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

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?

Don’t call me Migrant or Asian but who do you say I am?

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Despite what feels like a ‘long’ time, I’m really still a newcomer to Aotearoa New Zealand. And considering more than 4 of the 5 plus years were spent in Hamilton, and having recently relocated to Wellington, the Aotearoa I know is just an emerging picture. 

It is a picture coloured by intense periods of questioning my various identities and ‘trying’ and ‘doing’ social integration. It is also not a stable picture, with emotional highs and lows heightened in periods of uncertainty and angst, in the overall quest for ‘settledness’ and normalcy.

With my heart on my sleeve, and a restless mind seeking anchors, I invite you to pause and examine this picture that usually hangs unnoticed on your wall.

Rooting for my team

Image by Natalia Ovcharenko from Pixabay

In the current climate of ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ in workplaces, these trendy terms fail the reality test of working in a largely Anglo/Euro-centric culture. I recall the jaw-dropping audience of old-timer administrators when I related my ‘confinement’ experience after childbirth. As I sat at the lunch table with a story that grew scandalous with each cultural revelation, I felt humiliated for trying to strike up interesting conversation. But at the same time it thickened my skin and forced my sensibilities to learn from this faux pas.

When I share such experiences with others, it is often fellow migrants, often Asian, who nod along in agreement and commiserate with sighs of resignation. We learn quickly from our mistakes and embarrassment, but we nonetheless feel indignant over unequal opportunities in accessing jobs and opportunities. Often we hold a special gratitude for our first boss who let our foot in the door. 

These ‘migrant’ or ‘ethnic’ conversations can feel familiar and safe. There seemed to be a natural urge to express solidarity, whether outright or implied, of asserting our shared experience and struggle in a hostile environment, whether real or imagined. There was tacit solidarity over the necessary ‘struggle’ before achieving success for ourselves and our family. 

In recent times, I’ve become more ambivalent about my role and identity in the community script. I’ve moved cities, work environments, professional sectors, and social circles. My affiliations have multiplied, and so have my social identities. But to suggest I play a different role can seem unnatural, unusual, or worse yet, an act of betrayal against my own kind.

At a recent forum on Asian leadership, there was a pervasive presumption that Asians were overlooked and undervalued. I could identify with feelings of indignation and injustice, but also wanted to share my positive experiences of being treated with respect and included in a Pākehā dominant work environment. My story, however, simply jarred with the plot of the day.

Finding safe houses

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

I have also shared my journey with another group who are not necessarily migrant or Asian. This is a group I call my ‘safe house’ because with them I felt free and safe to be who I was and who I was trying to be. You could characterise them as empathetic multicultural-minded friends. Some of them were from mixed cultural families, others worked in pastoral care for international students, or had professional or volunteer jobs that served the needs of migrant communities and new citizens. I found them in churches, university services, associations, communities, government agencies, and in families of my children’s schoolmates.

Of course, just being involved in cross-cultural contexts does not automatically make one empathetic to others experiencing or experimenting with new cultures. I’ve met those who claim to be migrant champions or international education professionals but couldn’t wholeheartedly recommend them to others. By all accounts, they did their job. But to me they lacked a personal desire to affirm your value for who you were, whether they found you familiar or strange. 

A more recent discovery of a safe house is the kapa haka group at work. The welcoming nature of the group and encouragement by instructor-colleagues to sing boldly and accurately exemplified to me manaakitanga (hospitality) and kotahitanga (togetherness). What a gift and privilege to learn about, and express through performance, Māori culture – as an outsider looking in, as one welcomed to learn and belong in all my shades of difference.

Who am I again?

Image by BUMIPUTRA from Pixabay

I come back to my picture which has emerged as a self-portrait. It hangs on the invisible walls of my dwelling which intersects with the dwelling places of migrants, Asians, colleagues and friends. The question of who I am will inevitably be answered differently by the various co-dwellers.

To answer that question today in the season of the Lunar New Year, can be simply expressed as ‘I am Chinese’. At work, together with a few Chinese colleagues, we will put together a shared morning tea celebration for all staff. (And I would ask you to think of ‘Chinese’ as diasporic rather than singular!)

Non-Chinese colleagues will look to Chinese colleagues for cultural expressions of the season and explanations of its significance. In doing so, I also hope they will find the opportunity to build safe houses for multicultural-minded conversations flourish in.

