Here’s a list of another kind – the top five statements that I get to hear the most.
Number 5: You don’t have to report to anybody!
This is partly correct. Yes, I am my own boss. But then things like nodal/contact persons, seniors (“we have to consult them you know”) and feedback exist. Let’s just say…it is complicated!
Number 4: You don’t have to do that 9-5 thing.
I am happy about this. But then, on the flipside, distinctions between day and night and weekdays and weekends and holidays and other days can get blurred very easily while chasing deadlines. Moreover, there are expectations that, as a consultant, you will manage to deliver on time no matter what! “The world is on a seven day break. But then we had agreed on that date for finalising this. Remember?” And then you kick yourself for being a conscientious professional and not slipping in 1-2 days of leeway (and recovery from holiday) time!
Number 3: You can choose what you want to do.
Our lives are a curious mix of choices and chances and compulsions. Being a consultant doesn’t change that completely. So, there are some assignments you do because you want to and some because you have to.
Number 2: Don’t you miss working in an office, having colleagues and all that?
As a consultant, you work closely with various teams across organisations and locations. So, the scope for meaningful interactions is always present. You can also hear all the office gossip without really being affected by it (unless it directly concerns you)! Of course, there are no official support structures and systems to always fall back on. So, there are pluses and minuses (including numbers 3-5). Anyways, it has worked for me for the last 8-9 years.
And the Number 1: So, what do you do exactly?
To be fair, just saying ‘consultant’ probably does not make much sense. But then in my case adding the words ‘process documentation and knowledge management’ doesn’t usually help either! And then – ‘for the development sector’ does the rest! Some smile knowingly and desist. The more hardy and curious kinds ask more questions. I guess that is social work too…clarifying about social work!
So, it is the season to be merry. It is also that time when we become reflective as we look back on the year, on the triumphs and trials, the expected and unexpected. So, what did all the assignments and other professional engagements in 2016 teach me? Here are the highlights!
*We bring all of ourselves to our work, even the parts we are not aware of. It is worthwhile to figure out what these parts are and how they influence our perceptions and performance.
*Being participatory will bring on headaches. But it is absolutely worth it. It will yield benefits that we have not even thought of.
*Going beyond the ‘quotable quotes’ kind of lines from children and people in publications is difficult. Sometimes, very few even expect you to! But we need to fight this battle too – of ensuring that we present what we hear and experience.
*It is ok to make mistakes and fail. The important thing is to learn from the experience. The more important thing is to be able to apply those learnings (and we can then reach the hallowed lessons learnt stage!)
*Sometimes, a dream runs its course. We or our circumstances change. Or both. Sometimes, it is just time to move on…in a different direction.
*Believe in causes. And professional commitments and deadlines. And self care.
We are surrounded by isms. I had always thought that I was immune to at least one of them – aegism. And then I was proved wrong. And I guess I fell for some other stereotypes too!
I was on an assignment facilitating development of Child Protection Policies for a host of faith based organisations across multiple states in India. This had taken me to a location straddling the borders of New Delhi and Haryana. It was an interesting group of participants encompassing various domains, levels , backgrounds, experience and educational qualifications. The age range was 17 to more than 60 years. All this was intentional since we hoped to initiate a dialogue on child protection which could travel beyond the usual senior management and head office fixations. It did make my life difficult as I had to ensure that the entire training was in Hindi and participatory, that there were no power points and that people could move collectively as we drafted the organisational policy together.
This varied and very interesting group of participants included women from the local communities who supported self help group and livelihood related initiatives. One of them – fondly called chachi (aunty; the term is used for father’s younger brother’s wife) – was definitely in the 60-70 year range. She was the oldest participant. And she proved to be the most enthusiastic one!
Some of the younger participants (positioned at office and community locations) were quite active, particularly in the group work sessions. I had expected that. But the consistent interest of chachi blew me away. She would push other participants to focus on the task at hand in all the group work exercises. She possibly took down almost every word I spoke!
On the first day, she had been hesitant in asking me when she didn’t understand anything. Though I encouraged her, she chose to turn to the participants sitting next to her. By days two and three, she was making her opinions abundantly clear including when she was feeling sleepy! She definitely made our daily feedback sessions more lively and real.
I have always believed that each individual has strengths and capacities and can contribute. But during the workshop, my surprise at her participation made me realise that I had possibly started with a somewhat limited perception of who she was, what she could be interested in and what she could do. By day four, I stood corrected. And humbled.
A recent cleaning spree in the house revealed a sheath of papers that stopped me in my tracks. It was the report on the last day of fieldwork done in my first year of studying social work years ago. I didn’t know that I had held on to this while cities (and addresses) and phases of life passed by. It took me back to that day. Two of us had been placed with an organisation working with children living in and around a railway station. And on that day, we had planned to buy gifts and snacks and have a little party at a home for children run by the organisation. How we had planned…the interactions with the children and the staffs that day…us being smeared with colours and dragged into some fierce dancing (the next day was Holi and we were possibly infected by that spirit)! But what also stood out, as I read those pages, was this unmistakable sense of sadness (and discomfort) at saying goodbyes.
In fact, the goodbyes were captured in the writing. And those images rose again in front of me. Chatting with the women who cooked and helped at the home and them turning silent when I said we won’t be coming again. Some children refusing to come near us that day. One child in my group work session avoiding to look at me. Overhearing another child telling his peers vehemently – They will never come again. One child, in the end, coming up to shake hands and then smiling shyly and saying – Thank you.
