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As I continue to step into myself, I realise increasingly how adaptable I am. And while I carry my own vibrancy and momentum, when I am confronted with a force or personality greater than mine, more selfish and unpredictable, less sensitive and thoughtful, I either fold into myself or adapt to that person. I move toward and I please. That is my MO.
It’s so subtle that I don’t even realise I am doing it sometimes; I am so able to mold myself to a situation that I convince myself this was the correct option, even if it means working harder or differently. And I also tell myself that it is good to learn, think of the greater good, I shouldn’t be so set in my ways, and that I need to stretch myself.
And it’s certainly not because I am not comfortable and confident in myself. I feel that I am confident in standing my ground authentically and simply, without fanfare. I am playful, joyful, energised, vibrant, interested, and I continually evolve in courage, perception, and strength.
And yet, there it is. Only when I draw back far enough do I realise that I am adapting imperceptibly, even to myself, to a situation “for the greater good”. Or, if I am being brutally honest, because I am afraid of confrontation and am used to being “the one who thinks differently”. Being the one on the outer with some sense of optimism and personal momentum, when you are surrounded by strong, bull-dozer of a character with a whole cast of minion sicko-fans is a real litmus test to feeling your DIFFERENT-NESS.
So I’ve noticed something unique about this week: So far, every day back at school has been a gift. I have loved being back in the frontline, and some of the stresses I had last year have been removed just by having time away. The gift has come from the deep recalibration that a holiday offers. All the things that you assumed were okay are realigned to have merit and worth, and you find your equilibrium, not that of the workplace. And until things are pulled away from this centreline, I intend to listen hard to this equilibrium and honour it in my favour, for my own well-being.
During the holidays, I have spent time with people who see me completely, and love me playfully, honestly, and warmly. And now, at this unique time of getting back on the treadmill and running fast, I want to catch all the times that I am feeling discomfort as a warning sign, an indication that I need to pay attention and be alert and NOT automatically adapt.
I’d like to stand at that crossroad fully, and decide if I will choose to adapt and ask more of myself, or if I will stand in my own truth and rock the boat a little. Or a lot.
I am doing things differently this year.
I will no longer allow myself to do the following:
Dim my light to make others around me feel more comfortable. I come back from my lessons excited, or wrecked, and everything in between. I am unfailingly honest and excited by my work, and I know that I do connection with my students exceptionally well. I will not make myself small just in case people around me feel small from my success, or have the pettiness to feel triumphant from my failures. I will step into my own, because it suits and celebrates me. I will walk into a room and my cup will overflow, and that sass will ooze from my being. And that is all there is to it, my friends. No debate.
But what I will also do is make sure I choose “my people” well. I will give the bare facts of what happens in my classes to connect with my department to be an effective colleague. But I will make sure my most special + unique successes are shared with the people who matter to me, and very likely outside of my department. These are people who are in my inner circle, who will cheer me on because I succeeded.
Allow others to make off-hand comments that are designed to cut me down. You know the ones; the comments which take the shine off something wonderful, or something I am excited by, or something that is unique to me, like my love of colour. Let me remind myself that:
The conversation with myself will be different, though. Rather than huddling into myself and seething, I am going to remind myself of these two points, work through the anger + frustration, and when I am ready, lay it down. Because I have so much more that I want to be filling my life with. It is also worth mentioning that no matter what the stress level or situation, someone who has my back will NEVER make me feel less than my full worth. I might have to press pause on a conversation, but I will NEVER be made to feel small for trying. Let me remember those wonderful, strong leaders I have worked with who treated me with that sort of boldness + integrity combined. Hell, let me become a leader! There’s another conversation for later…!
I don’t want to be ANYONE’S “Girl Friday”, unless it’s someone I love. This is an uncomfortable conversation, but I’m laying it down. Those females who absolutely thrive off a quasi-flirtatious relationship with their seniors, who gobble up slightly demoralising banter like its manna from the sky. Those females who love that they can have that intensive one-on-one banter and forget that that there are other people around them, because they are relishing the adoration of being the first wife, the alpha female. I just want to throw up, my goodness. That intelligent, beautiful women simper and crumble at this sort of attention and destroy not only their sense of self-worth, but any self-worth their female colleagues had for them. For me, let me always remember to try and expand the circle. I will not buy into that intensity of friendship in the workplace, because I’d like to care for the well-being of the team. And if I catch myself doing that, as a colleague, or as a teacher looking after my own classes and supporting the class dynamics, I hope that I will have the grace to pull back and readjust.
