Audacity & Resilience: Preparing for Situations Outside of Our Comfort Zone
In this episode, 2020 Scholar Veronica Overlid, 2019 Mentor Laxmi Parthasarathy, and 2018 Scholar William Schultz join Valerie Pringle to discuss how to prepare for situations outside of our comfort zone.
Hello. My name is Valerie Pringle and I'm a Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Mentor. I want to thank you for joining our Brave Space today. I invite you to reflect along with our guests, the answers to questions and situations that confront us in our lives, that push us to step outside our comfort zone. I know that I look forward to hearing all the viewpoints today's guests bring, and I hope you are too. Welcome to the plurality of perspectives, welcome to our Brave Space.
In our lives we often face situations where we're forced to step out of our comfort zone, whether we're traveling to a place that's different from our own or talking to someone we fundamentally disagree with. Finding ourselves in situations that make us uncomfortable is unavoidable, and it's important. But how do we prepare for these situations? In this episode of Brave Spaces, we are going to be discussing these questions with three members of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation community.
Joining us: Veronica Overlid, who is a 2020 Scholar and PhD candidate in the Department of Law and Legal Studies at Carleton University. Laxmi Parthasarathy is a 2019 Mentor and Chief Operating Officer at Global Press. And, William Schultz, 2018 scholar Doctoral Candidate in Sociology at the University of Alberta, he's a former correctional peace officer. Welcome all of you, thank you for being with us for the very first episode of Brave Spaces.
We begin today with the question of the month. We're talking about being outside comfort zones. And one of the approaches on Brave Spaces is to ask guests to share what at first glance might feel like a humbling moment or a failure even, but with hindsight was actually a learning opportunity. So Veronica, can I start with you? Do you have a story?
Yeah. So, a failure -- or actually, a learning experience as I would rather call it -- is when I was working at the U.N. Population Fund in Egypt. To give a brief explanation of what happened, there were many challenges obviously. But I sometimes found that instructions and reporting requirements from the headquarters were not necessarily always compatible with the work that we're doing with local community organizations and others.
So I remember especially one situation where I pushed some partners to make changes that were actually really inconvenience for them, or in the way that they worked, because I wanted it to fit the instructions that we got from above. So, I mean, the project worked out, but I realized later that they were afraid of telling me how inconvenient this was for them and because they couldn't risk losing this opportunity.
I didn't really understand that, if there's a gap between local and global expectations, it's actually those on the ground that should be listened to first and foremost, not the opposite. So this was a really important learning experience for me because it really taught me how to critically evaluate what kind of system I'm myself, I'm a part of, and what role I'm playing or, what role I should play considering that I'm European, I have limited understanding of the local reality and so on.
So even if I knew, it's so important to be humble and listen to the people around me, it was very difficult to really get to that in the beginning. So yeah, this was a very small example. I've come to realize that, big organizations like the U.N. or other entities they, they can also tend to perpetuate inequalities that they claim that they're challenging. So I think this has been really actually important for my research because this is something that I'm now carrying with me and, I also got better at this as I was working there.
So, now when I'm researching, I'm interested in understanding, how the present system is working. Whose voices are lost in the process, in these challenges between the global and the local. I'm interested in understanding how they influence the way that we understand issues related to, for example, refugee protection or other things.
Laxmi, what about you.
You know, I think that there's so many failures across my career to be frank and honest. But there are two really formative ones that stand out to me. And, they have to do more with kind of my personal approach to things. I've always been on this linear track, like I'm going to figure it all out, I'm just got to work really hard, and my path will be set based on my own goals. And then life enters and that doesn't always work out.
I remember back when I was a student at Carleton University where Veronica currently is. I made it all the way to the final interviews for the Globe and Mail internship, and I remember thinking, this is it! I'm going to do this internship this summer and then that's going to be my path. I didn't get the internship, and I was destroyed by this. I just remember it being this blow to this path that I had set out for myself and the path that I thought could only lead to success in journalism.
