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Your most powerful changes come from your daily habits. If you want to make significant changes to your lifestyle, your mental capacity, your skills, your connections, then start by looking at the tiny daily changes you can make. Too often, we are caught up trying to make big “all-or-nothing” changes, and then get discouraged when we can’t keep jumping the hoops we’ve set for ourselves.
We need to have this conversation with ourselves in long-form, and know that we’re in it for the long game.
Here are 3 daily habits that I am working on, which have made me happier and have begun the process of change this month:
Waking up at 5:00am: Now, I’m not about to harp on about the benefits of how life-changing this is in the way that many lifestyle gurus do. This was definitely, unequivocally, a personal choice for me. I wanted time to myself, to energise and centre myself before getting into the day. The decision to get up at 5:00am was to nourish me.
It’s been an interesting process, but it has definitely made a difference in how I feel going into the day. Waking up and 5:00am and getting up immediately to go for a walk or run, despite how groggy I am feeling, is absolutely brutal, and I consider myself a morning person. But about 5 minutes into the activity, I am more awake than if I had woken up at 6:15am and done my usual morning routine. The energy, space, and time I gain is absolutely worth the challenge of getting myself up. With the time remaining in the morning, I am able to journal, get clarity on difficult decisions and conversations, and get to the tender spot of reflection which doesn’t happen easily on a day-to-day basis.
In waking up early and giving myself time, I give myself clarity. My rehearsals and lessons have been more focused, I have been more authentic, my conversations have greater direction and purpose, and I feel centred and happy for more of the time. Yesterday morning, my one day a week without an early morning choir rehearsal, I had from 5:00am to 6:45am to myself. I did 10000 steps, made a pot of coffee, journalled, reflected upon the week, came up with 3 creative ideas, and had space to get into my day. I don’t pretend I’m going to nail it every time, I am SURE that I will trip up. But my day had more clarity, joy, direction, and purpose than I can remember prior to this routine.
Getting out of the “Can’t”: This relates directly to the above habit of waking up at 5:00am. The very realistic and cynical side of me says, “Yes, but it’s the first week of Term 3, of course you’re feeling positive and well-rested, of course you’re working with greater clarity!”, and that ultimately I am going to trip up and not be able to carry this through as a habit. This mindset is what has stopped me from really going after the scary things. I have experienced great success on everything small-to-mid-range. But I’d like to go for something where I have no guarantee, and I know that this is what is stopping me. Will I trip up on this habit? ABSOLUTELY.
There’s no way I’m going to nail it every time. But I’m going to sit in the middle ground. If I keep a solid routine, if I’m sure about my “why” for doing this, and if I problem-solve like a MF and go up against the “can’t talk” that buzzes loud in my head, I am going to nail this most of the time and be able to get back on track faster. Already, I can see the difference in my teaching + interactions with others.
Things that would normally derail me have become “just things that I need to solve.” I have leaned into interactions with challenging people and those who annoy me as a practise ground for how much I can turn a conversation around. I’ve tried to keep the mindset of, “Nobody ain’t gonna rain on MY parade!” And it’s not because I’m well-rested, it’s because I’m making the choice, and seeing how much room I have to move in a situation. It’s creativity and play at it’s finest, really!
Connection: I close up the most around the people I love the most, or are the most important to me. My Mum and Dad, my closest friends, and my most important relationships. I have been consciously practising interacting with these people in tiny steps, rather than just doing the introvert thing that I do of shutting down and going back into myself where it is safe and waiting until I am presentable to come out. I am trying to put into words exactly where I am at, share a small joke or light-hearted moment, or connect through something a little more vulnerable, especially if it’s a “sliding door” moment, and I have the choice to go there or not. I think of myself as a joyful, compassionate and authentic person, but this daily and sometimes hourly practise has made a significant change to how I feel walking into a classroom, a conversation, and my energy levels at the end of the day. I feel happier walking into situations where I am more vulnerable and tender, or less comfortable, than I have for a while. And while the change is imperceptible to most people, I can feel the release and lightness within myself. It costs me less energy to connect, because I am practising it every day.
This week has been a wonderful first week of school.
Lyrics for a new choral commission, Impossible Compass.
The concept behind this work is the paradox of finding your internal compass, the one that holds the values that you live by, your ideals, your best heart and self.