Plus it’s just so damn 1960s and pre-feminist in values! How utterly demoralising that you can be won over by a flirtatious compliment and strung along? While I want to enjoy all of my woman-ness and femininity, I am not going to swoon over a compliment over my looks, my new white blouse, how I’ve done my make-up, my legs, or anything else of that nature. That beautiful and delicious part of me? Absolutely reserved for the very special people in my life who have permission to find me sexy, gorgeous, alluring, and breathtaking.
That shit in a place of work, even the bare whiff of it, is deeply uncomfortable-making for those of us who want to shine our own authentic, truly beautiful light and work hard.
Please, girls + women, do not take the easy compliment and alienate all those around you in the strong sisterhood. Please have more self-respect than that.
p.s. For me? I’ll take the compliments on my work, the joy in my appearance (non-flirtatious, just in the colours, thank you!), the quality of my teaching, the integrity with which I work, and the connections I have with my students.
My compass + quality of work. I forget that just because someone is in a position of leadership, that they may not have my best interests at heart. I am an incredibly effective employee, but that does not mean that every bit of feedback a person in leadership gives me is necessarily with good intentions towards me. And while you would hope that people in leadership work with integrity, and most do, unfailingly so, I am going to take a moment in between to judge for myself. I am not going to allow the seniority of a position dictate the merit of a comment or piece of feedback. I will put it in light of my own performance and the judgement of the personal providing the feedback, and then decide if it is something I would like to act upon.
Emotional strength + health. The conversations I have with myself are extraordinary sometimes, and not in a good way. I looked back at some of my reflections from last year, and the words that I began an overwhelming number of them with were, “I’m so tired.” I was emotionally tired from hold back, adapting, and not acknowledging my true worth. And the thing is this; if I allow this to happen, there is no way that I will fully step into my worth further, or continue to have weight and merit. Let me hold myself in high esteem that I may resonate authenticity and merit, and let those people I have allowed to take way too much + mental energy play catch up with me. The conversations I am having with myself this year are going to put ME at the heart of them, and continue to build my courage and emotional resiliency. They will not all be optimistic or easy. But they will be focused on me, not the situation, not the unfair slight, not the interaction that made my blood boil, but what I can do about it.
Numbing + time. I am embarrassed at how much time I have wasted numbing on Youtube + Facebook, again, almost imperceptibly. Just another 10 or 15 minutes, and I have lost 1 to 2 hours of glorious creative time. And do you know what it was which made me do this? FEAR. Always FEAR. I was afraid that if I truly looked inside myself, I would find that I had no idea what to do, no solution, and that it would all cost too much to sort through my thoughts and emotions. But we have to start. And anything of value takes time, including the hard solutions. So rather than unhealthy, extended scrolling and numbing, I am going to embark on those hard sit-down-and-dissect sessions with myself. Because the time I am saving right now is significant, the connections I am fostering with people I love are amazing, and the clarity I am gaining, just mind-blowing. I feel like I am walking a straight path, head high, even if the weather is inclement, where as last year I was climbing over branches and dodging potholes in a changing climate.
Life is interesting, girl! Life is really interesting! Spare time wasted without agency or choice is a block of time that you’ll never get back. When you are creating + engaging, in a relationship, friendship, creative project, or practising a skills, personal or professional, life is truly engaging. And as I realise how much I love being creative as a means to unwind, rather than just lying on the couch scrolling Facebook, I think sadly and wistfully back to 12-year-old me who just raced through her piano practise at breakneck speed so it was “done” enough to allow me to be inert. What is the point of done, when all the interest lies in the journey?
Nothing is permanent. In Pema Chödrön’s book, When Things Fall Apart, she explores the concept of impermanence and how disappointing and frustrating people find this, when it is a fact of life. For example, I get so hung up about a flowerbed that I have freshly weeded sprouting brand new weeds that it almost outdoes the satisfaction of the week of weed-free garden that I have enjoyed. The same applies to the house getting dusty when only two weeks ago, it was pristine. Why do we get so frustrated? Why do we expect things to just be perfect and in a state of unmoving, clinical “safety” all the time? Life isn’t written like that, and to clean or weed is to have a beautiful place to live. Let me rethink my unreasonable petty frustrations, and my aversion to cleaning, knowing that life is an every changing beast, continuous and surprising.
So yes…I am doing things differently this year…! 😉
Every time we do something different, it opens up a little door of change and possibility in each of us. A glimpse of a world slightly different from our current path, or a whole new way of understanding that shakes us up and asks us to explore and embrace something which is outside of our comfort zone.
This year, I’d like to do things differently.
