Thirty Things I Learned From EWB

I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting in the past couple of weeks … an exciting new opportunity (that I hope to share soon) has me looking back, and nostalgic about all the experiences that led me to where I am now.

I started this blog post a year and a half ago.  I’ve shared drafts with various people.  I’ve tried to shorten it.  But that wouldn’t do justice to ten formative, meaningful, and incredible years.

Looking back on the past decade, I realize I’ve seen quite a bit of Engineers Without Borders Canada – I’ve watched the organization grow, I’ve had friends come and go, I’ve shared in some fantastic successes, and I’ve seen the ugly underside (every organization has one!).

I’ve tried to take that experience, and compress it down into a series of tips for you – Francis’ Guide to Surviving EWB.

What you do matters

You got involved for a reason.  There was something in you, driving you to contribute your time.  Something about this cause stood out.  Hold onto that – because the world needs people like you.  The world needs your inspiration, your passion, your critical thinking, your love.

Many others have said it better: “never doubt a small group of people can change the world… indeed, it’s the only thing that has.” “If not you, who?” “Be the change you wish to see in the world.:  Over-used cliches, sure, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

What you do matters.  We need you.

Be ridiculous


The issues you will confront can be difficult, heavy, and depressing.  They will drag you down, if you let them … so don’t.

Be ridiculous and embrace the energy.  Drop pumpkins.  Smash cars.  Walk with buckets of water through downtown in the middle of winter.

These are more than publicity stunts: they add energy and levity and fun.  They are as much for you as they are for the “outreach”.  Don’t rush to over-simplify; but don’t over-think either.

Buzzword Bingo – Acronyms – Language

I hate buzzwords and acronyms.  Buzzword Bingo was a favourite drinking game during certain long meetings (before I became staff, of course).  We love to hate our abundance of acronyms.

But they exist for a reason.  They capture the specific way we work and think and behave.  They are our common language.

(wow. I never thought I’d be defending acronyms … or at least, the judicious use of them.)

Money Matters

I hated fundraising, and I was mostly shielded from money worries.  I had my budget and I was on the spending side of the organization… but the money needs to come from somewhere.  And I took that for granted sometimes.

The sooner you realize and remember that money matters, the better you will be at managing it.  You’ll see the financial ups and downs coming, and you’ll be able to avoid crisis.

What matters can’t always be measured

We want to quantify things. To evaluate return-on-investment.  To be rigorous and data-based.  These are great ideals, but they can be rather difficult in our field.

Resist the urge to quantify everything, which (in my experience) often goes hand-in-hand with valuing immediate short-term gain. Play the long game. Trust in the future impact of your work, even if it isn’t immediately quantifiable. Have the patience to invest and nurture.

Value excitement-based decision making, because your passion and energy are major factors in your success.  Implement “impact points” to remind you of your ultimate goal.

The only constant is change

Cliche?  Sure.  But it’s true – so learn to roll with it.  At the same time, avoid change purely for the sake of change.


469865_10152375355795287_636271698_oLiving your values is easier in a community, and this is EWB’s biggest asset.  I cannot count the number of great people I have met over the years – friends, mentors, supports, colleagues, schemers.

Don’t take it for granted.


Avoid the archetype

In EWB, we put certain people on a pedestal. Certain traits and qualities are considered intrinsic to EWB culture… we value the charismatic leader, the entrepreneur, the ambitious risk-taker, the outspoken activist.

Maybe I am especially self-conscious because I don’t think I particularly embody any of those values… but, I now realize that doesn’t matter.  I like to think I’ve made my share of contributions and left my mark, in my own way.

So avoid the pressure to fit the EWB mould.  If you quietly get shit done – know that you are the backbone of the movement.  No one lives up to that superhero that we have built.  No one should have to.


Learn to tell good stories.  Learn to recognize potential stories in the midst of seemingly-boring events.  Hone your writing.  Blog as a way to work through your thoughts.

As much as we want to be rational, logical pragmatists… we still connect over stories.

Embrace Embarrassment

If you look back at who you were two years ago and are slightly embarrassed, that’s a good thing.  It means you have grown and changed.

Learn to treasure that personal growth.  We all go through it.

Be Authentic

Nothing matters more – and people can spot a phony a mile away.  And don’t fall into the trap of just putting on an authentic front.  There’s something captivating about a person who has the self-confidence to be really, truly authentic.

