Keeping mentally flexible
How can we keep expanding our mind and experience, without diversifying to the point where our most marketable skill suffers?
Ande Schurr chats to freelance arts manager Yee Yang Lee.
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A good freelancer fears complacency. We can probably all relate to jobs where, even for a moment, our attention waned only to find out later, if not immediately, that we had made a mistake costing time, money and possibly hurting our reputation. This tendency towards comfort and ‘switching off’ is simply a human trait and so it is as much a technician’s concern as it is the actors, directors, production person or any service-providing business owners.
The solution is to keep the mind sharp, that is, to keep in mind, as a pilot once told me, the attitude that a little fear is a very healthy thing! The scope of this interview is to look at how we can keep expanding our mind through expanding our experience, without diversifying to the point where our most marketable skill suffers.
To this end, I interview freelance arts manager Yee Yang Lee, or ‘Square’ as he is known for some reason!
In my column How Freelancers Can Succeed, I like to discuss ways in which all freelancers can live in financial comfort so that they can omit any worrying about money and just get on with what they are good at - and appreciated for.
The real focus of this interview is to explore how we might keep that mental flexibility by having a rich diversity of experiences in a way that doesn’t overwhelm the specific skill set that we do very well. Simply put, we want to keep, as Square goes on to mention, our fingers in all the pies yet we don’t want to lose our integrity.
Everyone wants to work with someone who is not just pleasant but pays attention to the job and is flexible in the way they work with the rest of the team. Indeed the best calling card we have for a financially independent future is to have that kind of ‘attentive flexibility’ and, let’s not forget, also someone who markets themselves just enough so that they keep in the minds of their clients, but not so much that they become a nuisance.
Those who fail to observe these guidelines can suffer a lack of business. For example, the problem I’ve found with many service people in the construction industry is that they come with fixed ideas about how they will go about the job. They are not really listening to my needs, that is, considering the budget properly or giving me options. There is no flexibility. Not only that, they are often slack at returning quotes which is not being attentive to my needs as the potential client.
With respect to the conscientious service people out there in construction, I think the only problem is one of being too comfortable. They have done the same kinds of jobs for too long, and do not feel the need to be extra diligent in their handling of the people and task at hand. This same problem is also our inheritance unless we keep mentally flexible so, with this in mind, let’s learn about Square and hear his perspective.
Square why did you come to New Zealand from Malaysia?
I arrived in New Zealand in August 2005 having finished my degree, undergraduate degree in law. I was offered an opportunity to go back to my home country, Malaysia, to work as junior consultant in an intellectual property consultancy. But the living wage and salary was just not attractive enough, it was the equivalent of around 600-650 dollars a month New Zealand dollars. And I didn't necessarily feel that having invested, you know a significant amount of money in my education overseas, it just didn't feel right. So I was fortunate that my family had already obtained permanent residency in New Zealand by then, and I'd fulfilled my requirements as well, so I was able to come here and work.
Do you think it’s something that a person decides as a freelancer to be either a specialist or be a generalist?
I think it’s important you do decide, but there may not be a choice at the beginning. So in my case for example, I never had a choice to begin with. So if I had started up as a freelancer last year and just decided to do arts management, I wouldn't have survived the year. So for me it was a case of necessity that drove me to expand my horizons and just really spread my fingers into different pies.
I think that’s a comment that many actors relate to. They will be the producer of a theatrical production, read voice overs for TV commercials, write a kids book and so on, effectively getting their hands into many different pies out of necessity and yet when I question them about it, it never seems to be like they regret it; clearly they enjoy the multi-spoked wheel of their career.
Yes. I'm definitely like that. I need the variation. I need to have different elements in my work life to keep me driven and interested, and creative. So, as much as I said that I didn't necessarily choose whether to specialise or not, I guess I've accepted the fact that it is what it is, and I'm really enjoying it. But the reason why I said at some point you have to decide is because just like any business, if you're moving and growing a business into the next phase, you have to make some decisions. So likewise as a freelancer if I want to grow my business and my career further, I have to at some point decide whether or not I need to drop one or two jobs in favour of something that’s stronger.
You write about effective efficient governance in organisations, so how does a freelancer, which in themselves is a mini organisation, make themselves more effective and efficient?
That’s a really good question. I guess, if you look at efficiency on an individual level it’s potentially quite different from an organisational level. The dynamics are different simply by virtue of the fact that you are your own person. So for me, in terms of efficiency on an individual basis, it’s probably got more to do with your personal characteristics, and personal attributes. Quite often we are bogged down by the amount of work that we’ve got to do, and so we need to have personal discipline to recognise which are the important and urgent tasks, as opposed to the important but not so urgent.