It actually turned out to be a really great learning opportunity for me. One, I think I learned a lot more about the media development sector. That summer I ended up getting an internship with The Rwanda Initiative and it was my first kind of experience in media development, which opened up a whole other set of opportunities in my future. And you know, when I think about this experience, it really taught me that I have to get more comfortable with uncertainty. And that just because one path doesn't necessarily work out, it doesn't mean there are, 500 other paths that you can potentially follow.
And I share this one in particular because it was, it was quite early on in my career and it really helped me start to get comfortable with that uncertainty. In journalism, I think that is key. And so, that one was really important and formative for me. And the second is actually very similar. It was much later on, but it was a fellowship that I had applied for and I didn't end up getting in the very, very final stages.
I actually shared this with some of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Community. It was a fellowship that I had worked really hard on in terms of the application, in terms of the references, in terms of, the dozens of documents I needed for the application. And I thought it was extremely solid and made it all the way to that final stage. It was another moment where I was just completely shocked by the fact that it didn't work out.
The really kind of serendipitous thing that happened at the same time, is this opportunity at Global Press where I currently work. From my own personal experience, I think sometimes when we do fail at what we believe to be our end goal, there's always, as I mentioned, 500 other paths, 500 other goals that we can reset and work toward.
Will, what about you?
It's always a pleasure to hear stories like the ones that Veronica and Laxmi just shared. Those are so cool, and I have many that are sort of similar. But mine, the one I want to share today is a little different, and I think it actually kind of fits in, in a kind of fun way. So this takes me back to, oh gosh, I think it was about 21 years old. I was young when I started working in the prison. I was a correctional officer and there I was working at 21 years old trying to figure out how to do this job in a very intense environment.
And so of course, when you're a correctional officer, one of your jobs is to go out and try and do your best to enforce the rules, enforce the policies to try and keep order within the prison. There's many problems with that on a power perspective, that's a different story. But one of the things I ran into that summer when I was working as a 21 year old was one of the leading members of a local street gang. This guy was very powerful, extremely charismatic, was actively recruiting a lot of other prisoners into this gang.
He and I had it out. Not in like a fight, but we were constantly after each other. I was constantly locking him up or doing something similar when he was trying to recruit people. One day, I caught him, or I thought I caught him because I'd found that he was scratching a lot of gang graffiti into the walls in his cell, which was an institutional violation. So I got it, okay finally it's time. So I wrote up institutional charges which would have gotten him kind of punished a week.
I felt okay, this is a good moment to move this forward. My bosses surprisingly enough, were quite excited about this as well because they knew this guy was a problem. They wanted to try and come down on him and punish him. So I wrote up the charges and moved them forward. And then I started doing a little bit more investigation, probably the stuff I should've done earlier, if I'm honest. So this is where I failed because I gotten so excited and so tied up in this ‘I'm fighting crime, I could do this’ sort of attitude. I overlooked a few things, and I realized what had happened was this guy hadn't been the one that did it. It was his cell mate who had moved out a while previous. And so, what I'd done is I'd accidentally pressed institutional charges against the wrong guy. And I was a little upset about this because a), I would hope that I was doing the right thing, and b) I also realized that I screwed up.
So what I did was I called up my boss and said, ‘we have to pull the charges, this isn't right.’ And this is where things got messy, because the institution and the bosses in this case were quite excited. And well, no, we've got this guy on the hook. We're going for this. This has to go forward. And all of a sudden I found myself ordered to move forward with charges that I didn't like, that I was really displeased with and I didn't think it was right. And I was ordered to do so by my director.
And so all of a sudden I found myself in the institutional court with the lawyers, external adjudicators, officials. And I had a choice that could either kind of make up something to try and make these charges stick, or I could be straight up honest and admit that I'd screwed up, that I'd failed and looked like a fool in front of everybody. And I did choose the latter approach. My bosses were mad at me, they asked me why, "why did you screw up?". My coworkers were asking me, "why didn't you do this differently?” And I wasn't impressed.