Avoid Africa-hype

Baobab-tree-in-sunsetI can understand the fixation people have with the continent of Africa; why, after spending a few months there, so many people long to go back.  After finally visiting last year, I see what all the fuss is about.  It is absolutely a beautiful, varied, fascinating continent with amazing people.

But you don’t need to go there to make a difference.  I went purely as a tourist (and loved it), and all my real impact has been done from here, in Canada, before I even stepped foot on the continent.


Some people push for more space – others fill the space they are given

Which type are you?

And, just as important, can you answer that for the people around you?


Seriously, bananas aren’t even close to the most common fair trade commodity.

But.  Banana suits.

Burning out

Surround yourself with people who can call you out on it, since often you won’t realize it until it’s too late.

And learn to see the different types of burnout.  Sometimes it’s a loss of all motivation; other times everything becomes a crisis; and, maybe the most dangerous of all, is when your default reaction becomes defensiveness instead of curiosity.

Find ways to bring out the best in you

Think of the time when you were the most humble.  Then think of yourself at your most arrogant moment.  (I’m not asking you to tell anyone the story – so be honest).  What were the factors that led to each?  The context?

Repeat that for being constructive, and being defensive.  And any other traits you value (or hate).

Then consciously put yourself in environments that bring out your best.

Value Consistency

EWB, as an organization, biases toward entrepreneurs… not so much the scale-and-implement people.  But learn to value consistency too, and the people who provide it.

Without consistency, even the best idea is just a momentary flash.  Consistency is what fuels patience, and what keeps you from overreacting to everything.

Presentation Matters

Good presentation and execution can save a mediocre idea … but poor presentation and execution will tank even the best of ideas.

The world shouldn’t be like that … but it is.

Momentum trumps critical thought

Everyone is affected by this; even us.  I’ve seen us spend way too much time over-thinking some decisions …. but I have seen an equal number of decisions made without thinking, because there was enough momentum already behind it.

The Reality of Participation

imagesThe opportunity to participate is important, even if no one uses it.  Send out that feedback survey, even if you already know what people are going to say.  Keep asking for comments, even if no one responds.

If you don’t send the invitation, it’s on you.  If no one responds, it’s on them.

The Myth of Consensus

You’ll never reach consensus.  There, I said it.

When you have enough people involved, there will inevitably be someone who disagrees.  You need to accept that, and move forward anyway.  You can’t please everyone all the time, no matter how much you want to or how hard you try.

The trick is learning to separate perpetual complainers from legitimate issues. And then have enough trust to keep everyone on your side, even if everyone doesn’t get their way all the time.

EWB’s existential crisis

1009626_10151648748669927_1126054183_oDo our people (our leaders, our members, “the network”) exist to serve the organization?  Or does the organization exist to serve our people?

To this day, I don’t know the answer.

(to everyone who answered “why can’t it be both”, it can in the good times. but there are also moments where you have to choose one over the other; best to not be blindsided when that happens.)

Self-Indulgent Navel Gazing

Improved processes are important.  In theory, they ensure we work together efficiently.  They ensure fairness and they let us know what to expect.

But taken too far, improving our internal processes – even refining strategy and plans – can become “self-indulgent navel gazing” (I didn’t coin that phrase, but it’s one of my favourites).

When you spend so much effort defining and enforcing processes that you lose sight of the ultimate goal… you’ve gone too far.

Just Be

EWBers have a reputation for being a bit … intense.  But you don’t need to be deep and challenging all the time.

Just… be.62183_478394240882_6538554_n

Ninjas are cool

For the record – the IT Ninjas came before GE Ninjas.

Reply-All is the devil.

(so are meetings that include more people than they need to.)

It’s easy to include everyone in a conversation, but I think it indicates a lack of self-confidence.  It’s a cop-out, shifting responsibility onto the entire group, instead of taking a stand yourself.

Know when you need to solicit broad feedback & buy-in, and when you need to own your decisions.  Then trust everyone else to trust you with it.

Building community… at the top and the bottom

The danger of a small, tight community is that you are never challenged.  Once you surround yourself with like-minded people, it can be easy to tune out the rest of the world.

In EWB, I often saw this in people who “outgrew” certain parts of the organization.  People who saw “basic” conversations as repetitive and boring.  People who avoided talking to new members, and instead retreated into their community of elites because they were more “interesting”.

