Thursday, April 26, 2012


I seem to spend large chunks of my daily life dreading things.

Here are some examples of Things I Dread:

  1. Situations which require me to speak a foreign language
  2. Travelling/dining out/attending social events with my children
  3. Social events generally
  4. House guests, especially people visiting from overseas
  5. Answering my own phone, even when it's a close friend 
  6. Having to complete multiple tasks/commitments within in a limited time
  7. Big life changes and unfamiliar tasks/situations (actually, my fear of The Unknown goes beyond dread, and is practically a phobia)

In short, I dread just about everything except sitting at home by myself and communicating with no one. All this irrational dread bothers me, especially since many of the examples above are regular, even daily occurrences in my life.

Let me clarify one point. Most, if not ALL the things that I dread, are things I truly enjoy doing once I’m actually doing them. It’s just the thought of doing them that makes me shudder.

Recently, I finally unearthed the common thread running through the things I dread. They are all things that require me to exert myself – mentally, socially, physically, or emotionally. Deep down inside my psyche a belligerent little voice badgers me constantly, insisting that anything except 100% exertion and a perfect performance equates with failure. In consequence, just the thought of doing stuff makes me anxious and exhausted. What a fricking surprise.

No wonder I bloody-well never want to do anything.

Recently, I was invited to be on the board of the Japanese school that my daughter attends once a week. I was additionally offered the responsibility of organizing the school’s annual excursion. In the spirit of doing my fair share, I felt compelled to say yes.

I was instantly filled with dread.

I panicked myself with visions of endless meetings and correspondence in Japanese, rife with awkward moments and shameful linguistic errors. I worked myself up over the fearsome challenge of meeting the exceptionally high standards of the Japanese school community (who are known for their obsessive attention to detail and their quest for perfection in all things). What did me in most of all, though, was the fact that I’d never done anything quite like this before, making it that most feared of fearful things – The Unknown.

Long story short, I made myself almost physically sick worrying about all this Board stuff. I am embarrassed to admit that I actually thought seriously about taking my child out of the school as an avoidance strategy.

As usual, I dealt with my fear by launching myself into girly-swot-type feverish over-preparation. I made lists, I printed out a stack of relevant correspondence and documents, and I found myself a neat little file in which to store it all. I spent an inordinately long time composing a polite email in (what I hoped was) reasonably correct Japanese to the five other parents who had volunteered to help out as Excursion Committee Members. I planned what I would wear to the initial meetings of the Board and the Excursion Committee. I was determined to do anything I could to avoid “failing”.

Finally, I was as ready as I’d ever be to throw myself into the fray. I was still terrified, but at least I had charted the four corners of my fear. I was ready to be laughed at and criticized and pitied.

And quelle surprise, yllätys yllätys - the dreaded First Meeting of the Excursion Committee did not result in my painful death by cruel Japanese firing squad. It was a lovely chat with five friendly, funny, terrific mums. At the outset I apologised for my poor level of Japanese and was instantly swamped with kind comments about how nicely I wrote/spoke. Everyone had great ideas about where we should have the excursion, and we had a productive discussion. The meeting was, frankly, enjoyable, as was the initial board meeting. I was incredulous to realise that I was possibly even going to enjoy this new role.

Why the hell couldn’t I have cultivated that level of positive optimism from the outset?

I don’t get energy from staying at home quietly by myself, doing nothing. I am an extrovert who literally NEEDS constant social interaction to remain happy and invigorated. I get a kick out of succeeding at difficult tasks and projects. I am irresistibly drawn to language-learning, and have lived literally half my life in countries where English is not a national language.

Why, then, can I not stop the cycle of fear and pressure which prevents me from looking forward to all the things I enjoy doing? It's ridiculous that I get crippling performance anxiety even though I truly love the performing.

Obviously, retraining my psyche will be a long-term project. What I need to learn is this: there is, actually, no such thing as failure (unless I keep bloody telling myself that there is). Every day, human beings hit rock-bottom and resolutely start again from scratch, and they end up doing just fine, and if I’m honest, I have never in my life experienced anything even close to “rock-bottom”.

It’s ok to want to do things well, and it’s ok to prepare diligently for situations where preparation is necessary or possible, but after that life is just life. There will be days when I don’t try as hard as I could at particular things, because that day something else in my life is occupying a higher priority, and because it is inhuman and freakish and unenjoyable to put 100% into everything all of the time. And even when I do put in a stellar effort, sometimes situations will play out in a way that leaves me bitterly disappointed in myself or others. None of this is good or bad. It just is.

If I live in dread I will die having lived in dread.
That would really suck.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Courage to be Different

It is so easy to poke fun at the odd, the eccentric, and the unpopular. I’ve been wondering lately why human beings do it. Teenage kids, picking on the boy who is passionate about chess. Mummies, taking against the one amongst them who serves organic wheatgerm loaf for morning tea.

Asserting strength over other people is all about power and control. Moreover, turning someone else into an object of scorn deflects attention from our own shortcomings.

