I picked up a rolled-up quote from a basket which I had prepared for the ‘Quotes exercise’ and began to unroll the paper. Many times before, as I conducted this same exercise with different cohorts of energetic and passionate youths, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that, though picked at random, people ended up with the quote which they needed to hear at that point in their lives; that is why I could taste the poetic justice of karma when I saw this quote from Steve Jobs:
“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do”
Getting past the potentially self-aggrandising interpretation from the word ‘great’ to mean that I have done ‘great’ work, I would like to instead focus on the more important word ‘love’. This idea of ‘love’ in the context of work is an alien concept here in Bhutan, where most people’s favourite book (and the only one they’ve read ahem…) is a novel by Nicholas Sparks.
Nevertheless this idea of ‘love’ outside of the romantic sense, finds its place even in the words of His Majesty who calls us to “love our country intelligently”. What exactly does it mean? How do we nurture this love? My answer to these questions after four years of work can be summed up in a word: purpose. Let me go back to the beginning and explain myself.
In the beginning…
I came back home with the full weight of expectations (and the dreaded anxiety of my ama that I would come back home with a chillip wife) that follows someone who goes abroad to study. Having spent six gruelling years in the US trying to be job-ready in an office setting, the first assignment from my first boss (i.e. my uncle) involved a pickaxe, a shovel and a 1.5*3 meter ditch that was to become the septic tank for our coffee shop. However, I tried to take it optimistically because I have come to realise that so many things in life are surprisingly and mysteriously related to one another; something I later learned that educational psychologists call ‘transfer’. After all, the grit and resilience one develops digging hard soil is the same grit and resilience one needs when faced with a fast-approaching, immovable deadline for a funder’s report. The detail-oriented-ness in setting up the pricing for a cup of cappuccino is not so different from preparing a budget sheet for an upcoming project to teach photography to students with hearing impairment.
Having completed the cafe after a year, I thought maybe it was time to look for a job with some direct applicability to my political science degree. That is when an opening at Bhutan Centre for Media & Democracy (BCMD) made its way to me (or maybe it is the other way around). I got in and have spent the last 3.5 years working there. Here are a few things I learned during my time there:
1. Beginnings matter
I have come to believe in tendrel. The motivation with which we begin something largely colours and even determines the range of possibilities that is possible. Before BCMD, doing the routine monastery visits, my prayers usually revolved around something like this: “May my paths cross with opportunities that would allow me to be of service to others. May I come across people who would mentor and guide me along life’s convoluted path so that I am in a position to be able to listen to their advice. May my heart always be guided by love and purpose to be able to do my part”. In all my prayers, I actively left room for my agency and freedom. I do not trust anything that comes too easy in life. I wanted to work hard to meet my opportunities halfway.
2. Innovate on the already-invented wheel
Often in work, and in life, the temptation to scratch or demolish everything done thus far so that “I can build everything from ground-up” is always very tempting. We see this everywhere around us: the current political party feels the need to make its mark and thus sweeps everything achieved by the previous party. The new project officer comes in and makes no effort to review previous documents to see what worked (or what didn’t), which is a less obvious form of starting from scratch. A new director is willingly and actively ignorant of the fact that their own success is made possible by the successes of the previous directors. We all like to believe that we know best – that our way is the right way and that the world revolves because of our actions. But the truth is that the world revolved long before we came on the scene and will revolve long after we make our exit. We are not so special and exceptional. Always build on the achievements of those that came before you and give credit where it is due.
3. Do what you have to do, so you can do what you want to do
I have heard on a few occasions that even in paradise, its heavenly inhabitants are plagued by the boredom that comes with monotony. If this is so, things on earth can only be so ideal. Even if one is at the ideal place which enables progression towards fulfilling one’s purpose, it is wrought with other factors. You don’t always get the projects that you feel are of importance. You don’t even get what you thought you signed up for at times. There is only so much that a job description covers; beyond that is the infinite possibilities for the unexpected and your choice of how you respond to the unexpected. At times, there are conflicts between your own personal values and those of an organisation. During such times, it helps to put things into perspective by weighing it against your purpose. Clarity on one’s purpose allows one to keep the end goal in sight and unless something is in direct and unresolvable contradiction, it makes doing what you have to do much more doable.
4. Process, not Product
We currently live in a product-driven world; from solving the greatest social issues of our time to life’s more mundane tasks such as walking, the product seems to drive us forward. Armed with the latest fitbits, we walk, not simply to walk but to clock in x number of steps in our fitness routine. In such a hurried race, humans are in danger of sacrificing everything, even our own existence, to ensure that the product is furnished. Consequently, this has imposed compartmentalisation of our lives into relevance (i.e. those that serve to fulfil the product) and irrelevance (i.e. those that do not directly serve to fulfil the product). With such a strict, rigid and black-and-white criteria, even one’s own wellbeing and joy of living can be robbed and deemed irrelevant if it does not serve ‘the product’. One must not have to lose one’s life to be of benefit to society; and if the system does require such a sacrifice, the system is one built on hypocrisy. The end rarely ever justifies the means.
5. Respect is a two-way street
I have always been told that fear is an indispensable element of respect. My experience working with young people has shown that the exact opposite is actually the case. Fear is a natural bedfellow of surveillance, which is to say, fear comes into existence only when there is an ‘eye’ observing; but how exhausting it is to always be ‘looking’ to see if one is being ‘respected’. Isn’t it much more enjoyable to just ‘be’ and realise that true respect is something that comes from within? From that place where one has no need to ‘act’ for the ‘observer’ and one simply lives? This has been perhaps one of the biggest lessons for me. I have come to respect the people I work with; even at times when I have confidently put forth an idea without entirely believing that it would work, only to be proven wrong by the dedication, hard work and energy of the young people. My appreciation for them, which was very hard to hide, has been reciprocated in equal (and even greater) measure by them at several points in our shared journey.
6. ‘The End’ is never really the end
The number of times that I have witnessed people leaving their workplace in an uproar of anger, resentment, bitterness and pain after years of shared lunches, laughter and sweat across organisations have been far too many to count; and I have always been left asking myself, “How did things get so bad?” The reasons might be many, but one thing I have observed is that when discomfort and tensions arise, instead of addressing it head-on and making a sober judgement of the scale of the problem, our leaders end up developing a distorted picture of reality where they believe, “It will somehow go away eventually”.
Given the very asymmetric power structure in Bhutan’s organisations, the employees wait on their bosses to bring it up, which they never do – the frustrations keep building inside the employees as they gradually view every word, intent and actions of their bosses with skepticism and extreme negativity – while the bosses remain completely ignorant and in another world altogether. Such a state naturally reaches its climax and things pass into that land from which there is no return. In a country where ‘everyone knows everyone’ we must remind ourselves that
the stories others tell about us will always define us more than the ones we tell ourselves.
It is up to us to ensure that things never get to such a tragic end; even if it does, there must be dignity in closure and respect for each other especially under such circumstances, which is really the true test of one’s maturity.