On that: I call bullshit.

Over planning. Under planning.  And that sweet spot in the middle.

It’s important to have all three: unstructured time, open to unexpected outcomes.  Semi-structured time with flexibility for new opportunities.  And fully structured time, where the blinders go on and you can really focus

You are irreplacable.  You are also completely replaceable.

945064_601887069833068_650372288_nWe are all unique, and we bring our own combination of skills, perspective, and personality to the table.  This goes to our core value of investing in people.

But… don’t let that lead to arrogance and inflated self-worth.  Or the “self conscious over-achiever” trap, feeling the weight of the world on your shoulders.  There is something humbling and liberating with the realization that, despite all the value you bring, the people around you are resourceful and the world can go on without you too.

We really have no idea what we’re doing…

Our direction changes every couple of years, with no real thread holding it all together… we have our common values, but for the most part, we are building the plane as we fly it (thanks, Sal, for discovering that gem!)

… but, you know what, that’s OK.

So what if we are building the plane as we fly it.  It means we aren’t over-analyzing.  It means we are responding, in real-time, to new ideas and learning.  It means we are growing and evolving.

As much as I hate the uncertainty (and, as a planner, I do!), I’d much rather that than stagnation.

And.  Ultimately.  You never really leave EWB.

EWB is not just an organization.  It’s bigger than that.

It’s the experience, the connections, and the shared values.  It’s the thousands of people it has influenced, regardless of whether we are still involved in the formal organization.

EWB will always be part of who I am.  It influenced me in some of my most formative years, and in turn, I have left my mark on the organization and the people in it.  It goes both ways, for each and every member.  That’s the beauty of it.

I am an EWB alumni and an EWB member.  I don’t regret a moment of it, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.


New Adventures

I wrote this a few days ago, but am only finding enough consistent internet time now to post it. I’ll try to get some pictures up as well, but that may take a few days…

Why hello there. It’s been quiet around here – this blog hasn’t seen much activity lately, and that’s all my fault… The past eight months have brought a lot of unexpected changes, and I wasn’t sure how to keep this blog going – or whether I wanted to.

Most of my posts up till now have been related to my role with Engineers Without Borders (and cross-posted to the Network Buzz blog), but toward the end of the summer, I decided to leave the EWB office.

And yet here I am, on a plane over the Atlantic somewhere as I write this… taking the trip that I have been thinking about for the past couple of years, but which I never prioritized for myself while working at EWB. 12 hours on a plane is a lot of time to reflect – to reflect on the past ten years, what brought me here, and what’s next.

Where am I off to? I’m going to visit a number of friends scattered across the African countries in which EWB works – I’ll be stopping in Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, and Zambia. It’s more of a social/tourist visit than a proper “field visit”, which relieves a lot of the pressure to “make the most” of the visit, and allows me the freedom to let my curiosity guide me. (why I feel this way, and why I felt pressure before, could be a whole different blog post).

During my time on staff at EWB, I have always been more involved in the Canadian side of our change. I have said often that our overseas and Canadian problems are two sides of the same coin, they should meet in the middle – attacking the problem from two fronts… and my place is in Canada, working on this side. But the next month will be experiencing the “other side” of our change.

It comes at a good time for me, too. My own path at a crossroads: what’s next? This cause will always be close to me – but what will that mean in the future? Will these new experiences help me see my own role in a new light? As I see first-hand the new wave of business, investment, and entrepreneurship on the continent ( … at least, what’s what I expect – everything I have heard says the old charity/aid model is more dead than ever … ) what does that mean for my own involvement?

The plane is getting closer and closer to our destination on the little mini-map, it is sinking in that this is happening – and I just had a little rush of adrenaline. The past few weeks have been really busy, and I don’t always show excitement when I’m feeling it (plus I don’t want to be that guy who just talks about his cool upcoming trip … humble brag …). But I land in Ghana in soon (with a quick stop in Ethiopia to change planes), and I can’t wait! I’ll try to post thoughts and photos to this blog as I can =)

But one last thought. It wouldn’t be right to close without a huge thank you to the people who made this trip possible – Robbie, George, Sarah, the many people who contributed, and the people I’ll be staying with (and, let’s be honest, who will be taking care of me over the next month!). You all deserve so much more than a footnote in a blog post… but this is the best I have at the moment.


