In those last heady days before I left the US for my 30-year overdue trip to Nigeria, I had no idea what to expect. It really didn’t matter. I was finally going! The Nigeria I remembered–my best friend, red clay, playing kitchen–was through the eyes of a toddler and not enough guidance for the woman returning there. There was what I barely remembered, things I’d read or been told and some things that I’d made up a long time ago about Nigeria. Now was my chance to see for myself.
A few months ago, I came up with a model for dealing with new situations, particularly jobs, that I shared with a coworker newly introduced to the maelstrom our workplace. I remember saying to her that very often, we go to new jobs with an idea that it shouldn’t be this or that way and that we, clearly, have the best sense of how things should be.
Should and shouldn’t are quite treacherous territories that usually leave us dissatisfied and distressed. The model I created seeks to help us maneuver through the unknown while keeping the shoulds at bay. It calls for us to put our relentless judgment aside and learn, master, improve, and innovate.
When facing the new, acknowledge that your presumptions and biases– your already knowing–are irrelevant. You have never been here before . You have never done this before. You don’t know what to expect even if it reminds you of something you’ve already experienced. Repeating the steps from the past gives you more…past. Instead, observe the situation as much as you can. Feel free to compare but don’t stop there. Learn what there is for you to learn to be successful in that new job or to maneuver your way through that new location. This is not time intensive and doesn’t require years of observation. Learn quickly, competently and concisely so you can move on to the next step.
Once you’ve been humble enough to discard your inner know-it-all (now THAT is difficult!), you get to see what really is happening in front of you. You get to say, “Oh, this is how they do this.” Eventually, you should be able to anticipate how something would be resolved at your new job, for instance, based on what you’ve learned about how they solve problems. Now that you’ve learned, endeavor to master the ways of this new environment. Can you do what this place requires in your sleep? The aim of your learning is mastery. Mastery is an important step before you take the situation and make it your own.
Now that you’ve entered this new situation, refrained from denouncing its stupidity and have gone so far as to master its existing ways, you allow for new tools to manifest: respect, authority, legitimacy. You now have the opportunity to possess and wield these tools. From this space, you can work to improve the situation. You have established that you know how things go. You’re very good at the status quo and suggestions for improvement hold far more weight from you now than if you’d done so at the very beginning. Now you can propose, “Let’s do this in 4 steps instead of 10” and actually be heard. Your recommendations can now be based on your experience of and expertise in the existing system and come from a place of empathy rather than one of complaint and will be more easily heard.
As you climb the hierarchy of legitimacy and authority in this new situation you can reach the apex of ownership of the new situation when you innovate. You have acquired the knowledge of how things work. You have gone so far as to be an expert on the what’s so of the situation. You have seen and shared ways to make this situation better for everyone involved. Finally, you can go so far suggest, “You know what? Let’s stop doing this altogether and do this instead. This isn’t simply improving what we normally do. This is a whole new approach that eliminates the need for those steps and creates a satisfying result.” In this instance, you do what you may have been tempted to do from the very beginning. Your innovation is far more acceptable now because it is based on experience and participation rather than blind dismissal.
The above model will always needs fine-tuning and that it’s a great rough guide to dealing with a decidedly alien new workplace. Could I apply it Nigeria? The challenge was to attempt to shed the ball of emotion and information about Nigeria I’d been clutching to all my life and experience it newly. I would learn before I leapt to conclusions. I would test myself to see if I could do more than survive following the existing rules of the place. I would seek to master some portion of my Nigerian life in the few months I was there. And only then, after observation and training, would I attempt to improve and eventually innovate. Based on a true understanding of my surroundings, I could work to eliminate inefficiencies and enhance the experience of people around me. Could I do it? Did I do it?
Well I’m still in the middle of it. What I can say though is that judgment is no light thing. It is cemented to my being and is almost as automatic as breathing. I have failed numerously at evading my sense of judgment. It has been a great struggle to set aside what I already know and just simply watch and learn. Yet the challenge here isn’t perfection. It is the actual awareness of automatic, endless assessment that undermines my experience of life in general in whatever country I find myself.
So, yes, I fail often but I go right back to my model when I notice that I’m imposing some stale bias on a brand new situation. I’ve learned much about myself, my family and my native country. I’ve learned which battles are worth fighting and what is best left alone. One of these days I’ll tell you about it!