Ironically, it’s often the bullied eccentrics of this world who have the very thing that others crave – a kind of inner power born of deep-seated self-confidence. They might struggle to fit in socially, but it doesn’t stop them from pursuing favourite hobbies and behaviours that others find quaint, weird, or incomprehensible. They have the sense to realise that the judgment of others is irrelevant, and that the key to happiness and satisfaction in life is doing what you love, and doing it as well as you possibly can.

When I think of eccentricity, I can’t help but remember my years in Girl Guides, and the lady who was our leader.

For 5 years of my life (until age 15) I was a Girl Guide (or “Girl Scout”). I kept this fact very quiet indeed. It was supremely uncool to be in Guides. However, even those among my Guide friends who were Cool Girls at school quietly kept coming every week. Naff and anachronistic and cringe-making it certainly was at times (what 14 year old would admit to gathering with a bunch of other girls in uniforms to sing The World Song, execute three-finger salutes, and build stuff out of wood and rope?) It was, nevertheless, fun and challenging, and we learned things there that I wouldn’t otherwise know how to do – I learned to build a fire and cook edible food on it, I learned (after hours of service at a disabled children’s home) how to take care of kids with various physical and mental disabilities, and I even learned how to make quite useful things out of wood and rope. We were often challenged beyond the four corners of our life experience, and it was pretty great when we found we could deal with those challenges.

It was also, frequently, a lot of fun.

We did hair-raising outdoor night-stalking. We played a fantastic (and borderline blood-sport) game known as “duster hockey”, where two girls at a time, each armed with a long wooden stick, would battle it out, trying to push a piece of cloth to the end of the wooden-floored room and flick it up onto a chair to score a goal. One year we entered a talent contest known as Encore. One of the mums was a professional dance coach, and somehow she transformed our group of ungainly teens and pre-teens into a slick, vibrant act, resplendent in 80s dance fashion and with hair back-combed to within an inch of its life, strutting our stuff to “Funky Town”. We were actually chosen to represent our state at a national concert in Sydney (a city many of us had never visited before that). We met other girls from all over Australia. It was incredible.

I would never ever have admitted it back then, but something else I secretly liked about Guides was the part that was completely uncool - the part you were supposed to scoff at with disdain – the ritual of it all. I liked the uniforms and the ceremonies and the fact that there was a masterable “right” way to do things. I liked the idea of being part of a worldwide network and a long history. On Guide camps I felt a certain mysterious joy as we sat around the campfire at night, wrapped in blankets, singing songs. I certainly didn't let on to anyone how much I enjoyed all this.

Our leader was the only person I knew who had zero disdain (real or feigned) for any part of Guiding. She loved it all with a passion, and she wasn’t afraid to admit it. She was known to us by her Guiding name, Dixie. Some of the younger girls didn’t realise that it wasn’t her real name. Even our parents called her “Dixie”. Somehow, it was fitting. Dixie was who she intrinsically was.

She was a true eccentric.

Dixie was a stickler for accuracy and perfection in all the rituals – everyone marching into position at the start of meetings; flag-bearers carefully placing the world flag in position; National Anthems and Taps and salutes in all the right places. The sight of a perfectly-executed knot or an immaculately-polished brass Promise Badge would bring a happy smile to her face. At big events – gatherings of Guides from all over Queensland or further – it was always Dixie who was asked to get up and lead everyone in the various songs, because she knew every single one of them word-for-word. She would smile with unselfconscious joy as she led the singing, completely unembarrassed.

She was literally an expert in Guiding, and she took a quiet, happy pride in her ability to do it all.

As our leader, Dixie was unbelievably active. I remember overnight camps multiple times per year, trainings, sports days, swimming carnivals, and fund-raising drives. Remember, she was not paid a cent to be a Guide Leader. Her work was 100% voluntary, and she organized most events almost single-handedly.

She was constantly cheerful and even-tempered; she was endlessly energetic. There was something almost unreal about how happy and selfless and capable and unflappable she always was. She never said a bad word about anyone and she rarely showed anger or frustration. She was the epitome of everything a Girl Guide was supposed to be.

Little idiots that we were, of course we couldn’t help but mock Dixie sometimes behind her back – her loud-and-proud singing of Guiding’s Greatest Hits, the fact that she could quote the Guide Handbook practically verbatim, and her almost cringe-making enthusiasm about it all.

Now, I wish I could find within myself what she has. She has found her life's calling. She leads expertly and from the heart, and clearly gets immense fulfilment and satisfaction from it all. She attracts admiration and gratitude, and even awards, from people who can’t believe the extent of her community service, but I doubt she does it for the thanks or the kudos.

And I doubt she will ever look back on her life and think, I wish I’d been more mainstream.

