To Knead a New Beginning


Since young, my parents have always impressed upon me the importance of compassion. Being in a meritocratic society, grades and performance are often synonymous with one’s value and identity. I found that certain traits or talents such as compassion or being highly adaptable are less tangible and hence, not as valued. Instead, it becomes a source of confusion when your values are in tension with the values in the workforce, as I was to find in my corporate work life, where I felt we were expected to achieve results and meet client deadlines even when we were faced with difficult circumstances. When the pressure to perform took precedence, regardless of the situation, the compassionate side of me struggled. I struggled with this tension for several years.

When I spoke to my friend about my struggles, she encouraged me to take the test to understand myself better — the Gallup Clifton StrengthsFinder ranks one’s top talents, and helps us to work on and develop these traits. I was not surprised to see that my top five talents were Adaptability, Empathy, Developer, Connectedness and Strategic as I often see myself displaying these traits in both my working environment and in my personal life. Now — the question is — what’s next? I went on to make several adjustments in my life. I recognised with clarity that I needed to work in an environment which provided me the space and time to coach and develop my colleagues, and to work in an organisation with a stronger social mission. Therefore, I left my job and joined VisionFund Myanmar, a micro-financing institution.

At this point, I also signed up for the two-day MAD At Work group workshop by Bold At Work. It is fun being in a group workshop because it’s like having multiple ‘mini coaches’ who will ask you questions from different perspectives! We started with a self-assessment on the health status of various areas in our lives — work, relationships, health, and play. We also shared openly about our lives — our talent themes, our value systems, our beliefs, the environment around us, our resources, reflecting on things that give us energy or the ‘flow’ etc. It was in hearing another person’s perspectives, that we got greater clarity on who we are!

Of all the different sections, it was the section on ‘flow’ that caught my attention. “Flow” is a positive psychology terms described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi “as a mental state of complete absorption in the current experience”. We listed down our daily routine activities, for which we assigned an energy rating to each activity. There was a tiny box at the top of the scale that represented ‘flow’. For me, being in the flow is about feeling a ‘drumbeat in the soul’ which leaves me breathless. It was not surprising that analysis and problem-solving gave me ‘flow’, but another thing that gave me ‘flow’ was pottery. During my birthday, I had attended a wheel-throwing trial class. During the trial class, I felt this sense of tranquility; quite simply, it was about being present and focusing on nothing but moulding the clay.

We ended Day 1 of the workshop with a single sheet where we charted our timeline for achieving various goals — and not just one particular plan, but three or four different plans where we dreamt about different possible futures. For me, one of the paths was working in Myanmar in micro-financing (my current vocation);another was to set up a pottery studio cum bed and breakfast.

Our coach, Cynthia, gave us ‘homework’- we had to carry out our prototypes! This process is essentially a feasibility study. We carry out interviews, test our prototype and seek to grow our knowledge about our possible futures.

The very next day, I called up a pottery studio in Northern Myanmar. The day after the MAD At Work workshop, I found myself in the studio trying hand-building. The teacher was very patient and explained the different variations of clay art with me. I told him I really wanted to practising wheel-throwing. I planned for a month’s break, and we decided on six classes in his studio.

Honestly, it was really difficult at the beginning. In a trial class, I was focused on bringing home a piece of work. In the six classes, it was on strengthening the basics of wheel-throwing. In the first three sessions, I could not center well. When I asked my instructor, he said, ‘It is the feel. I don’t know how to tell you.’ After unsuccessfully working through four to five batches of clay in my third session, I was really frustrated and ready to give up. All this exertion with no visible results, just did not made sense.

Yet I was reminded of something that we had learnt during our workshop — skill is equivalent to talent multiplied by effort. It was about putting in the effort in order to reach a certain level of expertise. In turn, I focused on trying to find that flow and to enjoy the process of creating art. During that process, I spoke to an experienced potter. Her words enlightened me — “Your piece of work is dependent on your personal definition on your work. It does not need to be perfect but it is about setting your claim over it. And I took thirteen years.” It lifted off the pressure of being perfect, and I was reminded of the value and purpose of the process itself. It was about being persistent and consistent about our efforts in building a skillset.

As part of my prototype, I also spoke to the studio owner about running a studio. He shared candidly on the difficulties and stresses of running a studio — especially the practicality of running a business, the overhead costs and the manpower costs. Through the conversation, I was able to better understand a few key aspects of the operations and the feasibility and considerations to be taken. For example, rental costs will be one of the key considerations for running a studio, and having sufficient manpower who are skillful. On the side, I spoke to several people on the concept of running a pottery studio cum bed and breakfast, and received quite positive responses. It seemed like it could be a feasible idea, but in the meantime, I would need keep working on mastering my pottery skills while keeping a lookout for an opportunistic timing.

If anything, I gained the insight that prototyping in life is a continuous process of learning to reframe the issues that we face. It was not an ‘aha’ moment in which I suddenly got clear on what to do or what not to do, nor did it spark off any sudden and big career moves. Rather, I learnt to observe myself and my own learnings, e.g. my tendency to give up when things got difficult; and I practised reframing it to an investment in the process and in my future. I learnt to be patient with the process, and to love and learn from the process.

As I continue my journey of searching, I will keep practising the art of learning to enjoy the process while preparing myself for the opportunities that come.

Written by Xiu Jing Seow

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The above is a reflection of the Mad At Work programme, attended by Xiu Jing who felt that she needed clarity of her life direction at that very point in time. The programme provided a platform for Xiu Jing to dwelve deeper on her personal values , life goals and reaffirming what drives her. Currently, she is working as a Treasury Manager with VisionFund Myanmar and focusing on pottery. Like pottery, life is a journey, to discover and learn from every process along the way.

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