It’s been a gruelling few weeks of travel (including weekend travel) and multiple evening/weekend events. Even though I’ve achieved more than I imagined I would in a very short time, I can’t help but remind myself that just a couple of weeks ago, I promised myself that I’d try to decline travel/events and spend more time with myself, with friends and with family.
So I really haven’t achieved much where it’s most important. =(
And to top it off, I’m jetlagged and down with a cold from all that travel. Grrr…
In the last couple of months, as I’ve tried to grapple with the ever-increasing demands of the job and how it intersects with (and has interloped) my own personal life, DREAM OF A CITY has inadvertently become a sort of Journal, where I write about challenges I face behind the scenes as a professional and as a person.
All this writing has been very therapeutic, even if it has nothing whatsoever to do with CITIES (which is what this blog was set up to explore initially). Perhaps as a next step, what I should be doing is starting a new blog related to the specific circumstance and experience of being a Museum Director…
Something to think about.
In the meantime, a post on the question of BALANCE is in order.
Because of all my core values, BALANCE is the one that most requires work.
* * *
A couple of weeks before this renewed bout of intense work-travel-and-events, something happened that made this post all the more urgent. And I’ve been wanting to write about it, but I was hesitant, because I didn’t want people to think I was making a big deal out of nothing.
A friend whom I had met in the course of my work at the museum had asked me out to drinks and dinner. And given that I hadn’t seen him in some time, that I really enjoyed hanging out with him, and that I had had a particularly exhausting and difficult week, I said YES!!
The night went on well. I was relaxed, happily and (perhaps too) unreservedly talking about work and life. And then as the night progressed I realised that, of course, I wasn’t there just because I was Kennie. And that the intent of the drinks and dinner was also to pitch an exhibition idea to me as the Director of the Asian Civilisations Museum (or D/ACM for short).
I was, quite frankly, rather upset.
It’s just that I had naively thought I was there that evening as KENNIE, and not as the Museum. The incident made me realise, with great dismay, that possibly maybe, in the eyes of everyone I have since met in the course of work, Kennie doesn’t exist at all! That in most people’s eyes, there was only D/ACM.
In other words, the incident spoke to me of how Kennie was on the brink of being LOST.
* * *
In the few weeks since, I’ve had some time to reflect on this question of how to achieve BALANCE between being KENNIE and being D/ACM?
Because that really is the crux of the issue: where does equilibrium lie and what should I do so I don’t lose KENNIE behind the façade of D/ACM?
This line between the two is admittedly hard to draw when my own personal interests – in the sense of content and research interests – align so completely with those of ACM!
And given that I’m only human, and that I believe in always being authentic and sincere, I have naturally also invested the role of D/ACM with my own specific personality.
AND to make things WORSE, my authenticity and sincerity – i.e. investing my role with my personality – has actually gone a long way in winning hearts and minds and $$ over to the museum!
So how do I draw the line when I’ve been deliberately blurring that line myself, and this deliberate blurring of the line has brought tangible benefits to the museum and my professional career??
Gosh, how muddled I am!
* * *
Since I am Singaporean, and therefore completely obsessed by structure, I’ve decided that the most pragmatic course of action would be to lay out for myself – without any irony whatsoever – a 3-point Action Plan on Achieving Balance.
Here it goes…
1) Say “NO” more
Let’s indulge in some close-reading shall we?
If we return to the earlier Incident With The Friend (or IWTF, for short – since we’re playing at being Singaporean, and acronyms are very Singapore), and examine WHY it was that I was having a “particularly difficult and exhausting week”, it was fundamentally because as the Museum’s reputation grows from strength to strength – as we bounce “back into business” after a prolonged absence on the scene, more and more people have been trying to reach out to me/us.
I am regularly invited by other museums, academic and art institutions to be on museum committees, to lecture or speak publicly, to write essays or articles, to field interviews and debates, etc.
I am also regularly approached by artists, other museums, ambassadors, freelance consultants, and, in particular, collectors (often through their banker, lawyer or ambassadorial representatives), who are interested in proposing exhibition and other project ideas with us.
Up until this point, I have generally been extremely accommodating, saying YES to invitations to speak, write, give interviews, to be on local and international committees….
I’ve also been courteous and saying YES to meeting all artists, ambassadors, consultants, museum colleagues, collectors, to hear out what they wish to discuss, even though, frankly, it is simply not possible for us to accept what is proposed EVER because we are TOO SMALL!
We only have ONE SPECIAL EXHIBITION GALLERY – a very precious commodity.
I’d like to use our ONLY special exhibition gallery carefully and strategically to curate exhibitions that only we can create – exhibitions that contribute NEW AND RELEVANT IDEAS, KNOWLEDGE, PERSPECTIVES to the world, through our permanent collection primarily, but also with pieces we loan from other museums and private collectors. New and relevant ideas, knowledge and perspectives are essential for appealing to today’s generation of highly sophisticated (and younger) audiences.
Because we have such a strong desire and ambition to create new kinds of exhibitions that only we can create, our exhibition schedule is fixed till 2024 at least, with brilliant exhibitions that will change the way you view Asia, Asian Decorative Art and museum exhibitions in general!
So I’m very sorry, but we don’t and won’t take packaged shows, and we don’t and won’t do exhibitions on single private collections (unless it involve a gift of some of the collection to us – and we reserve the right to curate it the way we wish to, though I guarantee you it will be brilliant).