To everything there is a season…

This is a repost of an email I sent out last fall, telling everyone that I was leaving the EWB office…

I hope you’re doing well – and sorry for the mass email. It turns out I know a lot of people in EWB, and I wanted to reach out personally (ish, at least), before you saw this in a job posting.

As you might have guessed from the subject, I have decided to leave my position in the EWB office. Coming to this decision over the past couple of months has been bittersweet… after 5 years in the office and 10 years in the organization, there is a lot that I will miss. But I am also excited for the future, and the possibilities it holds.

I won’t make this too long and drawn out (though I’m always available to chat if you want!), except to say that the people of EWB have always been my motivation in this work. Knowing that there are people like you out there, and seeing you all come together to make amazing things happen, is what gives me hope. Hope that, despite all the crazy problems in the world, we can – we will – change it for the better.

Officially I wrap up at the end of November, and most of that month will be spent on transition. For the chapters that I am buddied with, I will continue working with you until then – feel free to reach out if you need anything, over the next months or beyond. EWB has always been a community, not just a collection of formal roles, and I have no intention of leaving this community.

It has been a privilege to work alongside all of you, at one point or another… but to everything there is a season, as the saying goes, a beginning and an end. And while the seasons are changing for me, I am proud of what we have accomplished together. I am confident in our shared values. I believe in our collective action. And I remain committed to a world free of injustice.


Come for the cause – stay for the people

This entry was cross-posted to The Network Buzz

We come for the cause… but stay for the people.

I felt immediately awkward after saying it.  What was that implying about my motivations?  What was I assuming about others’?  But the nods coming from the people around me were reassuring, they told me that I was onto something.  So I continued.

We come for the cause… but stay for the people.  And while that cause doesn’t go away – it’s what brought us together, and part of our shared values – we’ve also built a community to support each other.  We’re not alone in this.

This was two years ago, as we closed the Ontario Retreat.  We were gathered in a circle, all 100-odd participants, sharing closing thoughts and reflections on the weekend.  I have many memories from that weekend, but this one is the most vivid.

I’ve replayed that quote in my mind many times since… most recently in a prep meeting for this weekend’s 2013 Ontario Retreat.  We were talking about our goals and intentions, and I was fixed on this idea of retreats as community-building above all.

And the mixed feelings all came washing back.  There’s something about the quote that just feels right – and yet feels uncomfortable at the same time.

We come for the cause, but stay for the people.

Does that mean we lose our connection to the cause over time?  Is it fair to talk about the very real issues of poverty and development and social change, to claim that as our purpose, when our connection is just as much to the community we’ve built?  Or, to take an extreme view – are we merely using these issues in order to build a club in which we feel like we belong?  As a person who spends considerable time thinking about online community-building and organization culture, this is not a comfortable question to be asking.

But there’s no denying the power of a strongly-connected network either.  I can trace much of our success to the energy that the group creates… the collective impact of many small, coordinated actions, and the strong trust and relationships that are needed to enable it.  The mutual accountability and support that gets us through the tough times, the benefit of other peoples’ experiences and learning, and the shared celebration of our successes.

Both matter, but which matters more …  what we do – or who we do it with?  How do we balance those two, if they can be balanced at all?

This is something that I will be paying close attention to this coming weekend, as we go into another retreat (at the same venue as our retreat two years ago, in fact).  I’m curious to see what kind of group identity emerges.  I’m looking forward to that sense of shared purpose, and to taking a weekend out of our day-to-day lives where we can build a new context and a different way of being.  And through that, I will be trying to ensure we remain rooted in both our community and our cause.


Commonality and Compatibility

This entry was cross-posted to The Network Buzz

I believe that organizations need to have personality, and that belonging to a group shouldn’t force a person to put their own personality aside … which is why I always enjoy seeing organizations pulling April Fool’s pranks – fake announcements, updated websites… the stoic inhuman front is dropped for a day, we worry less about stuffy professionalism, and we laugh together.  Of course, I participate wholeheartedly with myEWB.

This year, we launched EWB Match – with the tagline, Here at EWB, we recognize that finding finding a soulmate can be difficult in the busy life of a social change maker.  And so we are launching a new service – EWB Match – that makes it easy to find that special someone.

The crux of the feature was a compatibility rating that compared your profiles and predicted how compatible two EWBers were.  I will not divulge the secret algorithm (except to say, the numbers don’t lie…!), but essentially the rating compared how similar you were.  The more similar, the higher the rating.