Belonging, longing to be

If there is a theme for my 2019 work life, it would be transition. And not just moving from one job to another, but from one city to another, from one work culture to another. Through these transitions, I have journalled my responses to having (and not having) a sense of belonging and fitting into the larger scheme of things. I shared previously about how ‘connectedness’ topped my Clifton Strengths. The more I interrogate that strength, the more I realise how it influences the way I perceive success at work. 

In the spirit of Christmas, I share three gifts of insight. One, ‘settling in’ is not just a matter of time, but feeling secure that my behaviours and values are at least acceptable, if not wholly accepted and celebrated, by colleagues. Two, a sense of belonging at work is dynamic and relationally dependent. Three, as much as there is a negotiation of behaviours and values when transitioning into ‘new work’, there is a core identity that needs to be nurtured.

Time will settle all things

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

I could conjure up an image of the hourglass where the sand trickles through the narrow neck and slowly but surely gravity pulls each grain down into a pile of milliseconds. But the passage of time is most keenly seen and felt in calendars filled with meetings and appointments. Whether an abstract notion or an easily spent resource, time itself cannot create a sense of belonging. It is what happens in those precious non-renewable minutes and hours that contribute to that sometimes hard to explain feeling of being at home.

I think back to the initial few weeks of my career consultant role, and recall the conversations with colleagues. Very quickly I could identify and build on our shared ideals and goals to help newcomers to achieve career success. Over time through regular meetings and discussions, there was a tacit understanding of putting our clients’ needs at the centre of our work, and that our clients’ success was our success. The concept of having a work whānau (family) was borne out of these things: shared values, the regularity and intensity of working together, and our common destination.

The ‘settling in’ to my current role was quite a different experience. It was not immediately obvious what kind of connections I could forge with people working with high-level systems and complex processes. No doubt the technical aspects and specialist knowledge associated with my role was a challenge to overcome, but the greater challenge I saw before me was finding a space in the hearts of new colleagues. At one level it was ‘being liked’, but more importantly, it was being able to sit comfortably with each other in our shared values and aspirations. I was and still am inspired and motivated by my organisation’s mission to serve learners. And I am sure many who work alongside me are driven by that desire to improve educational outcomes. And yet, the grind and exactness of processes-driven work meant that having a reciprocal engagement with people took a lot more effort than I had imagined.

People over processes

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

And so I embarked on a personal mission to make the most of opportunities I had to interact with colleagues – walking over to ask a question, learning more about them as much as they would reveal, setting up coffee dates, and understanding myself and others more by comparing our similarities and differences. This was reflexivity in action – a heightened sensitivity to my evolving relationships with others – as individuals, as work teams, as cultural groups, as social personas.

There were times where was easy laughter, there were times where I didn’t where else to rest my gaze. I’m sure I’ve said things that sound bizzare to others, just as I’ve learnt about things that didn’t seem to fit into my worldview. But over time and with intentionality, I’ve come to appreciate different senses of belonging occurring with different grouping and types of practices.

For example, the most immediate sense of belonging is with my work team where our physical proximity, overlapping responsibilities and growing understanding of one another’s psyche has provided me a socio-physical home base. Another sense of belonging rests in the easy and carefree banter at lunchtime in the kitchen or at the daily quiz event – if surrounded by the right mix of people. And yet another sense of belonging is with the wider organisation in the belief and the hope of paving the way for a better future for all of us.

Who am I, where am I, where do I want to go?

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

With the journey from easy belonging to negotiated belonging, I’m left with a couple of hard questions to answer: who am I, where am I, where do I want to go? Every now and then I pause to think about what my core beliefs and values are, and remind myself what my personal mission is. It has been written and re-written but it sounds something like: to fill knowledge and social gaps in order to empower others to achieve success.

And then I look around me to remind myself where I am – in a place where important decisions are made that have a material impact on many. I remind myself of the privilege and the responsibility of being in the public service, and the duty to act fairly but also with compassion.

The last question of where I want to go remains unanswered. I really do not know. I have a sense of doing something what was somehow uniquely designed for me, doing good and doing well. It’s a vagueness that finds clarity in my deliberate and serendipitous connection building with others. So if I could end my 2019 reflection with a 2020 aspiration – may I go boldly where others fear to tread.