children in a classroom environment

Don’t stress, just be yourself

Jun 12, 2015

Thanks so much. Firstly, I want to say what an honour it is to be invited to speak to Wesley College tonight, and a huge thanks to both Veda and Areti for inviting me. At the pre-drinks event just before, I heard that your previous speaker for this dinner was Alan Jones (conservative radio host).

I promise not to barrage you with any right wing propaganda, left wing propaganda, or in fact any propaganda at all. I just want to tell you what it’s really like, from my point of view. I’ve been asked to talk to you tonight about what it is that motivates me, day to day, but also how I managed to end up where I am, because that in itself is an unlikely story. I will also explain how working out how to “be myself” was a really key part of this whole journey.

When Veda invited me to talk you to, a few weeks ago, I had just come back from having lunch with the prince of Cambodia. Now, I didn’t know at the time that he was the prince, though I had an inkling that he was someone important. He was running late, so as I was waiting for him, I was wondering to myself, what’s the protocol for greeting someone who is a member of the royal family in Cambodia?

Should I shake his hand? Do I go for the sompeah – the traditional two handed prayer-like greeting in Cambodia? Do I call him sir? Or should I address him as Sondike (meaning a member of the royal family)?

Then I paused for a second and thought, you know what? There’s no point being nervous. Sure, he might be someone really important, but I’m me. I have value. “Forget about it, just be yourself” was my advice.

It turned out this was bad advice. Because when he walked into the restaurant, I greeted him with a big smile, outstretched hand and “Howdy!”.

The little man in my brain, the one that tells you not to laugh at funerals, the one who regulates appropriate behaviour, woke up from his nap in a hurry. Who the hell says howdy to the prince of Cambodia?

How did I, an ordinary guy who grew up in suburban Sydney, who graduated from this very university as a physiotherapist, get to meet the prince of Cambodia?

It took me a number of years to work it out, but I can trace it back to when I was five years old.

On my first day in school, I met a boy named Roger. Our teacher, Mrs Pickering, sat me down next to him and instantly, we became friends. Roger was a quiet boy, with a cheeky smile. I had a natural affinity for Roger from the moment I met him, especially since it seemed we had much in common.

In our first week in school, Mrs Pickering told us to do some colouring in. As she got the rest of the class started, she approached me, telling me that Roger needed my help.

“Roger can’t see colours,” she told me. “We need you to help him pick the right coloured pencils. Can you do that?”

I nodded obediently. And so, for the rest of the year, that’s what we did. To colour the sky, I picked out the blue pencils for him. For the grass, the green.

That year, Roger and Mrs Pickering taught me valuable lessons. Not everyone is like me. Some people do things differently. And yet, all it took was a little bit of help, and Roger could be part of the group.

There are parts of the world where not all children have the same opportunities, simply because the system does not support them. Children like me don’t get the opportunity to sit next to children like Roger.

When I came to Cambodia, three years ago, I was amazed at the lack of infrastructure that existed for children like Roger. I had been working with a local Cambodian organisation, CABDICO, who send staff out to the poor parts of the country, helping children with disabilities where there is often no hospital, no health clinic and no specialised services for them.

CABDICO works with children who have disabilities

At the end of my first year with them, my colleagues told me that 70% of the children they see needed speech therapy, and yet they didn’t have the skills to perform this therapy. Speech therapy is a well established profession across the world that helps treat people who have communication or swallowing disabilities.

Think of a child who has a stutter, or has autism, and cannot communicate the way most people take for granted. The speech therapist will help this child to improve the way they communicate, so that they might go to school, have friends and interact with their family.

For swallowing, think of someone who has had a brain injury or stroke, and doesn’t have the strength to take food and liquid into the stomach the way that you and I do. What happens is this food and liquid goes into the lungs, the person can develop pneumonia, and then they are at risk of death.

In Australia, there are over 6,000 speech therapists working in hospitals, schools and clinics seeing people like this every day. But in Cambodia, there is not one.

It seemed that this problem was so endemic, it was much bigger than just CABDICO, but one that affected the entire nation. I spent many months thinking about what it was that I, particularly as a foreigner and as an individual, could do. And, in 2013, I founded OIC Cambodia.

In understanding our approach, our name is very important. The “project” part of our name refers to the fact that we are project inside an existing Cambodian organisation – CABDICO. OIC – rather than being yet another boring acronym, stands for that moment when you don’t understand something and then suddenly you do. “Oh I see,” you would say. This is very much at the heart of what speech therapy is – helping people relate and connect to the world around them.

As OIC has grown, and new people have been brought into the team, our approach and the values behind it have stayed true to day one. I never wanted to start an non-profit organisation for the sake of it, there are already over 3,000 of them in Cambodia. I never wanted to bring over foreign speech therapists to provide services on “missions” – although these provide nice photos for Facebook, they don’t leave a long lasting impact on local ability to provide for themselves. I wanted our solution to give local people the tools to do their job well.

Even though I internally cringe at the word “founder”, the fact of the matter is that our approach very much reflects my values. As with that embarrassing encounter with the prince of Cambodia, I’m simply just being myself.

Oscar Wilde once said “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”

When I was at the stage of life you guys are at, and all throughout my twenties, I spent a lot of time thinking about who I wanted to be. I wanted to be the guy who owned 50 physiotherapy clinics throughout Sydney. I wanted to be the physiotherapist for the Brazilian women’s beach volleyball team. I wanted to be the guy who came up with that amazing idea that saved millions of lives.

None of these things eventuated, although I’m still waiting by the phone to hear from the Brazilian women’s beach volleyball team. It was also the completely wrong approach.

It took me until I was in my 30s to realise that I just had to focus on being me. I had come back from a posting overseas and had completed 70+ job applications to work in international development all across the globe but hadn’t found the right opportunity. I had met with an international organisation that works in my field, and we had talked about potential jobs in the future.

At the same time, I also wrote an article which was published on the now defunct ABC Ramp Up website, that focuses on disability issues. The crux of the article was that non-disabled people need to advocate alongside with people with disabilities as well. Given the challenges that people with disabilities have had in having their own voice, the late and great Stella Young, who was the editor for Ramp Up at the time, acknowledged how controversial this idea might be – though she personally supported it.

After the article was published nation wide, I received a phone call the next day from this international organisation. “We caught your article in the paper,” they told me. “And it promoted a fair bit of discussion in the office.”

“That’s good, isn’t it?” I asked. “Discussion is good.”

“Well yes,” the person replied. “Discussion is good. But if you want to work for us in the future I suggest you don’t put opinions like this out in the public sphere. You see, we don’t operate like this – we always put the person with the disability front and centre.”

“Well that’s great,” I replied. “But I don’t work for you yet, so surely I can say what I like, right?”

“That depends,” she said. “Let’s say for example we have 6 people applying for a job, and 5 of them look and sound like us, but one doesn’t – who do you think we’re going to pick?”

I took a deep breath and answered: “Well that depends. It depends on whether you want to have someone who parrots back what you already say, or whether you want someone who can think critically, formulate new ways of looking at old problems, and also knows how to get published in a national publication.”

I admit this is somewhat of a smart ass response. She told me explicitly that they would prefer the parrot.

At the time, my parents were concerned. “Don’t write anything in the paper anymore. Get a job first, and if you don’t like the way they operate, try and change this from within.”

But even if I could do that, it would take me 20 to 30 years to work my way up to a position where I could influence change. And in the meantime, I’d be miserable trying to be someone I’m not.

If I had taken a job with this organisation, there is no doubt that OIC would never have started. I had learnt an important lesson – just be yourself.

Last year I was part of a panel on career advice for people trying to get into the international development sector. One question in particular worried me. The question was “what sectors do you see booming in the future, because I want to study to get into those types of jobs, and then make sure I get a job in development later on.”

This is a really limiting approach. Development work isn’t glamorous, it isn’t well paying, and it’s incredibly frustrating at times. Even if this person did get a job, they would probably burn out within a few of years, because it wouldn’t fit what they really want to do. They were just looking for “a job”.

Rather than asking this, I wish this person had asked himself – “What skills and attributes do I have, how would they align with something that I want to do, and what value can I add to the world?” This is what gets you out of bed in the morning.

By asking myself these questions in my twenties, I’m now 100% confident that I am where I want to be, and that I’m adding value.

I just want to pause to say that I’m not saying all of us have to become charity workers. Many of you will become bankers, lawyers, accountants and so on. And we need all of that.

But as you pursue, and as you achieve success, don’t ever forget your privilege. Because growing up in Australia and in establishments like this university, we’re often told the same thing over and over again. You are exceptional. You are gifted. You are brilliant. You are the most important generation to ever walk this earth.

This is the single biggest lie you could be told. You’re none of these things, you’re just lucky.

My achievements aren’t the product of being gifted. I just happened to be born in the right place, at the right time, with the right parents who were there to support me.

I’m just lucky.

Growing up in Australia, I was lucky that I got to sit next to Roger at a young age and learn some pretty invaluable lessons. I guess he was lucky too that our teacher understood what he needed.

Studies show that, in the US at least, people who are between 18 to 33 are the most stressed out of any age group. There are many different reasons for this, including housing, lack of jobs and so forth, but I think it’s also because people seem to be really worried about getting somewhere, much like I was.

But focusing on the destination, on where you want to be is a stressful way of looking at life. You’re searching for happiness, when it’s far better to be, as Carl Jung said, striving for wholeness. Try and work out getting this (gesturing to myself) in order first, before you worry about externally where you want to be.

And, whatever you do, don’t ever forget your privelege.

Thank you so much Wesley College students for listening.