But is that actually the case?
If you have a lot in common – are you automatically compatible?

There’s something to being in a relationship with someone who is very similar – who you understand and who understands you, implicitly and fully, in a way that only comes from common interests and worldviews and personalities.

But at the same time, there is the old saying that opposites attract.  And there is also validity to it; to that energy and excitement of someone who is different, who complements you rather than mirroring you.  Someone who can challenge and push you.

The same also applies to groups and teams.  Having a high level of commonality can lead to a very aligned, smooth, high-functioning team … but can also lead to group think.  You also need that spark, that challenge and healthy difference, to push the group.

So perhaps there is such a thing as too similar, and compatibility is measured by more than just commonality.  Or maybe that’s just something that an algorithm can’t tell us, which we all need to discover for ourselves.


Defer – Delegate – Endure – Execute

This entry was cross-posted to The Network Buzz

I’m just kicking off a week of vacation, to recharge a bit and take a break from EWB.  It was a surprisingly difficult decision to take some time off now – despite needing a rest, there always seems like something is happening that I should be involved in… and I’m incredibly thankful for some amazing colleagues who’ve pushed me to get some rest and who I feel comfortable leaving things with.

But yesterday on Friday, while going over my to-do list, a pattern emerged in dealing with the various items, and I want to share some thoughts around that.  A new framework, if you will, on how to manage your workload.  Take everything you have to do (I carried a pad of paper with me, and wrote down everything as it came to mind), and then sit down and categorize them (doing this with a friend/colleague/manager can help add some perspective):


  • Does this item really need to happen now?
  • Can it wait until you’re back – what are the actual consequences of waiting a week?

(I find that I am sometimes my own harshest critic – not every deadline is an external one with consequences… some deadlines are based on my own plans, or how long I think something should take, and yet I stress out over missing them just as much as I do for a deadline with external consequences. Recognizing the difference and letting go of some internal deadlines is refreshing.)


  • What value-add do you provide?
  • Do others have the skills/knowledge/ability to do this too?

There are some things that you should be doing (even if others are also able) – things that may be apart of your official responsibilities or job description… and then there are things that you have unofficially taken responsibility for (maybe you’ve stepped in before, and over time you’ve just assumed responsibility).  In both cases, it’s OK to also ask for help.

I was going over my Strengths Finder results, and one of my strengths was responsibility – one of their reflection questions was, You naturally feel ownership over your tasks – but ensure this does not prevent others from also discovering the joys and challenges of ownership.  That felt particularly timely and relevant.


  • If you have specific skills/knowledge on this task, can you share this? Train others?
  • Is it actually more suitable for others to gain those skills/knowledge?
  • How are you valuing your own time in relation to others?

There some items where you do bring specific skills/knowledge, which allow a task to be completed much more efficiently and effectively.  These can be the most difficult to let go of.  It’s hard to say, it would take me half an hour to do this, but you should still be the one doing it even though it’ll take you three hours.  It’s why I named this category endure (the pain).

But, it’s also a good push to recognize areas where you can share those skills and knowledge, and build others’ capacity rather than always being called on to help.  And, it’s a good push to recognize that you can’t always be helping – at some point, you need to ensure you are valuing your own time as well.


  • Are there low hanging fruit that you can execute and deliver on, in order to clear a project off your plate?

I included this last category to the dismay of Anna (who was helping me organize my to-do list).  I had a few projects that are really close to completion, that I wanted to just finish off and put a checkmark beside – having them done and cleared would make it easier for me to take time off.  But I recognize it’s a slippery slope.

But we did also recognize this framework-in-the-making can also be used for regular workload planning (not just clearing items before vacation) – where the execute category is also useful.

Anyway, I found this framework/categorization useful, so I’m sharing in case you do too.  If you use it (or modify it), I’d love to hear about that too.  But in a week.  =)

Sidenote: on feeling tired, and needing a break, and on work-life balance… I’ve usually considered myself quite good at balance and proactively avoiding burnout.  I take an approach of yes, there are times where you’ll work hard and have crazy hours… but balance that with lighter weeks too, and keep some fuel in the tank in case of emergency.  But this past week has been difficult, and I think I may add a third item to the usual work/life balance concept.