I found this photo of her online, taken three years ago. There she is, still in her element. She looks a tiny bit older these days, but her smile is exactly as I remember. The smile of a truly happy person.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Men and Women

When I was a mid-level associate in a big law firm, almost all my immediate colleagues were male. In some ways, I really enjoyed working with men – their frank, no-BS approach; their easy-going attitude; the fact that they were pretty easy to read. However, several things used to frustrate me no end about the men’s world that was my workplace. Here are a few:

Procrastination. My male colleagues loved to fly by the seats of their tailor-made pants. No one ever seemed to want to get started on the newest piece of work on our plates. Diligent little me, driven by deadline anxiety, would proactively generate outlines, first drafts, and various other efforts aimed at pushing things forward. I might as well not have bothered, as no one was ever interested in looking at them until very late in the piece. We never got things done ahead of time, and many times we went right down to the wire, pressing “send” in a haze of adrenalin and exhaustion and takeaway pizza and coffee fumes. I would have liked our team to start on new assignments the moment they came in the door and I would have loved for us to have finished them with hours or days to spare. I got the feeling that my male colleagues preferred to wait until the adrenalin kicked in, and didn’t see the need to waste time starting early when they knew they could get it all done in a final mad rush.

Time-wasting. My male colleagues loved to sit around and “strategize” or “brainstorm”; an awful lot of talk about everything else under the sun crept into those meetings. Although many of those colleagues had wives and children at home, I felt like the only one in any hurry to get things done quickly and efficiently during the day so as to make a quick getaway at night. I would get so impatient sitting
in conference rooms or in other people’s offices, wondering how much longer I’d have to listen to three guys debating the pros and cons of the newest Apple product, but if I tried to turn the discussion back to the task at hand I’d be called a Goody Two Shoes, and the Apple debate would anyway be argued to completion before people turned their minds back to work. I understood the need for those moments that build camaraderie and good relationships among co-workers, but so often I felt that the timing was all wrong.

The [precious few] times I got to work on all-women teams I couldn’t believe the difference in efficiency and productivity. I felt that we were streets ahead of men in this respect. It seems to me that women prefer to slog away like Goody Two Shoes and then beat a hasty retreat once the work is finished, but men get bored with the task at hand and seek fun distractions at frequent intervals.

Teasing. Men seem to love to tease each other, relentlessly and mercilessly – poking fun at the chubby guy; mocking the guy who can’t find a girlfriend; humiliating the guy who can’t catch a football thrown the length of the corridor. Privately, I found it mean and cringe-making, but I knew better than to say anything. You knew you had been accepted by your male colleagues when they started teasing you with nicknames like Goody Two Shoes, or when they included you in a series of co-worker South Park characters they were creating (cheekily giving your tiny-boobed character a t-shirt saying “Hooters”).
Women seem to be on a different wavelength when it comes to office humour.*

* One time I did conspire with a [male] colleague to put a life-size cardboard cut-out of Darth Vader in our boss’ office. I did it to be cheeky, yes, but not to be mean. In fact, I was sure my boss would secretly love to be compared with Darth Vader. I wasn’t wrong.

On the home front, I have to admit that it’s more or less the same things that really get my goat – in particular, the difference in my husband’s and my sense of time, urgency, and detail. I have a deep-seated need to plan things far in advance in minute detail while hubby is keen to wing it (his solution, in a crisis situation, being to turn to me and ask anxiously, “do you have any snacks for the kids?” or “do you have a tasteful guest gift we can take to the friends whose hospitality we will be enjoying in less than 30 minutes from now?”)

Lately, the first world has been hung up on gender equality. More men putting in more time at home; more women making their way to the top of the corporate ladder.

I firmly believe that women are more than capable of doing what have traditionally been men’s jobs. I also firmly believe that men are capable of caring for children, doing housework, and cooking.

What I don’t believe, though, is that men and women are the same. On the contrary, we couldn’t be more different. It follows that men and women would take different routes towards accomplishing the same task, and that in order to work together, at home or at work, we need to allow each other to be and to work differently.

Have we really been trying to do that?

It seems to me that, thus far, in the corporate workplace we’ve taken what is an essentially male-focused model and tried to fit women into it, and in the home we’ve taken the role of wife and mother and encouraged men to take it on. Consciously or unconsciously, we want corporate women to behave like men in the workplace, and we want men to behave like women at home, and yet, if they do we feel confused and uncomfortable, because they are no longer behaving like the woman/man that they are.

This is just not going to work in the long run – not if women want to be organized and efficient at work and go home early to their families, while men still get to fly by the seat of their pants and enjoy the thrill of the pursuit and the ultimate catch; not if women want to live in an orderly household with clean laundry and outings unspoilt by foreseeable disasters, while men are still able to romp good-naturedly with their kids (preferably with sport on the tv in the background) and focus less on laundry and more on changing lightbulbs, washing the car, and fixing that broken tile in the bathroom.

Maybe this frustration about fitting in, and (perhaps worse) having to welcome someone who feels like an outsider into “your” space, is one of the biggest reasons we aren’t seeing equal representation of men and women in top positions in the workplace, or as managers on the home front.

We need to have different ideas of teamwork and equality. Equality doesn’t mean doing the same things in the same way. We have to let each other be different.

The question is, of course – how on earth are we going to do this?