A perfectionist’s guide to working in Timor

Last week, I sent a sheepish email to the old boss I used to freely accuse of micro-managing me. “I need some help,” I typed.

“I’ve never had this much free rein in a job before, and I don’t know what to do. I’m feeling directionless and I need you to help me make some decisions.”

I added “Please manage me?” in the subject line and punched in his email.

The reply came quickly and generously.

Of course I would love to micro-manage you again. It would be an absolute honour.” A suggestion of a Skype chat and then three times he was available in the next week, starting from that day.

I asked for help because I’m feeling a little overwhelmed at work. The job I’m doing here in Timor is technically the most senior role I’ve ever had — I’m in a mentoring position; I’m supposed to be training my colleagues, and I’ve been given a lot of free rein with how to design and prioritise my work. I feel inexperienced and unsure of myself, unworthy of the responsibility, and spooked by the enormity of all the things I could do.

My old boss and I had the chat, talking round in circles and on top of each other for nearly 90 minutes and two pages worth of dashed-off notes, and I ended the call feeling filled-up but energised, and very grateful for his help (and his good humour).

Today, reading through my handwritten notes, something huge sticks out.

In our chat, my boss asked a lot of questions like what do you want to learn in this role and what excites you at work and what are your strengths, but also, what are your weaknesses and what about this is fun for you?

That felt… weird.

This assignment isn’t meant to be about that, I had tried to explain. My title is communications mentor. I’m meant to be experienced in communications, training people to do the work I’m qualified to do, so that it can continue when me and my expertise (“expertise“) leave Timor-Leste.

I don’t feel like an expert, but that’s what they were recruiting for — right? This assignment is about me teaching, not about me having fun.

After talking with my old boss I’ve realised I missed the point completely.

Teaching is having fun. Working shoulder-to-shoulder with my gorgeous colleagues, sharing what I know about a field of work I find really interesting — that is fun. And it’s not a case of choosing between teaching and fun, or learning and lecturing, or feeling comfortable and feeling at home — in this, at least, I can have it all. I don’t have to choose.

Our conversation made me see something: right now, I’m paralysed by fear and indecision. I’m scared, and it feels natural to retreat.

But that’s the opposite of what I should be doing.

I read once that people with anxiety see threats, not opportunities. And that’s exactly my problem.

Instead of the thrill that comes with sharing knowledge at work, I’m only seeing the risk of teaching poorly; of missing something. I’m shying away from making decisions and potentially putting a foot wrong in designing my training, and in the process leaping over the joy of nutting out exactly what I know and how to communicate it.

When I’m invited to lunch with new friends I think immediately of how badly I’ll mispronounce my food order instead of the joy of connecting with someone new. I avoid boot camp for fear of being the straggler in the circuit. I don’t practise Tetun with the Timorese friend who repeatedly offers a chat simply because I’m too afraid of messing up. I’m avoiding threats, I tell myself — but, of course, by keeping myself out of the game, I’m already losing.

By avoiding what’s hard I’m missing what’s exciting.

By dodging these problems I’m letting them win.

I know the only way to overcome it is to face the fear head-on.

When work’s overwhelming, choose projects that make it exciting and dive right in — don’t pull back. When you’re exhausted and down, force yourself to go and exercise and reap the flush of energy. When you’re panicking over to-do tasks in a second language, use the opportunity to learn the actually-useful Tetun vocabulary that’ll make it fractionally easier the next time this task crops up.

Seek fun. Make things fun. Decide it’s fun and it will be. See the opportunity before the threat.


3 responses to “A perfectionist’s guide to working in Timor”

  1. […] lucidity stopped me. Of course. I was worrying like I was stuck in an impossible bind, like if I pushed the wrong button the detonator would blow […]


  2. […] I’ve spoken about how I decide how things should go and then get flustered and self-critical when they’re different. I’ve shared about how I’m challenging myself with unrealistic goals, because I know […]


  3. […] Related: forgetting it would be fun, being jealous of a friend with a life identical to mine, on FOMO and self-pity […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: