Travelling between darkness and light: Reflections on lockdown

Photo by Vladimir Fedotov on Unsplash

In the past two months, my world was shaken, stirred, and has only begun to settle. My professional world was squished into a corner of a room with the strongest wifi signal. The physical structures and rhythms of office life were exchanged for self-managing feats of video calls, long email trails and easily forgotten coffee and toilet breaks. If this wasn’t intense enough, then the backdrop of home life tantrums and discontent weaving in and out of a busy workday would crank up the dial. As work pressures increased with urgent responses, so did the disillusionment of family bonding in forced spaces. 

Without a doubt, my whole family’s disrupted routines were colliding with each other. And when I was able to mentally put this evolving drama aside, I looked to my work for a sense of balance and peace, only to find that I was walking a tightrope above imbalance and chaos. These were the dark times of lockdown – working from home, but also at home with everyone adjusting to restricted activity and forms of expression.

I recall my effort to lighten the burden of lockdown: Snapping gratitude pics of home baking, crafting, dressing up for work selfies, and posting them on a personal board to remind myself of life’s little pleasures. But these moments were transient and shallow comfort compared to the recurring emotions of feeling spent and helpless, often at bedtime, sometimes in tears. Evening disappeared into the morning; another day had passed, but a new day also brought hope again.

I was travelling between darkness and light. Darkness was the calmness of night time rest; a private room to wring distress from my mind; a welcome end to a day of strife. Light was the promise of plenty; the engine of action; an illusion that productivity was the elixir of life. I had naively thought that the lockdown was a long pause of meaningful recalibration of life’s wants and needs. As I emerge from being held prisoner in my own home (and mind), the recalibration is only starting.

During the journey through darkness and light, I searched the Psalms for comfort. King David had worse days than me. He was hunted down by a jealous and raging King Saul; he had to come clean before God about his adultery and committing murder to cover up his adultery; he was besieged by enemies, including his own son who turned against him. But in all these trials and tribulations, he cried out to God, declaring that while we are only but a breath, God is our Rock and Dwelling Place, ever close to our broken spirits, and delivering us from our troubles.

Each time I crawled into a dark place of despair, I remember the last time God rescued me from myself. I’m also thankful for being part of a church community where we encourage each other in our faith, reminding each other of our ultimate source of comfort and assurance. Travelling between darkness and light has been trying, but the struggle has made me realised more than before that “everyone is but a breath, even those who seem secure” (Psalm 39:5). I have understood more deeply what it means to be fragile, and I see more clearly the futility of temporary fixes.

In terms of recalibrating after lockdown, I’m making a gradual transition back to the office. I value work from home arrangements a lot more now that our family’s routine is more or less restored. Saving a few extra hours a day from travel means feeling less tired and being able to have more conversations with my children and husband. But I also value the measured rhythm of an office environment such as walking to the printer to pick up documents, being physically present with colleagues (that is, whoever is at the office), and knowing that I will leave the building at some time and return home.

We have been talking about a new normal after lockdown and in the aftermath of the pandemic. While we figure out what this new normal looks like, we also need to build up our resilience and capabilities to address the helter-skelter of our times, and travel with more confidence between darkness and light.

Using your PhD in a non-academic job

… and staying true to your world-changing aspirations

Image by Raam Gottimukkala from Pixabay

It has been one year since attending my graduation ceremony at the marae grounds of the University of Waikato. It was a momentous occasion to mark the achievement of attaining a Doctor of Philosophy in Education. The preceding months of successfully defending my thesis and having my thesis bound and deposited into the library felt like a holding statement, and the graduation day was the public announcement that I had become a ‘doctor’!

Yet, I have to admit, it felt anti-climatic. The long hours of research, reading and painstaking writing did not bring me to the promised land of academic milk and honey. In fact, I had fallen out of love with the university and academia, almost like a jilted lover after years of unrequited love and adoration. 

Recently, I shared my story of how failure to secure an academic job led me to the public sector, seemingly by accident, but in hindsight, it was the right match for my interests and passion for social justice.

While I have indeed taken my PhD elsewhere, the PhD in me hasn’t disappeared completely. My academic reading habits have helped me scan wordy or lengthy documents for key ideas, and be sensitive to underlying epistemologies and critical of seemingly easy solutions. So while the PhD is not usually a pre-requisite for government jobs, or the vast majority of jobs for that matter, having the frameworks and skills of rigorous thinking has given me great tools for navigating rapidly changing landscapes. The challenge, however, is being able to do this as fast as possible to keep up with the changes!

My interest in good ideas and arguments hasn’t disappeared either. I’ve taken an interest in policy research and have been following the updates of policy think tanks such as The New Zealand Initiative and the professional organisation for public servants IPANZ to keep pace with the latest thinking in the public sector.

At some point, I would like to return to research and writing, but this time for a professional audience, and with the purpose of addressing the elephants in the room. I already have one topic in mind: The Case for Slow Thinking in Fast Places. And another: Is Multiculturalism All Things to All People? And to make a neat three: The Freedom to Act Justly and Love Mercy.

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.
Micah 6:8

Finding my way home

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Finding my way home 

I left home in a hurry
As I packed five large suitcases and several smaller bags
Told my children about the adventure we were going on
Squeezed my husband’s hand as we walked through the departure gate
Buckled up, took off, flew through time zones, and arrived all worn out
By the weight and clunk of our belongings
With the faintest memory of home

I left friendships behind
As they wrapped up the loose ends
Over food and drink and gifts
Frozen in time, intact over the distance
Their names scattered across the Facebook feed
Their words and photos filling the tedium of mindless addiction
Numbing the years that accumulate

I let it go
The security of approval
The unrelenting pursuit of success
The opinion of masses motivated by greed
The moral compass that has gone off course 
The unquestioning loyalty to the hand that feeds us
And now I start from scratch

I am building a new home 
With a vision and a hope
Through rough waves of emotion
Pausing for deliverance
Breaking through walls of disappointment 
Settling for makeshift comforts
The foundation is barely finished

I got lost on my way home
I found myself a stateless creature
Plastered with labels that justify my existence
Responsible for the outlandish dream that got us here
Paying the price for stretching across borders
Confiding in those who don’t take offence at me
Now looking for the breadcrumbs the birds left alone

© 2020 Sherrie Lee

Information seeking behaviour of a policy advisor

People whose networks span structural holes have early access to diverse, often contradictory, information and interpretations, which gives them a competitive advantage in seeing good ideas. To be sure, ideas come over a variety of paths from a variety of sources …, but idea generation at some point involves someone moving knowledge from this group to that, or combining bits of knowledge across groups.

Ronald S. Burt, “Structural Holes and Good Ideas,” American Journal of Sociology 110, no. 2 (September 2004): 356. https://doi.org/10.1086/421787

The quote comes from American sociologist Ronald Burt who is well known for his research on how social networks create competitive advantage in careers, organisations, and markets. Burt’s concept of ‘structural holes’ derives from the broader concept of brokerage in social network theory. Brokerage or brokering refer to individuals (ie brokers) who provide access to information, knowledge, and resources that others would otherwise find difficult to obtain.

My recent PhD research on advice-seeking (brokering) practices of first year international students used similar concepts from social network theory, particularly theories of strong and weak ties, and the dynamics of brokering relationships. My research was in the context of newcomers seeking information and advice from knowledge brokers in a culturally foreign environment. My key takeaways were:
– strong ties were often with peers with similar cultural backgrounds
– weak ties were more socially/physically distant but led to information that strong ties did not have
– peer relations were more accessible than non-peer relations.

Social network theory in action

Translating my findings to my work context of the public sector, I see similar patterns of behaviour in my role as an operational policy advisor. The culturally foreign environment in this case is the unfamiliarity or ambiguity of issues that come through my inbox. Notwithstanding my relative brief time with my organisation, being able to tackle issues often requires different areas of expertise. No one person has the full picture, and often the solution is reached through iterative discussions.

Turning to myself as a case study, I present some observations of how social network theory plays out in my work of gathering information. In the current situation of quickly evolving scenarios related to the lockdown, the complexity of issues are heightened, demand for advice has tighter deadlines, and access to the right brokers at the right time become crucial to timely solutions.

Recently I had to gather information about a policy issue that required information from different agencies. Under ordinary circumstances, I would look to immediate colleagues for quick leads (which typically involved walking over to someone’s desk to ask a quick question), and use their established connections to get to contacts at other organisations.

With remote working, gone were the incidental and casual conversations and serendipitous kitchen chats. The pressure of tight deadlines forced me to head straight for the most likely useful colleague. Thankfully, this was someone whom I had forged a good working relationship with over coffee chats, in other words, a strong tie.

Some advice and one contact later, however, I faced a roadblock. I then found myself turning to my cross-agency network of peers whom I worked with on various groups and projects. These were my weak ties – those who I interacted with much less frequently than workplace colleagues, but whose positions in other agencies opened up channels beyond my immediate reach. They were able to field my query further than I could on my own and in a much shorter time.

At the same time, these weak ties had the advantage of being peer relations. I find it difficult to make cold calls to designated senior level experts and managers – hierarchy doesn’t flatten easily when you haven’t had a few coffees. But I found it easy to reach out to my cross-agency peers – we had ongoing work projects, often helped each other with requests, and perhaps we shared an implicit bond of doing the work of brokering – plugging the knowledge gaps and giving the best advice we possibly can.

Policy advising as social network theory

My information seeking behaviour as a policy advisor can be summed up in Burt’s words: ‘… idea generation at some point involves someone moving knowledge from this group to that, or combining bits of knowledge across groups’. Generating good ideas and sound advice would not be possible without tapping on strong ties with workplace colleagues, weak ties with sector wide peers, and cultivating reciprocal relationships with like-minded public servants.

Perhaps policy advising could be reframed as maximising the opportunities presented by structural holes. Using our networks generates more leads and different perspectives. Growing our networks will be the gift that keeps on giving. How else can we solve the wicked problems of our day?

Loose Leaves

Loose Leaves is a collection of poems written between 1994 and 1998, that is, between the ages of 17 and 21. Poetry then looked like an indulgence of heady emotion through words and awkward phrases. (Maybe it is still the case today!)

Instead of using Canva to create a book, I’m trying out Google docs with links to each poem and the contents page. A two-page and mobile-friendly pdf version are also available.

2-page PDF

Loose-Leaves-2-page

Mobile-friendly version


Embedded Google Doc eBook