I was kind of disappointed with myself for having done a poor job. I felt like I'd done the whole… I'd screwed up. And I got back to the unit, and I was not very impressed and my coworkers weren't very impressed with me. And I'm just kind of sitting there alone when all of a sudden this individual, this guy who had been scrapping with for three or four months at this point comes up to me. He's like, “okay boss, I need to talk to you.” And he sat down and we talked and he's like, I don't want to fight with you anymore.
I see now that I can actually trust you here. And that twisted around all of a sudden: we went from having fought almost every day for a few months, to moving to a point where we're actually having good conversations. He pulled back on a lot of the trouble he was making on the unit. Everybody calmed down and it was a safer unit for everybody, for me, for him. And what had happened -- and I didn't realize this at the time -- my failure in the eyes of the institution, was actually I'd failed, but I'd stood up for my integrity. I'd stood up for what was right I told the truth. And even if the institution where I was working didn't appreciate it, the prisoners did.
And many of them kind of talked to me about, listen, you were somebody we could trust, that was something that mattered. And so this failure, this specific incident was something that it wasn't just one incident. Other people saw what was going on, and as a result, even though I failed, I was able to build trust with other people. And trust doesn't really exist in prison. So when I look back at the situation, I'm proud of it because, although I failed in the eyes of my work, my coworkers and all that, I think I actually succeeded. I gained a lot more than I ever could have realized at the time.
Yeah, that's a great story. They're all great stories.
What we like to do with the podcast now is do something called a thought exercise, which we hope is of service to the community because you guys have lots of experiences and know a lot. So, we've got a topic to discuss, which is based on going outside your comfort zone, and finding audacity and resilience, which as we mentioned, the tenants of Engaged Leadership. If you could maybe outline some ways that people who are listening could prepare themselves, if they're entering into a situation, which they know will be outside their comfort zone, requires change or different ideas, different kinds of people. So Veronica, if you want to take a crack at it at first.
My strategy, from my own experience, I am not really sure if this is a great advice. It's not terrible advice actually. But what I do.
Never say that Veronica. It is not terrible.
It’s actually that I just close my eyes and jump, because I am terrified of a lot of things. And I think that's the problem: I have this fear of screwing up. Or because I get so affected about failures or things that I've done. Because when I was talking about my failure earlier, it sounds like I've got it all figured out. But at the same time, these kinds of things sting years after. And I don't want to, repeat the same kind of things again.
So, basically what I just do is I just close my eyes. I just do it, because once I’m committed, am on my way into the abyss or you know, jumping, there was no turning back. And very often then I asked myself, ‘Oh my, what did I get myself self into now?’ But then I'm doing it and then I get into the strategy mode of trying to figure out how do I solve this? It's inevitable. I think that's definitely one of my main strategies and advice. So I should just try to do it. And that's also my goal for 2021 because I'm reluctant to do a lot of things. And I think, if I can just make myself think ‘just go for it’. Just, try to do it. It's fine if you screw up, it will be fine, so….
What's the worst that can happen, some people say. But Will, you say you kind of like being uncomfortable? You've got to feel that that's a good default feeling?
You know, you're right, Valerie. I've spent, gosh, I don't know, I've spent so much time living in spaces I'm not comfortable with. I mean, working in prison, doing interviews in prison and trying to talk about prison reform. These are not comfortable topics, these are really difficult ones. And I think a lot of what you just said, Veronica, I agree with. I phrased it a little differently but tell me if you hear sort of what I'm saying.
I think the biggest thing, the first thing you can do is just prepare your mindset, whether it's a jump, jump and just do it, or for me, it's just convincing myself that I'm okay with not being comfortable. Or it’s not even convincing myself: learning to live with discomfort. Reframing discomfort learning that, discomfort is actually a sign of growth and growth is good because if you're not growing, you're standing still. And, doing it with an attitude of humility as well. Especially when you're talking to other people who are attacking you or who are not comfortable with what you are saying or what you represent.