To find your compass
You must travel the world with your heart in your pocket
Catch due north, and it’s gone, like a whisper in the wind
Walk into the north wind, and you will realise
It was there all the time in your heart
In the place where you came into being
But stay in one place, safe and secure
You won’t find it
That anchor of belonging
You won’t know what it’s like to really know
How to stand alone and ache with longing
When you are more yourself in solitude
Then you will belong
But, my darling girl, keep running and moving
And turning and twisting
And pulling and driving
Forward, always away, never still
And your compass will never align
And while you’ll be free
You’ll never find
The crossroads of joy and ache
That give weight and meaning to life.
No-one asks to be a nomad when they are born into this world
But that’s who we are
We’re the map-makers and dream-sketchers
Tracking pathways to the sun
But that deep sense of longing
That comes from being anchored deep
While still moving and turning
And living and flying
In the wilderness of your life
In the silence of your thoughts
In the love that springs from living
Sits beside you, and nestles in your heart
Whispers into your ear:
My darling child, I’m here.
When you are depleted, I think you need to work even harder, harder than you ever have, to keep the pulse of your heart alive. It’s so contradictory, but so truthful and essential. I cannot believe how many times I fight this and then arrive at the same realisation. There’s the recipe for a good life, ladies and gentlemen; to do this over and over against rhyme and reason, just for the sake of you.
Hang tight, my darling girl, because awful, unfair, unrealistic things will happen and you need to figure out a way to get out from underneath them. Look around! There are examples of grace and courage happening every day, from every person who ever lived authentically. Nobody lives a charmed life if they are living fully.
To really LIVE; it means making peace and creating reason from the tumultuous and unreasonable. When you have nothing, give. I know it sounds incredible, but that is what will awaken humanity and connection. Give a smile, a word, a cry, an explanation, a hug, something. Please, my darling girl, don’t close yourself off because it’s a little safer, the cost is too great. By all means, go in there and say your piece. Fly your freak flag. Show your passion and emotion. Fight hard and argue even harder. Rock that boat and make waves. But come back in, connect, love more, MORE than you thought possible. Not in sacrifice, but holding yourself sacred and coming back with tender vulnerability, open to hearing what the world has to say.
And my girl, please, pry open every door or window you close yourself or that gets closed on you. Move every stone in your pathway. Like a swimmer breaking through the surface of the water, gasping with pure will to live, you must fight to keep your heart open as if it were breathing.
Why? For YOU, my darling girl.
For you and those that matter to you. If it happens to line up with those who hurt you, or those you disagree with, then…WHATEVER.
You’re tracking this scene. You’re writing this script. The only goal is to keep that pulse of life, love, hope and connection flowing through your heart, and that cannot be done when you’re wondering where your ego is.
You breathe in that good shit for YOU and ONLY YOU.
I always do a blessing on my house each morning. Being a first generation Chinese-Vietnamese Australian, there are things you do partly out of love, partly out of tradition, and partly out of warding off the first-generation karma.
Lately, I have asked for courage. Sometimes, it’s a conscious request with a specific scenario in mind. Like, “Please grant me the courage to have that god-awful and awkward conversation I’ve got to have with one of my students who’s failing. Help me speak with compassion and directness, help me hit the right mark, help me go there and hold space for the discomfort.”
Other days, it’s just what pops up into my heard + heart, unbidden, “One order of courage today, please!”
In asking for courage, here is what I have received in my last term of teaching:
I asked for courage, in order that I might have the self-compassion and patience to be out of action for 7 days to soothe my spirit and recover from the sickness of intensive travel with the ANZAC Music Tour. The tenderness with which I have to speak to myself, that I might understand and fully embrace the fact that I am not super-human, that I must rest, and that the exhaustive pull of this sickness will pass, and I will recover, and my spirit will rise up again.
I asked for courage, that I might catch the newly-awakened love of leadership that came from leading the tour. You always get what you absolutely don’t want, and I cannot tell you how MUCH I DID NOT WANT to lead this tour. I didn’t know the crevices of it, I hadn’t planned it, my heart wasn’t embedded in it. And yet, I found myself holding the reins, in charge of the emotional, musical, and physical safety and joy of the students under my direction. I got on that plane, leaned in, and led like a MF. All the while, knowing that I would have been just as happy with a holidays curled up reading, or cooking, or fresh-faced from a morning run along Henley Beach, and I was on the other side of the world, discovering, experiencing, leading, learning, feeling; wholehearted, courageous, and completely present. I gave my heart to that tour, those kids, and my supporting staff. The fire in the belly has been awakened, and I find that I like being in the driver’s seat. That I like considering the dynamics and well-being of a team, and that I like pin-pointing potential and helping others to grow.
I asked for courage, that I might take a bigger, more audacious bite of life. I am always on the conservative side of the average. But lately, by design or by default, I have found myself pushing limits. Reaching in, asking for more clarification, talking, engaging in discussion, and leaning hard into discomfort. So much so that I come home completely wrecked and exhausted, sometimes wondering if I’ve done right by everyone – and knowing, instinctively, that I have.
I asked for courage, that I might let go more easily, learn how to forgive more completely and honestly, learn the process of forgiveness more intimately, that I might take bigger, more audacious bites of life. The more that I protect myself and tell myself and the world that everything is okay, the more that I don’t embrace the gritty reality of forgiveness. Forgiveness is what allows each of us to fully embrace life, and allow us that “lean-hard” into joy. Because unfortunately, there cannot be a filter for embracing life completely; if you want the joys, you need to run headlong into the shitty moments. Forgiveness is the navigation tool of the bold and brave-hearted.
I asked for courage, that I might love more fully. Loving is such a unfurling, tender, human act.
I asked for courage, that I might not embrace fears before they actually become fears. I see the audaciousness of those much older, much less educated, much more courageous that I am, and I see that they are living life with balls-out, audacious, vibrant wholeheartedness. And I cry, because I realise how many times I have played small from fear. I have the complete Derwent set of pencils in language, emotion, connection, life, stability, family, love, friendship, finance; the ONLY thing stopping me is fear. And perhaps a well-made flat white. I have everything I need to live life audaciously + fiercely.
I asked for courage, that I might learn how to navigate the unforgivable. When fear or circumstance make people act in ways that are less-than, when there is no rhyme or reason to a decision, an act, or a situation. I am afraid of becoming closed-off and bitter when I have to navigate these situations. Conversely, I don’t want to treat them superficially. So therefore, I ask for courage that I might engage with every part of life, even the situations which challenge me deeply and I do not easily understand, those which are seemingly unforgivable, incomprehensible, and driven by fear. I ask that I do not respond in fear, but I respond with courage and compassion, that I might retain and even build my understanding of myself, the world around me, and my understanding of humanity, and continue to live fully. One of my greatest fears is becoming bitter and not knowing myself.
I asked for courage, that I might be perceptive. That just because someone is embedded in a place of leadership or power, that does not make them a person of integrity and worth, and those qualities need to be demonstrated and trust earned over time. I ask that I learn to see things authentically, that I process things thoroughly, and that I anger + react slowly.
I asked for courage, that I might have the courage to be different. Lately, assimilating has been strangely seductive for me. Perhaps it’s been a long term, perhaps I feel like I am up against it, but I ask for courage that I continue to think differently to others, see my different points of view, and bring fresh new insights to the table, even if they seem – different. I am put here to be creative and compassionate, playful and insightful, and no one else will see from my point of view. And just because a decision is not made in my favour, doesn’t mean my viewpoint isn’t valid. The validity is not the question. It’s whether I have the courage to embrace seeing things from my point of view, and whether or not they make sense and are done from a place of generosity and egoless-ness.
I asked for courage, that I might live. When it gets too tiring or overwhelming, I want to fucking dance.
In asking for courage, I got a shitload of challenge, problem-solving, closed doors, fear and unfairness.
I’d say The Universe delivered very nicely, don’t you think?
I got comprehensively “couraged”, and I walk with battle scars, head-up, and a whole new sass.
This caught me by surprise and made my heart flip.
The Year 7s have been writing “gratitude notes” and I received one that nearly broke me today with how utterly beautiful + perceptive it was:
“Dear Ms Kwok,
Coming to Pulteney was one of the scariest but best decisions of my life. I have to be honest and say that I really like all my teachers, but I like them all differently. Some teachers are nice and I walk in and out of their classes feeling good. But that’s it. I feel nice, which isn’t bad but it isn’t life-changing.
And then there are some teachers where I walk into class and I feel like I’m really seen and that I need to put up work which is my best. I feel like I am cared for, but not always in a comfortable way, like I’m valued but I can’t cruise.
You are one of those sorts of teachers.
Exciting things feel more exciting, and I feel like I want to try harder because there’s more chance that you will see when I’m not doing my best, and probably call me out on it. That’s okay, it’s your job. (😂)
Thank you for not only teaching me, but making me feel like I want more out of each day.”
Holy crap. Can this kid please go for president?!
I had a colleague walk by today and say, “Smile, Kwokkie! Why so serious? That’s not you!”
And normally I wouldn’t mind, but today it really got under my skin. Probably because there’s a lot buzzing away in the background with overseas tour preparations and I have limited smile-capacity at present. 🤣
And it got me thinking about the cost of not receiving people as they were, especially those who are normally strong, joyful, resilient, positive, and thoughtful, and the expectations we place on ourselves and others to be a certain way.
