When I was living in South Korea my Hapkido master decided to start teaching us sword fighting. Amazing right? Yeah I thought so too until he handed me a rather short wooden sword. In response to my frown he gently pointed out that I was too tall to have a normal sized sword because I would keep hitting the roof. As much as I could appreciate the practicality of that, I could not help but feel slightly insignificant and childish as I glanced down the row of would-be sword fighters with their full-length weapons. Mentally I could not reconcile my black belt status with my short sword. Three months into my new job that same feeling of conflicting status is creeping in. I may like to think of myself as a black belt in communications but as a humanitarian I am still very much holding a short wooden sword.
Humanitarians love to tell war stories. On the whole they are great and really make you want to light a fire, toast marshmellows, listen and learn. Sometimes however these stories can take on a life of their own and, in some circumstances, be used as a way to determine whose sword is bigger. There is a sensitive balance between technical and context experiences. Technical expertise gives you the theories, best practices, and transferable skills but context experiences give you the nuances and credibility. Unfortunately the only way to get context experience is, well to be in the context. Somehow when I am sitting in a room listening to my colleagues talk about Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon in support for the Syria Response, or their experiences in Rwanda, Pakistan and Sudan, my usual stories of the lengthy international negotiations over the great brussel-sprout shortage of 2004, running 16 events in one week, having articles published, or achieving market leadership of a canned meat product just don’t seem as impressive. I am once again the black-belt with the short wooden sword.
So how do you deal with a short wooden sword?
I need to be honest with you here. I stopped writing just after I finished that question because I didn’t have an answer. I get the whole learning, developing, experience and knowledge takes time but I am not naturally a patient person. I am not good at not being good at things. And, well part of me feels as though I have done the training and the learning. I have attended internal training, I’ve been part of simulations, I’m nearly finished my Masters in International Conflict Management, I’ve read books by former humanitarian workers, I read their blogs, I’ve even read the Sphere Standards and I do have some limited field exposure. And that all paid off cos I am now in my dream job. But I still have so much to learn and experience.
It is now a day later. And after a night of red wine, delicious food and wonderful conversations with my new colleagues I just decided to get over myself.
As my Hapkido Master said when he was toasting our achievement of our black-belts after a year and a half of training twice a day, five days a week, ‘Now the real work begins.’
And just as my Hapkido Master was always there for me as I fumbled my way through learning new wrist locks and Jackie Chan like moves, I do feel rather confident that my new colleagues will be there for me too.