Sometimes the best thing you can do, is just be humble and, be comfortable in your own skin. Don't be confrontational with other people, but try to be humble, be genuine, be yourself. And then that third point for me, which is really important, is be willing to talk. Sitting down and talking to people that you don't like you disagree with, it's not always fun, it's not always easy, it's not always productive. But for me I've found amazing experience in just sitting down and talking.
From maximum security prison units, to deeply conservative rural areas, to all these other spaces, just sitting down and talking to somebody, finding those points of connection in other spaces. Finding whether, I mean, how stereotypically Canadian is this: finding out whether they watched the hockey game last night. Starting the discussion at that point, and then from those places where we can agree and we can actually discuss, building those conversations further forward. Living outside of your comfort zone has never really easy, but it's also very rewarding in ways that I had never anticipated. And I'm quite passionate about it in some ways, it's like, if you're too comfortable sometimes you're sitting still, and that's not necessarily a healthy place to be.
Well, what did they say? They say, growth is the only evidence of life.
In that case I think I'm very alive.
You're dead otherwise. But Laxmi, what are you hearing? What are you thinking?
I mean, first of all, Veronica, this point close your eyes and jump, I think is that you said. I love that. I think back to the experiences that I shared in terms of, what do you call them failures or things not working out, or being really uncomfortable with something. I think the feeling I had after those two moments were very much rooted in my fear of failure, or of something not working out the way I had planned, which is, as we all learn, life.
So, close your eyes and jump really just resonates with me. But after you close your eyes and jump up, if I could share two things that I think have been just really helpful for me to keep in mind in so many different settings. And the first is, self-definition: really understanding who you are, what you stand for, what your values are, what your red lines are, are so important in these kinds of uncertain times in these uncomfortable situations, rooms, conversations that we're in. Because at the end of the day, you have to define yourself before others define you in those uncomfortable spaces.
And so really having a good sense of self and that self-definition has always been helpful to me. And then second, similar to what we were talking about with Will is, I think having a sounding board or a mentor, or someone that you really trust to almost strategize with, to talk through the discomfort you're feeling in a certain situation or in solving a problem is so important. Because sometimes we can get so caught up in our heads and have, an internal dialogue rather than just kind of getting it out there, sharing with someone what your discomfort may be, and really having someone who knows you well and that you trust. Keep it real and to tell you what the situation actually looks like.
It’s so interesting, the idea of a mentor. And critical. I don't know, Will or Veronica does that resonate with you? Have you got people that you've been able to talk to? I mean, I certainly understand that, and have gone to people in my life. I mean, I really think that is such a key-piece of advice.
That's something that definitely resonates with me. And I think that's one of the things that I do as well, that once I've kind of committed to something and I'm on my way to do it, then there are two strategies that I would use. One of them is exactly that: take advice from others who's, you know, experienced. And like Laxmi says, maybe someone who knows me, or knows, understands what it is that I'm fearing or how I can maybe overcome it.
Because I think that when we talk to someone who's done this thing before, then they can make it easier to understand that maybe it's not that bad after all. It just takes thorough preparation and understanding what it is that I'm getting into and, then it's fine. And then, the other thing is also, just consider it as a learning experience and think like what you said, Valerie, that, what's the worst thing that can happen.
Is it that bad if it fails? And maybe it isn't. It's really hard to accept, and it's something that I'm constantly struggling with every day, but this is the only thing that can make us learn, I suppose. So definitely have a community and people to rely on and even not always just asking for advice, but also just to have someone to kind of bounce off ideas from. Or just say, ‘I'm so scared’. It's definitely something that works for me.
Veronica, I remember you had reached out to me months ago prior to applying to the Foundation program. And I was just curious when I think you reached out you were asking, could you tell me a little bit more about the opportunity? Is this something that you were fearful about doing? Because you mentioned having to tell myself constantly to close my eyes and just jump, and I wonder, what was it like as you thought about pursuing this opportunity?