For me, I was totally fine with whatever resting bitch face I had on; it was honest + authentic. Why so serious? Because at that moment, I WAS + NEEDED to be. Did that comment mean I’m not taken seriously? Because I certainly DO SERIOUS work. I just happen to like doing seriously SERIOUS and EXCELLENT work with JOY + ENTHUSIASM.
It was SUCH a reminder to me to receive my own students, particularly the very exceptional ones who give their very best selves each day, at whatever state they are in without judgement, just care + connection.
I am guilty of giving that very same passing remark when I am not thinking, without any desire to make anyone feel less than.
So that’s why I’ll take my very special, give-it-all-to-the-world super students, at face value. I’ll ask them how they are travelling without asking them why they’re not looking stupendous every moment of they day. That they are allowed to have moments in the day where they can be un-smiley, resting-bitch-and-bastard-faced grumpy sods, and ultimately perfectly normal, healthy, wonderful human beings.
Sometimes you wonder if you’re hitting the mark with the students who give nothing away. But you just keep flying the freak flag, doing the crazy spontaneous things, giving the love and support wholeheartedly, laying down the boundaries over and over, and saying the words that you hope will hit the mark, even if they are met with blank faces and all-out resistance.
But time and time again, I get the unexpected reminders that teenagers, particularly Year 12 teenagers, do have highly evolved crap-detectors on their heads and NOTICE.
From one of my Year 12 Tutor Group Sirs, who gives NOTHING away, and suffers my conversations with mono-syllabic responses, via another staff member:
“Yeah, Kwokkie, she’s a total embarrassment, but she’s cool. You know she cares + she works hard for us. I rate her.”
That’s THREE SENTENCES and massive ones, straight to the heart.
When I was 21, I thought I could make anyone smile. Anyone who was withdrawn, quiet, tired, stressed, angry, annoyed, having an off day, I would make it my personal mission to connect with them and see if I could break their mood, or get a smile from them. I thought it was my business to talk to anyone.
How UTTERLY AUDACIOUS and SIMPLISTIC of me.
And yet, I have been thinking about it a lot this week, and longing for that simplistic, authentic audacity.
Because I realised that I have become safe.
Imperceptibly, and ever-so-surreptitiously, I have become more reasonable, more mature, bounded by rules and frameworks, cautious, and, let’s face it, less happy to give up my energy and time for a possible metaphorical slap in the face if an interaction goes badly. While outwardly I am energised and positive, I have very gradually become safe. I’m on the conveyor belt, and I didn’t even realise it.
Why am I thinking about this?
It’s been an exhausting and challenging few weeks at school, where students are starting to get tired and edgy. Behaviour problems are starting to fully show themselves, assessments are due, encouragement and full support are required where my reservoirs are running low, and I am trying to fit more and more in. And while I get everything competently done, I thought about what total a whack-job I was in my early 20s as a teacher, where a behaviour management or teaching issues were just situations requiring a creative solution. I all but rubbed my hands in glee, ready to embark on a round of solution-mongering.
I was so damn creative, audacious, and fearless.
Why? Because I had no track record. I had absolutely nothing to lose, no history of success or failure, no existing street-cred, and I had classes to teach. And my God, I found ways to connect with those students + staff out of sheer desperation + innovation, keeping up by the day, and sometimes by the minute. And because I had zero behaviour management skills, I behaviour managed like Martina Hingis played tennis: SMART.
I am a featherweight, literally. I am just under 5-foot and about 45-50 kgs, depending upon how may Tim Tams I eat. My voice back then did not carry a metre, let alone a rehearsal room with 70 over-excited students. In my formative teaching days, I had no “older-male-student” presence whatsoever when I behaviour managed; some of those 6-foot-plus boys could have sneezed and I would’ve been annihilated. I had zero ability + knowledge in navigating bitchiness, drugs, alcohol, underhand remarks, social media bullying, in short, no street-cred whatsoever.
And I had classes to teach, and curriculum to get through, and boundaries to set.
So I built connection. I had the audacity to think that if I could make every interaction with each student + staff member as real, authentic, joyful, and positive as possible, I would at least have money in the bank.
It became a game to me; I wonder how I can make that staff member smile? How could I POSSIBLY start a conversation with a kid who has zero interests which overlap with mine? How can I deliver soul-sucking information to students about their grades, their actions, or their poor behaviour in a way that values them?
I spent hours driving home thinking through words and conversations, learning the power of changing one word, or how I chose to deliver something, what order I would say things, where I would say a kid’s name to show value + care, and how I chose to build hope and worthiness where there was such decimation in their self-esteems without taking away from poor work + behaviour.
