What Water Do You Live In?


I was recently invited to teach a workshop on Career Management for Scientists at the University of British Columbia.  I was thrilled to add an international aspect to my speaking career, and very much enjoyed the lovely scenery, warm weather, and friendly people there.

However, the most interesting thing to me happened after the workshop was over.  As we were taking a tour of the city, and seeing all the venues at which the Winter Olympics will be held, my host, Liz, was looking for a mailbox.  She had a letter to mail, and mentioned that they had been removing mailboxes in preparation for the Olympics (to prevent terrorist acts), and it was getting harder and harder to find a place to mail a letter.

When I asked her why she didn’t just put it in the mailbox in her house, for the letter carrier to pick up.  It turns out in Canada the letter carrier does not pick up outgoing mail.  It never occurred to me that other places did not have daily mail delivery and pick-up like I do.  I have since learned that in England they deliver twice a day, in Belgium it’s 5 times per week, but in neither of those countries do they have regular home pickup.

For each of us, it’s the way things are done, and we work within the systemic parameters.  Each system has advantages and disadvantages, and I’d love to how the different systems evolved…..

In thinking about this, I realized this was a good example of how different culture have different parameters, and I should not assume everyone else lives in a world like mine.  What is easy for me might be significantly harder for someone else, because of the system in which they live.  I will think about that next time I ask someone else to do something. Is there something in their environment, culture or background that makes this more difficult for them than I think it’s going to be?

Unless you really take the time to understand the other person’s environment, you don’t know what it’s like to be them.  And you may never understand what it’s really like unless you live in it for awhile.  This is why travel and international experience is so valuable – it lets you experience, just for a little while, other ways of doing things.

The flip side of this is what aspects of your life are not fixed by physical laws, but instead by culture, tradition and habit.  Remember, fish don’t know they’re living in water.  It’s just what’s always been around them, and the way things always are.  What is the “water” in your life?  If you open your eyes and look around, can you find new and better ways of doing things, as well as appreciating the differences in the way others do things?

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants. Lisa is a scientific communication consultant and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2007).

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