My interest in governance is how to apply principles of good governance and efficiency to help boards improve the quality of what they do. So fundamentally the purpose of being a board member in any organisation, whether for profit or not for profit, is to govern, is to ensure that the ship has a direction to go towards. You know it’s management that steers the ship, but it is board, with management, that helps set the direction. And ultimately effective governance is about how a board moves towards this goal as efficiently as possible.
Yeah they are the guardians of, I guess the vision, and the mission, and the strategy, overall strategies of the business, whatever that business might be. And, you know the same, similar principles, not necessarily identical, but similar principles apply whether you're talking about commercial business, or a not for profit, or an arts company, you know which in itself could be either for profit or otherwise. So my interest with effective governance has to do with organisational dynamics, and a lot of it comes from my experience as a company secretary working with different boards.
I've had the fortune of serving quite a number of very diverse boards across several sectors. And what I notice is ultimately the businesses might be different, the values of the business might be different, both financially and also philosophically but when you strip it down to the basics it is simple logic. You know it is about making sure you don't do anything wrong and about making sure you do something right and you do it in the best way you can.
Am I correct in that you describe effectiveness as doing the right thing, and efficiency as doing things right?
Yes that’s right. And, you know the sweet spot is when you get both of them together and if you've managed that, to crack that secret, then, you know you're away. But quite often you're either in that camp or the other camp and struggling to bring them closer together.
Here’s a philosophical question for you, do you think we fall into our professions because of upbringing, conditions, training and family more so than choosing because of progressive influences? Like we have a firm goal that has nothing really to do with our past?
Yes. I think it will by necessity differ from person to person. I think neither are wrong. Take myself for example, I'm a hybrid of both scenarios because as a child, at the age of 12, 13 I knew that I wanted to be a lawyer, or so I thought. And, you know everything I did in school was working towards it, for example joining the Literary and Debating Society to improve my public speaking skills, or to increase my ability to have discussions or negotiations. It sounds very technical now, but at the time I certainly wasn’t thinking about it that way. But I made some choices, I guess, throughout my high school years and college that led me towards a legal profession.
It was not until my second year of my three year law degree that I realised towards the end of that second year, that I realised, in fact I didn't necessarily have the right, I guess philosophical constitution for, for the profession. I fundamentally had some ethical issues with the profession. And so the penny dropped and I realised I probably wouldn't practice law. I realised from a very early age that I certainly wouldn't practice criminal law for example because I just wouldn't sleep ever, you know. So the reason I say I'm a hybrid is having had that set goal as a child and growing into my teens, and then realising that, actually, I need a change in direction. And I then started to look at all the different things that I could potentially get into. But the one thing I did growing up was I didn't limit my scope, and I suppose the decision to pick a law undergraduate degree was also in recognition of that; that a law degree offers you a very wide diverse sort of base of transferable skills. And in fact I remember vividly that the career counsellors at Cardiff University said to a bunch of us that 60 percent of the students enrolled in the Law School wouldn't become lawyers. And rightly so.
I mean when I started my first job here at the cafe, the manager had been in the hospitality industry for over 10 years. He’d done the Hilton’s and the top end hotels and everything. And decided to manage a little cafe, and then six months down the line he came up to me one day and said, hey you know what, you tell me a little bit more about yourself and your experience in having a law career. So he’s now put himself through law school at Victoria University and is now a successful practicing lawyer in Australia. And he started his legal career at the age of 32, you know, and it just goes to prove that you have a choice. As long as you are aware that you have some capabilities and you want to expand, and you have the drive to expand on it, to broaden your intellectual and also, I guess vocational horizon, then there’s nothing stopping you but yourself really.
That’s very interesting isn’t it, because on the one hand as a freelancer, if you're not doing well and you're not getting much work, well then there’s every reason in the world to change your vocation, go and train, do something else but on the other end of the spectrum if you are doing well and you have a good comfort in your profession then you have the luxury of thinking again of what you might do, or how to extend your current work. Either extreme seems ripe for change so I guess the challenge is to obviously reach a good level, a very good level of business and competency as a freelancer, so we too have that luxury to keep choosing our future.
I think no matter what we choose to do we have to at least make an attempt to master what we do. I'm still on that journey. Knowing how to do something is different from mastering it. For example having worked as a company secretary for five to six years now, I know my subject matter, I know my area of expertise fairly well. I practice it, I'm very used to it and comfortable in doing so, and then a month and a half ago I attended this seminar led by a gentleman by the name of Kevin McCaffrey, who interestingly enough runs a consultancy firm called Effective Governance. So I sauntered up and sat down, and just wanted to hear what he had to say, and what really impressed me was the fact that he knew his area so well that he was able to distil it and express it in such a concise clear way.
We know the same things, but I don't think I would be able to express it as eloquently as he does, and I think it speaks to his years of experience and the fact that he’s dedicated himself to this particular area of work and really gone and become a true master in that field.