That was then, when I was “young and scrappy”, and full of energy and front.
Now, I have things in place. I am mid-career, and I have frameworks down, confidence in my abilities, and structures and staff who will support me.
And I realised this week, whilst trudging through a challenging, emotionally draining week, that I have recently forgotten to be audacious. I have been taking the slightly safer option, the path of least resistance. I haven’t started the random conversations, I haven’t given the extra compliment to the kid who is trouble, I have allowed systems to work their systematic magic, and in truth, I have been sapped of energy. I haven’t got what it takes to be full of audacity, engaging with conversations that half the time might elicit a weird or slightly off-centre reaction. I have no time for the quirky, no energy for the playful just to be playful.
And that what I LIVED for in my beginning years.
But, my God, I should. I should, because that is the connection that is missing.
Because some of that unreasonable audacity is what will shake me out of my routine, and back into the fresh and unpredictable present that is teaching, and life.
What if I said hello the the person who perpetually was withdrawn in the morning and made it a challenge to see if I could learn something new about them? Do I need to be mesmerised + completely interested? Well, highly likely I won’t be to that extent. But I can still make a connection. I am not learning anything or connecting with anyone if I have walked past this person for half a year and know nothing about them and continue talking to the same people. How both big-headed and fearful am I that I think someone else is not worth my time, or that my time is THAT limited. There are people in much more demanding jobs and lives who find time. So can I.
What if I did those things for my students + classes which elicit the raised eyebrows, embarrassed yet half-game laughs, and shook them up a little? I’ve been comfortable, with my ensembles, with my thinking, with my support, with my teaching. I wonder what it would be like to do something which is just slightly outside of my current comfort zone, knowing that it will cost me a more courage, time, and energy?
What if I sat still enough that I could find the words to speak to the kid who is being a little shit, and continues to be a little shit in my classes because they are so broken by life? Rather than just letting the behaviour system do its thing, how could I change the script so that the consequences happen, but my WORD resonate with value and worthiness? My instinct right now? I want to kick a few of the kids I teach. That’s how much they are pissing me off. But I wonder, audaciously, how willing I am to think about this creatively. I’m not pinning myself as the next teaching Messiah, God no. I will still want to slap several kids for being completely remorseless, unaffected, Teflon-coated turds, even if my conversations and words are well-received. But let’s play this creativity game a little.
How can I do things differently when I am uncomfortable?
How can I connect with kids who don’t want to be connected with, who refuse everything, and who are going through the motions of a behaviour management plan already? What can I say or do that will actually carry momentum and resonate?
Why the hell would I want to do this?
Because my greatest joys in life have come from the accidental, audacious interactions. When I was 21, I thought I could talk to anyone and affect change. I thought that all my words carried some life and momentum, and I naively and audaciously believed that my setting out to make peoples days a little brighter served a higher purpose.
And the reflection back was threefold; when a risk paid off, I was catapulted out of my comfort zone into new connections, understandings, unexpected moments of joy, learning, and hope. I learned so much from being so naively confident and interested. I was absolutely engrossed in life.
And I would hate to look back and realise that I had become reasonable and normal, colouring within the lines like a good little girl, when I had the imagination, capacity, and ability to be creative, human, and audaciously unreasonable.
Today was one of those days which never got off the ground. From the moment I walked into Concert Choir at 7:15am, I proceeded to stagger my way through double-bookings, clashes, missing pages of accompaniment, flat batteries, sick choral kiddies, dropping a jar of ashes (yes, it was Ash Wednesday, just to add to the fun), and other assorted mild to epic fails.
While sitting in the corner of the classroom, throwing down my lunch in record time in stony-faced silence + generally hating all forms of life, my Year 12 Prefects appeared with a cup of tea + a Freddo.
“Okay, Ms Kwok. We need to talk.”
Instantly, the alarm bells went off and the braincells went into overdrive, “What NOW?! Have I forgotten something? Have I let these guys down?!”
Miss Year 12 Head Prefect put her arm comfortingly around me and said, calmly and soothingly, “Look, Ms Kwok, you have to LET IT GO. You can’t do it all. You can’t nail every moment of every day. It can’t all be AMAZING.”
Sir Year 12 Deputy Prefect: “We made a cup of tea + stole a Freddo for you. Chill out. Stop saving the world for the next 20 minutes.”
Miss Year 12 Deputy Prefect: “Plus we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to quote you back to you.”
Damn it, you three. I just got schooled, and in the most caring way possible. 😭