In any case, all this saying YES to many, many commitments and meetings has been taking its toll. I’m feeling completely overwhelmed, to be honest.
So Thrust 1 of the Action Plan involves me simply saying the following more frequently at the appropriate juncture, which means early enough, at the onset:
“Thank you very much for thinking of me/us, but I’m afraid I am unable to commit.”
But please don’t worry!!
I will honour the commitments I’ve already made!
2) Be upfront about when I just want to be Kennie
Back to the IWTF….
What I should have done, really, is I should’ve either declined to meet, or perhaps just clarified WHY we were meeting upfront.
Whether I like it or not, there is a huge difference in the nature of person-to-person interactions depending on whether I’m D/ACM or Kennie.
As D/ACM, the bulk of my interactions with people are somewhat transactional.
It can’t be helped. It’s the nature of the job. My role is to ask for financial and other forms of support in order that we may achieve what we hope to achieve. And most persons who wish to meet with me as D/ACM often want something from and of the museum.
But that’s ok really. I can deal with that. It’s easy to be primarily (courteously and charmingly) transactional with people I’ve only just met or whom I don’t know very well.
But what about those whom I’ve known for some time? And those whom I consider, or would like to consider, my friends and/or mentors?
Do I allow the line between work and personal interaction to be blurred? Or should I perhaps be clearer about when we are meeting for work, and when we are meeting as friends?
I’d like, of course, to be able to continue doing my job well by reach out to existing donors, patrons, supporters, collectors – some of whom I do consider as friends and/or mentors – to support and invest in the museum and its work.
But sometimes, I’d like to also just have great conversations with this group of Stakeholders-Who-Are-Or-Could-Be-Friends (or SWAOCBF, for short) without the pressure of me asking them or my being asked for something!!
Because they’re awesome people – that’s why I want them to be my friends! – and I just want to get to know them better.
Most of the interactions I’ll have with these SWAOCBF will continue to be in my capacity as D/ACM.
But there will be the occasional catch-up, like in the case of the IWTF – when, either because I just really need a break from D/ACM, or because I really just want to see them because they’re awesome people – where I would prefer to be Kennie.
And in these instances, perhaps what I can and ought to do, is try asking this of them:
“Would it be ok if I came as Kennie to our meet-up? Because that would be great.”
Maybe it won’t be ok. In which case then I postpone the engagement till later, when I am prepared to be D/ACM. And I decide that this particular person is probably not going to be a friend just yet – and that’s perfectly OK!
But I do think that in the occasional instance when I do pop the question, the resounding answer from most SWAOCBF I’ve met in the course of work would be “Yes of course!! That would be great! Let’s just hang out and relax!”
I’m the eternal optimist. =)
3) Pencil in time with old friends and family
Yes this sounds a little obvious and perhaps even a little condescending.
But let me explain myself.
Because of the travel and the many evening commitments on the job, old friends whom I’ve known pre-museum or met early in my museum career; friends who would have asked me out, have stopped doing so.
Because I’m not available anyway. So why keep asking when the answer is always “No”?
It doesn’t help that I’m extremely introverted – people don’t realise this because I seem to do well at museum events. [PS: I need a couple of drinks to steel myself before I head down to the River Room…]
Whenever I have time for myself, I treasure it so much!! And I only ever have the rare Saturday or Sunday morning or afternoon, or occasionally one full weekend-day to myself. Yes, the museum is a 24/7 kind of job, and I haven’t had a FULL two-day weekend not doing museum work since…well… I don’t know when.
So when I do have the rare morning or afternoon or even a WHOLE DAY, I’d rather spend it at home, on my own, reading, writing, pottering about, running, swimming, napping, watching Netflix….
These past two years, I’ve also had book projects to work on, which means even MORE time spent on my own at home feverishly writing, and even less time just enjoying myself or hanging out with friends and family.
Now you see what my problem is.
If I’m never available, and my first instinct when I am available is to hide away like a hermit, I’m never going to be able to maintain strong friendships and relationships.
So THEREFORE, it is important that I ensure that whenever I am available, I do and must step out and spend time with old friends and with my family.
Filling up my social calendar is perhaps also a kind of self-defence, wherein I will be less readily able to agree to meet-ups where it is unclear whether or not I am meeting as D/ACM or KENNIE. And certainly, at these meetings with friends and family, there will never be an issue of me doing mental cartwheels to say “No” courteously and politely.
In these meetings it will always be YES, because I am with people who care and are concerned for me as ME, and whom I care for.
So this is what I’m going to practice saying more of from today:
“Hey there!! How are you? I haven’t seen you in some time. What are you up to this weekend? Can I come over?”
It’s going to take some effort, because it means taking time away from solitary enjoyment. But then, I don’t want to die alone and be found ten days later with cats having eaten half of my face.
I don’t have a cat.
He died a year ago from loneliness ‘cos I was never around.
Ok fine, that was uncalled for.
I’m really a cup half full sort of person.
* * *
So there you have it: my 3-point Action Plan for Finding Balance in the Immediate Term.
I shall endeavour to stand by it in the coming months.
For starters, given it is already rather late at night, I should really not still be penning a blogpost, even if it is, rather more about me sharing the personal challenges I face at work rather than about work per se.
Come, come Kennie, let’s try to achieve some balance by going straight to bed.
Especially since I’m jetlagged and down with a cold. Grr…