Nothing really prepares us to say goodbye. To any one. In any form. We were student social workers then and possibly had even lesser idea of how to handle gradual disengagement. Even now, after more than a decade in the social work sector, I am not sure if we have a better understanding of how to actually ‘phase out’ of the lives of programme participants in a sensitive and judicious manner. Do we, ourselves, always manage to accept it and prepare for it? Do we ever manage to prepare the other actors involved? Of course, this is a complicated area with emotions, personal and professional relationships, project timelines and budgeted activities (and lack of them after a point!) involved.
My younger student social worker self had stumbled upon one important realisation though – if we accept the intrinsic dignity of an individual, that entails keeping them informed. This includes preparing them (and ourselves) of the prospective transitions- of the equations that should change with time and the eventual goodbye.
We look forward to certain festivals in the year. The holiday mood sets in. It is the time for re-living rituals that reverberate within our souls in inexplicable ways and evoke a reassuring sense of continuity in an otherwise fast changing world. Families and friends come together over good food and gossip. And it marks a break from work…That is the common template. For some of us, that ‘break from work’ bit…well, that never happens completely! It is strange how despite our best efforts, there are still tasks and deadlines that sneak up upon us. This is one of those mysterious, unexplained phenomena that scientists or even conspiracy theorists need to consider.
Accusations of ‘you don’t know how to manage your time’ and ‘you can’t even leave work at a time like this’ are levelled. A ‘Why don’t you go ahead and have a good time’, expressed with honest intent, is invariably misinterpreted. Surviving work and festivals and families calls for some special skill sets. Being able to practice patience and restraint (particularly in speech) helps! Judgement, based on experience, also helps. So, one needs to definitely take out time for the family and then figure out when you can work and earn less rebuke and guilt. Forget finding balance. Find a level you can live with!
Nonetheless, there will be times when that festive spirit will touch even the most work obsessed person in some way. Those moments of joy, planned or unplanned, experienced in quietude or companionship, are pretty special. So, mixed up, family cum work driven days with some stolen special moments … That is not a bad template for (some) holidays either!
One of the perks of my job is the opportunity to travel and sample varied cuisines. From roadside dhabas to grander not-to-be-missed establishments. From hurried but refreshing tea stops to the sometimes celebratory, end of assignment dinners. And the variety has been exquisite!
Since I love sweets, I always ask about that. I have had amazing sweets at a small roadside stall while travelling in Malda (West Bengal). In Dumka (Jharkhand), I tried out a small shop that had been recommended. My host ensured that we took out the time for this – actually, we did this just before I had to board the train! In Jalandhar (Punjab), there was Lovely Sweets – a multistoried shop which, from its opulent exterior, looked more likely to offer gold jewellery than sweets and snacks! In Jammu, three of us went to a famous local eatery Pahalwan. It was started by a pahalwan (wrestler). Business had boomed and I don’t think his descendants ever needed to step into a wrestling ring for work. We ordered sweets and more. One of my companions had dhokla (which seemed to have successfully travelled from Gujarat to Jammu and Kashmir) for the first time. He enjoyed it!
There have been some other pleasant surprises as well. I was facilitating a workshop in Rajasthan. All of us had mentioned our favourite foods as part of the introduction round on the first of the four day workshop. On the last day, a participant cooked what I had shared – khichdi, potato fries and tomato chutney – for dinner. Drawing on her heritage, she infused a distinctive South Indian flavour to them. The tastes were unfamiliar but good and made even more special by this unexpected act of regard and generosity. It became one of those beautiful moments where good food and companionship combine to create a memorable experience.
So even as struggles with handling multiple assignments and deadlines continue, I know that the future will bring more possibilities of the gastronomic kind as well. And that is a reassuring thought!
A friend had once remarked – ‘you people in the development sector don’t have failures. Anything goes wrong, you call it learning!’ That sentence has stuck with me. Of course, looking at challenges and failures as learnings has its advantages. It promotes a more positive outlook and provides reference points for improvement in future programming. However, and this has been pointed out by many, do we really ‘learn’ and do we apply what we learn? This lessons learnt business calls for a post of its own. Here, I am going to focus on failures.
Failures in the professional domain come in various shapes and sizes. These range from those that evoke mild disappointment but don’t disrupt our worlds to those that make us doubt our own capacities and paralyse our sense of confidence and self worth. In my initial days as a journalist, many many years ago, I was, very briefly, placed in a particular division where I struggled to deliver. In my own eyes, I was a spectacular failure. In fact, I was surprised by my sudden and completely unexpected incompetence! Thankfully, I was later placed in another division where I felt more at home and did well.
While it hasn’t always been easy, my subsequent work in the development sector has been largely free of such experiences. However, the last few years with multiple assignments and deadlines and a never ending array of personal crises brought added pressure. I defaulted on deadlines – some because I couldn’t manage and some because the universe threw in additional googlies! And a lingering sense of failure set in. I did allow myself to wallow in it a bit and then decided to see what I could do about it, and what I had learnt! So, here are my learnings from failure.
- It is ok to fail. A lot of people, including the amazing Rumi, have even stated that broken is beautiful.
- It is not ok to let that sense of failure control your life. Or make you question your abilities.
- Take charge. See what you can do differently next time. And also make that point unambiguously in the next assignment.
- Despite best efforts, things may still go wrong. Just deal with it!
- And…as long as you can smile and laugh, it is not that bad.
Every experience does teach us something. Even though we may not see it or feel it, our battle scars do make us stronger and better and unique.