Finally, there’s a small pack of Haribo “Goldbären” in the picture. This is a placeholder for some kind of sweet stuff I like to keep in my handbag, just in case I might get stranded somewhere without food, drink, energy, colour, air, space, or other essentials of life. A little piece of something sweet helps me a lot to deal with almost anything. Usually, these sweets are stuff picked up on planes, trains, or hotel room pillows, not something deliberately chosen and bought. Sometimes, I need to throw away chocolate that’s travelled for too many days, candies that stick to business cards and used boarding passes, or cookies that crumble their way into headphone jacks. A propos: My worst handbag-and-sweets experience was sprinkles the size of a rice grain accidentally getting firmly pressed into my phone’s power jack. It took me half an hour and several inappropriate tools (from hairpins to paper clips) to remove it so I could charge my phone again.

Finally, there’s always something that’s not on the picture. In my case, this is electronics (an Apple “MacBook Air”, an Apple iphone, a Blackberry DTEK50 – with the latter’s performance nowhere near its earlier cousins with their amazing hardware keyboard, which I grievingly decided to replace given the dwindling lack of support for their operating system), all the corresponding cables, plugs, and adapters (worth a separate blog post at some point), business cards (my own and others’, which I keep forgetting to scan and catalogue), keys, and a pack of mints (usually Fisherman’s Friend “Mint ohne Zucker”). And – last but not least – a random collection of Maul’s (or pirated) “Foldback Klemmer”: The unsurpassed universal tool for keeping documents together; closing bags of rice, flour, or tea; hanging postcards, water colours, or award certificates; bundling computer cables, repairing broken bags, or mindlessly snapping in and out of boring meetings.


Note: I bought all featured products myself, paying regular prices. I endorse them, because I like them for the reasons spelled out above. I don’t get any material benefits from any of these mentions.

[1] I happily disclose that credit for inspiring this blog post goes to Richard Gutjahr, who unpacks his journalist’s bag every year on his blog, presenting the (mostly technical) gadgets he uses for his work. To participate in his 2017  unpacking experience (in German), click here [retrieved Jan 16, 2017].BACK TO TEXT

[2] You can read more about my work here – and, yes, the website will be updated and modernised at some point in 2017 [retrieved Jan 16, 2017].BACK TO TEXT


2 responses to The Stuff I Carry Around With Me

  1. Sydney

    This is priceless. I am not nearly so organized to cover all the eventualities you are prepared for but have tendencies in that direction. Thank you for some fantastic ideas I will gleefully steal. What you didn’t talk about is the purse! Sydney

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