Well, that's a long time ago now, I feel. But it was definitely something that was outside of my comfort zone. I don't want to bother people. I don't want to take their time, and especially because I felt you are this amazing person, you have achieved so many things. So I really felt that it was really challenging to, to make that decision. But then I had gotten the advice from other previous scholars saying, it is very important to reach out.
And then also I knew that from previous experience that this is the way to really understand how things work, and to network basically. And so, I just thought, why not? I mean, worst case scenario, you're not going to look at the email or you just think that, ‘Oh, I don't have time for this person’, and you know, that's fine. But it just hurt a little bit, but then I just decided, okay, just do it right. Spend some time, write a nice email, be humble in your approach. But it's clicking that button and just get it sent that is a difficult step. But then I just do it and yeah, I'm really happy I did it, and I'm very thankful that you remember being a whole year after. So it definitely shows that, it makes a difference and, it doesn't have to have a result every single time.
Because, so for example, you didn't reply, maybe you didn't see it or you didn't have time. I don't know what the reason was, but if I keep doing things like that and putting myself out there, it will yield results eventually, if not for every single instance. So I think that's definitely something that I'm trying to keep pushing myself to do, but it's, it's hard every single time.
I was thinking about this, because I think, I don't know what the saying is: that success isn’t built overnight, or something like that. But I'm sure that every single member of the Foundation community has a story about things not working out and having to try and try and work hard and work hard and redesign the path. And that there isn't necessarily a linear path towards something. And that we all have our own fears or just things to overcome along these processes.
But what people see is the bio that's online and the interview that you do or, the podcast that is not about being fearless. So yeah, I love this conversation.
Actually, I was just going to say, Veronica, your comment about, ‘I don't want to bother people, I'm afraid to bother people’ is so interesting, because that's pretty universal. Whether you're asking for academic advice or information. In my case, now half the time it's for fundraising. And you do have to learn to be fearless that way. That you go, what's the worst that can happen is they don't answer you, or they say no or whatever. But you learn, ‘don't ask, don't get’. And people mostly are more than happy to share knowledge and experience. So the best thing you can do is reach out. So do, do we have one takeaway that you can offer as advice for people to prepare themselves?
There's so much amazing stuff in this. It's really difficult to boil it down to just one point. But I think for me, the one thing I've heard, that's kind of coming from all three and I do hope that Laxmi me and Veronica will support this, or correct me if I'm wrong. But if you're going to go into a place that's uncomfortable, make sure that you have your groundwork set. So, and by groundwork, I mean, have the backup people in your life as Laxmi put it, have your values, be confident in yourself where you stand, what you believe. And when you do that, it's a lot easier to kind of close your eyes and jump as Veronica described. Would that be a fair assessment?
What do you think Veronica?
I agree with that, I think. Definitely the point about being confident in your values and being yourself. I think that's definitely the one thing. I would like to also add something that both of you said, which is, accept failure or discomfort.
That’s my takeaway, but I'm happy to go with the other one.
Well, I think Will and Veronica, both summed it up really well. Self-definition, finding people you trust as sounding boards, and try your hardest not to be fearful. And that only good things can come from really hard work and some failures along the way.
That's a perfect place actually to end. Thank you all so much for joining us on Brave Spaces. This is something brand new. I'm even outside of my comfort zone as well. So I thank you all for listening. The next episode, we're going to be talking about productive risks worth taking, and failure. Again, we've talked some about that, but more specifically, on how you learn and grow. So our guests for that are going be 2020 Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Scholars Laya Behbahani and Allison Furniss, as well as 2020 mentor Janice McDonald.
This concludes this episode of Brave Spaces from the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation. I hope that something resonated for you today within the guest stories and reflections and conversation. You don't have to wait until the next episode to find opportunities to be inspired by the truly brilliant people in our community. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, to hear updates. And of course, subscribe to this podcast so you can join us next time. I hope that this episode has inspired you to be brave.
I'm Valerie Pringle, until next time.