For the past while, I’ve been alternating between busy work weekends, and weekends of doing nothing and vegging out – which kept me going for a while, and made me feel like work/life balance was fine.  But in fact, the slow buildup of things I want to do and friends I want to see with and errands I want/need to run and the whole other active side of life (beyond relaxing/recovering), was catching up with me.  So, I’d modify work/life to be work/relaxation/life balance – recognizing passive relax time and active personal life time are both important but different.


The Calling of an Engineer

This entry was cross-posted to The Network Buzz

The Obligation will be taken on cold iron of honourable tradition, as being a solid substance of proven strength and physical characteristics.  It will not be taken on any other written works of man, but upon a product from nature, used by every engineer.
– Kipling

The month of March is a big one for the Engineering profession in Canada.  Not only is it National Engineering Month, but it is the time when most newly-graduating engineers receive their iron rings.

I had the fortune of attending a couple of events to bookend the month – a conference on Global Engineering and Engineering education at McMaster, and then the Global Engineering Innovation Symposium in Toronto.

These events make it clear to me that the engineering profession is changing.  A quote from the Toronto event sums it up quite well: innovation is no longer just about technology, but the way we use technology too.  The event used transportation as an example and case study of the interaction between technology and human behaviour; and the day was engaging and interesting – especially for those of us Torontonians =)

Earlier in the month, at McMaster, we looked at engineering education – and what is needed to update it for the 21st century.  There was a strong focus on non-technical soft skills (essential for an engineer to match technology to human behaviour), and participating in the day gave me glimpses of the engineering education that I wish I’d had.

These examples may make it sound like I am downplaying, or even eliminating, the technical work of engineers.  This is absolutely not the case.  Engineers will always a technical role to play, and our iron rings remind us of the consequences when our technical work is not sound.  But the technical alone is not enough.

EWB chapters are at the forefront of understanding human behaviour and the diffusion of technology – with both our engineer and non-engineer (honourary engineer? ;) ) members. This balance of members gives us a unique perspective, and the many engineering graduates with an EWB background gives me a strong sense of optimism.

As the Calling of an Engineer reminds us – our work, as engineers, is ultimately in the service of society.  We are not called to only play with new and cool technologies, but to find ways for these technologies to make a real difference in peoples’ lives.

Engineers have done great things in the past, and as a new generation of engineers graduate into the working world, I wish them all the best.



Do You Talk Shop?

This entry was cross-posted to The Network Buzz

A few years ago, a few of us in the office had a weekly habit… a Thursday Night Drinking Club if you will, where we’d go out for a beer after work to catch up, chat, and just generally hang out.

There was only one rule: you could not talk about work or EWB, or follow up on an earlier conversation or to-do.  The only exception was to tell a funny story that just happened to have taken place at work.  But in general, no talking shop.

In an environment where many of my friends are also my colleagues, the line between work and social can blur sometimes.  And in an EWB environment, talking about EWB and social change and development isn’t just work-talk, but it comes from a place of interest and passion.

It can still be a strange balance, though.  Sometimes I’ll have a great time with EWBers where we don’t even mention EWB once.  And other times I’ve experienced that elephant in the room, where I’m talking to someone I know through EWB and we dance around the topic… trying to make an awkward conversation happen while consciously ignoring and avoiding the biggest thing we have in common – our EWB involvement.

Context matters, of course.  Bringing up EWB outside of an EWB context can elicit groans … but avoiding EWB in an EWB context can leave an odd gap in the conversation.  And I find some of my most awkward conversations come when context and content are mismatched. (to be fair, that has also lead to some wonderfully surprising and interesting conversations, but it’s usually quite a toss-up)

On the other hand, some of my most memorable and engaging out-of-office conversations with EWBers come when we flow in and out of EWB topics; where we may start talking about something EWB and then drift off in five different directions, then return to something EWB-related, then drift again, and back, and again… when EWB doesn’t dominate the discussion – but where we aren’t actively trying to avoid talking shop either.

Because, when talking shop is talking about something you care about and are interested in,  and you’re in the company of people who share those values and aspirations and vision, why avoid it?


Dr Frank Yung

This entry was cross-posted to The Network Buzz

Last weekend, I attended the memorial service and Canadian funeral of Dr. Frank Yung (his actual funeral was held in Hong Kong a few weeks ago).

Dr. Yung was my dentist.  I know that doesn’t sound like much, and to be honest I can’t say I knew him all too well (despite having gone to him for the past 25 years or so).  But he was one of those people with the rare gift to touch the lives of all that he met, however briefly… and the overflow crowd at the funeral was clear evidence of that.