Inherently differently. That is, for all the times in the past that I have made a decision and had an outcome that I didn’t like, I’d like to remember those experiences and then try to respond differently this year.
Every time I get the opportunity to walk through one of these doors and to create a different outcome, I am going try to do so. My question that I am going to ask myself this year at each decision is this: How will I do things differently?
So rather than saying, “That’s fabulous, but that’s not me”, I am going to see if I can take a different viewpoint of, “That’s fabulous, and how can I find a way to engage with it so that I am still standing in my own integrity, but just a little (or a lot, let’s face it!) out of my comfort zone?”
How often do we do things the way we have always done things, or thought the same thoughts, and been surprised when the outcome has been the same? Or those times we have written off a project, idea, friendship, conversation, or connection before it had even the opportunity to get off the ground because we could not change the direction of our thinking?
I realised that even though I am an optimistic person who is thoroughly interested in life, I have made a lot of my decisions from a place of can’t. No, that won’t work because that person doesn’t do large-scale, or fun, or innovative. No, I can’t do that choral piece because I don’t have the numbers. And yes, there is reason behind my thinking and I’m not about to be blindly Pollyanna about anything. But…what if I thought about things just a little bit differently?
So for example, rather than being a little shy and careful with how I react to new connections because of past hurts, I’d like to be more present and embrace them more fully. This doesn’t mean overflowing with information and personal details from the onset, this means that I have to work harder to connect, be more open and present in my interactions and not just rely on brightness and niceties, be genuinely interested and not just fly-by tokenistic with my conversation, and to look hard at myself as to whether I am being the sort of colleague and friend I would like to have. It’s harder, more genuine work. But it’s different from how I do things now, which is stay somewhat brightly superficial until I really feel safe with the people and want to invite them into my circle. So many lost opportunities for connection and to engage with people who have different ideas to me if I do not have the courage to have my own world shaken up a bit because I’m skimming the surface.
I’d like to get more real and curious!
Rather than sitting on the fence, I’d like to see if I can form a more definite opinion, even if that opinion is sitting on the fence and being undecided.
Rather than just writing lyrical pieces, I’d like to see if I can write and embrace my witty, playful, clever, unexpected, and fiercely intelligent side.
Rather than being adaptive, I wonder what it would be like to absolutely take the spotlight more.
Rather than being a team player all the time, I wonder what it would be like to lead and direct a project.
Rather than preempting how something will go before even jumping in, I’d like to try something, knowing full well that it might not work and that it might cost me time, energy, and personal investment, but I’d still like to try and embrace the journey rather than cutting an idea down before it’s even had a chance to be fully explored.
Because somewhere in all of this thinking, I think that I have been living safe. I have a safe little world where I am comfortable. But I am wondering what it is like to take the other path. To take Option B. To take the experience rather than what I’ve always done.
I’d like to see how differently I can do things this year, and what choices I will make which will allow me to change and grow.
What will you do differently?
I have the most amazing kiddie in one of my Year 7 Music classes. Unruly hair, arms flying, brain the same, he is the epitome of a teenage boy. But he absolutely loves to learn and is totally, blissfully unaware of his hunger for knowledge, asks questions like he breathes, and is universally loved by all, even the grudging admirers. He is the kid that achieves a merit or top of the class without even realising that it’s a thing.
“Oh, I did THAT?!” Pause. “Oh, that’s kind of cool, isn’t it?” Pause. “I’m so hungry! Can we go now?!”
That’s his brain trajectory. He is defined by nothing, except that exact moment in time.
The thing about this kid is that he is so absolutely HIMSELF and AUTHENTIC that there is simply no room to BE anything else. He loves learning, so he does it. He has an idea, so he shares it. He is utterly, completely imperfect and downright annoying sometimes. His current project with me is realising he’s one of MANY in my class, and realising that he’s got limited one-on-one time with me. But his awareness is simply astounding as well; this is how one of our recent conversations went:
Me: “Sir Year 7! S E R I OU S L Y! You are one of MANY! Are you this noisy at home?! What happens when you need to share the air time?”
Sir Year 7: “I’m so sorry Ms Kwok. I honestly forget. See, there’s only one of me at home, so I suppose being in a class is something I need to learn. I’ll let Mum + Dad know that I need to practise it. I just get so excited by what we’re doing.”
OH MY GOODNESS, WHAT YEAR 7 SAYS THAT?!
So in our final week of school, we had International Languages + Cultures Day, where we had a casual day on the last day of school where we were encouraged to wear our national cultural dress. This kid is Greek, and his full cultural dress is ABSOLUTELY SENSATIONAL. The white flowing robes, the tasselled shoes, the hat, all FAB-U-LOUS. He proudly showed me a picture of what he was planning on wearing on the final day, and I told him how MUCH I was looking forward to seeing him in his national dress.
And then he said: “Ms Kwok, I’m a little nervous about it. I mean, I’m so proud of my heritage, but our national dress is over-the-top. We Greeks don’t do anything by halves. My parents are totally up for me wearing my gear on Friday, but even though I’m proud, I’m nervous about what the rest of my class + the rest of the school might think. I might get laughed at. I’m prepared for that, but I’m also sort of not looking forward to it as well.”
Me, internally: Kid, you are amazing. No one would DARE laugh at you because you would just totally OWN IT. You could wear a potato sack and people would think that you were just rocking your heritage. You have this authenticity and realness, this humanness, imperfectness, and silliness, that makes you undeniably YOU. You NEED to do this to help give permission to other kids to be them as well.
But my favourite bit? That he was poignantly, sensitively nervous about it. He was SENSIBLE to the world around him, and AWARE of the challenges, even though he was so committed to being totally himself.
Me, in words: “You will totally rock it. It might feel weird and nerve-wracking to do it, but you should be proud of our heritage. You’re going to give many other kids permission to be themselves as well, through you being a little bit courageous.”
Sir Year 7: “A bit like you do each day, hey Ms Kwok? We always look forward to you rocking the colours.”
OH. MY. GOODNESS.
And I realised something amazing: We each of us are looking for the “similar” around us, even if we think we’re not. We can’t help it if we have any measure of humanity and vulnerability. We are looking for other people who look exactly like us in the frontline. Those who are being the forerunners, so that we have permission to be the forerunners behind them. Isn’t it amazing that we are constantly look for the like, even though we think we are committed to being brave?
And I realised also how much my students notice about the playful example I am setting with my colourful outfits each day. It gives them permission to also rock their individuality.
The most poignant realisation? Sir Year 7 had just put into words what I instinctively think on a daily basis. Sure, I can step into the arena and be different. I THINK I’m good with that. But REALLY truly, I am looking out of my peripheral vision for another “like”, someone who is just like me.
Yet if I flipped that, what if who I was and the example I was setting became one BIG-GIANT-FLASHING-NEON-LIVE-WALKING-PERMISSION-SLIP for others to do the same? How much JOY do I get from those like Sir Year 7 who are so honestly themselves, yet so humbly nervous about sharing themselves, that I just WANT them to ROCK their personalities?
You can’t be in the frontline looking sideways.
You need to be in the frontline looking forward. Front and centre. Because you might be someone else’s permission slip on life while you are walking around being a little bit nervous, but a whole lot more courageous.
I don’t want to admit it, but generally, I like things to look nice. Ordered. Pretty.
But actually, there are many times in my life where this sense of order + “perfectness” impacts on the pure messy joy that I can experience.
It doesn’t affect me negatively, I still have the same outcome, but I lose just a tiny bit of joy and sparkle, curiosity and unexpected learning.
Interestingly, I am very good at supporting “good learning chaos” in the classroom. I have faith in my ability to drive that. But for me? Somehow the idea of routine equals maximum production. When did I become such a machine?!
For example, last year I had a favourite mug. Nothing wrong with that, except that I have 18 other gorgeous, brightly patterned, colourful, all-shapes-and-sizes mugs waiting to be used. The problem was I was all for not creating any additional work and securing a predictable outcome. And you could trace it back to my plunger-coffee brewing skills!
On the surface, I was a creature of habit. Flip that, and I was playing it safe. In my cup usage. Which no doubt meant in some other aspects of my world.
So this year, after cleaning for Chinese New Year, I started using every single other mug I owned, no matter how awkward to use, how it put my milk + coffee proportions out of whack, no matter how hard to balance, no matter how quickly my coffee cooled down. I put up with the inconvenience and lack of predictability for the sake of a new experience.
This all seems totally ridiculous when you think, “It’s ONLY A FRICKIN’ MUG!”
But it becomes a very big deal when you apply that sense of daring and risk and change to what I do in the classroom, what I read, who I talk to, the conversations I’m willing to engage in, what movies I watch, and how I approach life.
Am I willing to be a teacher different to what I’ve done in the past? I’m an effective teacher…but I wonder what else I can do? I win the day through connection + building a strong rapport with my students. What about pushing harder on grit + excellence?