It’s funny how you can learn far more about someone at their funeral than you ever knew about them in life.  But everything I learned only confirmed what I already suspected – what I already implicitly and unconsciously knew – about a man who was genuine and honest, who lived his values and was a real humanitarian.

In retrospect, he was one of the subtle influences in my life and a role model (despite my dislike of having whirring machines in my mouth and the nasty stinging taste of fluoride rinse).  The pictures and understated posterboard describing his work in South America, where he traveled repeatedly and provided emergency dental care, gave me some of my early direct exposure to international relief work (it wasn’t just something I’d heard about; I nowknew someone who’d done it!).  And his caring and honest nature was magnetic.  He was someone who genuinely cared about each and every patient – but in his own simple and humble and genuine way.

There are some influences in your life that you take for granted until they’re gone.  Those presences that lurk in the background, that gently massage your subconscious without you realizing it.  I saw Dr Yung only once a year, and our conversations were not exactly deep heart-to-hearts.  But in him I saw a true humanitarian – a person who deeply cared about others, who showed that through the way he treated his patients, the altruism and aid work he did, and (as I learned this weekend – but which is no surprise at all) the way he valued his family.  And I like to think that some of that rubbed off on all of us who had the fortune to know him.

Dr Yung was a role model who lived his values and lead by example.  I never saw even a hint of arrogance or sensed that he was showing off.  Yet his actions and attitude spoke louder than any words could have.  The world needs more humble leaders like him.

Dr Yung – you probably weren’t aware at all of the gentle-yet-consistent influence you’ve had.  Perhaps none of us are really fully aware of the influence we have on others around us.  But you’ve certainly left the world a better place, through the work you’ve done, through the people you’ve touched… and I can only hope to follow that example.


Mountaintops and magic moments

This entry was cross-posted to The Network Buzz

You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.

Rene Daumal

A moment this past weekend reminded me of this half-written blog post, which I started back at the end of January.  At the time, I was reflecting on the month that wasn’t – the crazy blur that was Conference and Strategic Planning and the office retreat all rolled into one.

There’s something about those moments that take me outside of the day-to-day.  Whether it’s a retreat, a conference, a vacation, a reunion… these events can take on a surreal quality – where, for a few precious days, my regular routine is interrupted and replaced by a completely different way of being.  A safe and trusting space – a community with a common cause – and a renewed sense of motivation and purpose.  Where my daily concerns are placed on hold, and I am fully in the present.  An experience that is often compared to being on a mountaintop; when I can suddenly see the big picture, and when I am simultaneously observing the world from a distance yet still living in it as well.

Perhaps you have had similar moments.  They don’t happen often – but when they do, they leave me wondering if I can just live like that all the time.

But of course, I can’t always live like that.  None of us can; we can’t stay on the mountaintop.  Not only does the experience become routine if we overstay our welcome, but the experience is actually meaningless in and of itself.  It is only magical when placed in the context of the rest of our lives (where it comes full circle, also giving context to our lives).  And so, I’ve come to realize that the descent from the mountaintop is just as important as the time I spend there.

I remember how, after a particularly powerful mountaintop moment many years ago (Fall of 2007, to be exact), I found myself on the streets of Toronto in the rain.  My apartment was just… hollow.  Empty.  Rather than relishing the quiet familiarity of my home, as I usually do after a retreat or similar event, that night I couldn’t stand it.  And so I wandered the neighbourhood for hours in a daze, cold and wet but not feeling any of it, until my mind cleared and I was able to go home and fall asleep.

In retrospect, I had climbed too high and come down too fast (not that I was aware of any of it at the time).  And I had no idea how to channel that experience into something that could feed into my regular routine.

Now, conversely, I look back on the month of February, and wonder how it was affected (or, rather, largely unaffected) by the events of January.  Was I too anxious to get back to the day-to-day and re-establish a routine?  Did I neatly compartmentalize the experience and file it away in my brain as I switched back into day-to-day mode?  And if that was the case… what was the point of climbing the mountain in the first place?

But there is also that sweet spot – when the magic of a mountaintop moment is neither overwhelming or fleeting… but where it fuels and gives purpose to our day-to-day actions. That’s what I’m grasping at.  And in the meantime, I’ll hang up my climbing gear until we reach the next mountain.