When I am tired or overwhelmed by school, I go back to old familiar books, movies, and tv show because they don’t cost me anything emotionally. I don’t have to pay close attention. What if I traded one hour of mindless “re-whatever-ing” for 15 minutes of pushing out of my comfort zone?
I have cooked the same dozen or so healthy meals and lunches for school for the past year. Not because I don’t love cooking with a passion, but because – and GET THIS – I don’t want the extra wash-up and unpredictability of time use when I try new recipes! Oh my goodness. Cracking open the recipe books now. What is a kitchen for but to create joyful mess and experience new tastes + cuisines?
I solve problems by being perceptive, articulating my side, and then peace-making. One project I know myself to be engaging in this year is “warrior training”; staying with a problem and leaning into a difficult conversation more readily than walking the other way. It will be more uncomfortable and unpredictable, but I just wonder what it would be like to stay present and create authentic ripples, rather than not. I want to get better at close-range combat, well, here’s my chance.
So that “regular mug”?
For the sake of pushing up against bento-boxed perfect for all-over-the-table imperfect + present.
I have a fear of being too much trouble, being annoying, or asking too much. This fear has been well-hidden for ages, and mostly doesn’t bother me, but when I really look and dig deep, it’s right there.
I’ve recently come back from an extraordinary Gwinganna retreat in the Gold Coast which was NOTHING of what I expected, but gave me so many little starting points in how to improve my health, my well-being, my thinking, and in embracing life. Now I think I’m reasonably healthy in many things, and I think my strength is my emotional well-being, but this realisation with lingering fear surprised me.
I’m able to ask for what I need in my professional and personal life with consideration and generosity. I’m fair and thoughtful in my dealings, and always try to be compassionate and put things into perspective. But I realised there is another fear beyond all this…it’s the fear of pushing boundaries when things get really uncomfortable. When this happens, I quietly abort mission and make sure everyone around me has their feathers smoothed, their favourite blanket, and a nice hot drink, metaphorically speaking. Or, if I do not respect the person, that they leave with their sense of self intact, EVEN IF I DO NOT RESPECT THEM!
I realised that I am uncomfortable with discomfort!
So when life is going well, and everyone is reasonably happy and calm, my requests and boundary-setting all work perfectly. I don’t mind being “audacious” then, because no-one’s back is up. But what about when it really counts? When the turmoil hits? When there is deep stress that needs navigating?
I realise I am afraid.
And this fear is something I’d like to challenge, and something I’d like to patiently sit with and develop stronger navigating skills for. Already this year, I have had a few moments where I’ve had to step in and be the captain of some of these intensely stressful moments, where emotions are high and there is tension in the air that I can almost tangibly feel. I REALLY don’t like these situations; for one, I’m intensely introverted, and secondly, I go into life wanting to engage with people from a place of joy + energy! I don’t handle grinding, harsh confrontation very well. This is different from conversation and discourse, where there is a sharing of different opinions, information and ideas, and where both sides are deeply valued from the onset; THAT is invigorating for me. But those times where I stand to be unreasonably annihilated by someone who is just on a verbal rampage…well, those situations affect me deeply, and I admire those people who know how to navigate those times.
And it manifests in other ways. Sometimes, but not all the time, I will reuse a mug rather than getting a beautiful new one, order a meal that’s easier to prepare, agree to something because it puts less pressure on the person being requested of. Or even when I’m in disagreement with someone and in line to receive an apology, I will make it as kind and easy for that person to apologise as possible. So while I take care to have the boundaries that look after me, sometimes it still comes at my cost, when it should be the quiet strength and fairness of the situation that should win out.
Sometimes, I deliberate between compassion, fairness, and forgiveness, and which is actually at play. But THIS FEAR; fear of walking into a storm and avoiding those intensely difficult situations, is something I’d like to get better at. Even though it is exhausting, even though it takes a lot out of me and I don’t want to do it on a regular basis, I’d like to know that I could be the captain of that ship.
And in my heart of hearts, I know – I deeply know – that I can do it.
So here’s my little “imperfect” challenge to myself, to start facing this fear. I’ve been given a Country Road voucher as a thank you present, and rather than spending it on something practical, useful, or something people “expect” me to wear so that they feel safe, I am so going to consciously spend it on something that is different, something a little whimsical, a different style to what I would normally wear, and something that will take a little more care and time to wear properly, not just something I can put on for practicality’s sake. Because as colourful and vibrant as my outfits are, they are also embedded in practicality. I’d like to practise the “imperfect” challenge but wearing something a little frivolous, whimsical, and different. Wearing it strongly, and embracing a different aspect of me.
And I have a new mug lined up for my tea. 😉
There’s always one…! 😉