An experienced producer once said to me that by the time I'm 40 - and I'm 31 now - I'll be getting very bored and it’ll no longer be fun to wake up and do what I do as a sound recordist for film and TV. I take that as a challenge. I take it with sort of some sincerity, because I certainly do not want that to happen. I'd be very disappointed if that happened. So what do you think, as someone who lives a diverse life as a freelancer, what is the secret for a technician, for a technically orientated person to keep very fresh?
Since we’re in New Zealand let’s take a rugby analogy. The way I see it, being a technician is no different from being a rugby player. A rugby player excels because he or she is technically proficient, not just proficient, but technically masterful. Couple that with team dynamics, intelligence, and brawn, and everything else, that’s what makes it special. If you think about the life cycle of a rugby player, you start off in the little leagues and hopefully one day you make the All Blacks. But then what next? It’s similar to what you were saying, you know, as a sound technician, you know when you're 40 you could almost think of it as the sunset of your career because you've done so many of it and been so expert at it. But there’s always the next phase, so for example a retiring rugby, an All Black might decide to be a coach, or to work in the field, but from a different perspective.
And I think there are always pathways for growth, I think being good at what you do doesn’t mean that once you get there, there’s nowhere to go. I think it’s when you get there then opportunities open up for you to go “actually there’s a particular niche I could go into here”, or “I could teach”, or “I could help develop a new generation of people who could excel at this field like I have”, for example. So I don't know if I necessarily agree with, the person that made the comment to you that, you know once you're 40 and you sort of wake up in the morning and get bored with it. I mean if you get bored with it then I think it’s incumbent upon yourself to make it a point to find the next challenge within that, or related to that. You don't just throw away a lifetime of skills and so it really comes back to my law degree, most of the work I do, whether it’s producing or managing, it’s not one particular field that I've learnt. It’s a culmination of the different skills I picked up along the way, research skills as a student in law negotiation skills and other skills derived from a legal qualification. I think people often forget that when you study it’s not necessarily just studying about what it is, but learning about how it became what it is and why it needs to be what it is. And how can it be better, or different, you know and so it’s education, for me it’s much more holistic than reading a book and mugging the material. That’s not it, that’s not education.
I really like what you said; it is incumbent upon us if there is even a trace of boredom, or hesitation in what we do. If we start to complain about our work then that is the time we have to move not to a new career, but to another, like you say, another kind of level.
Obviously, you know with the rugby player the body can only take so much grief before you have to move onto something else. But I guess in our industry, in the media and the creative arts industry it’s all about scope; a short film into a feature film, into an international block buster, or in your case management, managing a few people upwards to hundreds and thousands of people. So I guess if we are genuine about growing would you say that there should never be a complaint with our work?
Well I think actually complaining about work is a healthy thing to be honest. For instance when I find something that I cannot do it frustrates the heck out of me but at the same time it excites me, because I know it’s a challenge. And then I can decide either to apply myself and try and crack the nut, or to find a way around it somehow. Or to work with someone who has the skill set, collaborate to get through that hurdle. In terms of what you were saying earlier I would hope that personally by the time I hit 60 or 64 I would have gotten bored with what I do in the different fields that I do many, many times. Because hopefully it would mean that I would have found a way to take that as a new challenge to then recreate myself, or to refocus and re purpose and reapply myself to something related, or something different. So I don't think you ever stop growing, and I think it’s sad if you - and this relates to complacency I think - become fully content with yourself. Then you kind of go let’s just carry on as it is, there’s no need to get to the next level.
Yet is there anything wrong with being content, keeping it simple and just doing a damned good job?
Absolutely nothing wrong. If you find yourself in a position like that then all the power to you because, you know you've probably achieved what a lot of us struggle every day to. At the back of my mind I kind of know when that stage is for me. If I get to a stage where I am financially secure and in a position to be able to re channel some of my wealth towards philanthropy, or governance then I think that would be a stage where I would be fairly content. Knowing that I've taken my own career to a level where I can then make a significant contribution to another’s career.
Yeah it’s about having that financial pin cushion so to speak isn’t it?
Yes and you know I don't mean to sound monetarily focused, but that is the reality of what it is. I wouldn't be in a position of some small scale philanthropy, you know supporting some arts projects, if I were not relatively financially stable.
That’s right, and I guess at the level of a freelancer in the film industry even supporting some film school students for a day or two with equipment, or with labour for a bottle of wine is in a way an act of philanthropy.
You know that’s an excellent point because, you know it is not all about money, a lot of it is about money, but it’s not all about money. I mean the way I think about it is, you know I charge an hourly rate for the services I provide. If I'm not able to financially support a person in his or her career I could at the very least consider taking, you know a few hours of my time to share what I know. I think sharing is such a key thing because we, in the creative industries in New Zealand in particular, are too insular an industry to not share.
I don't believe that any one person in the industry has the ability to make significant paradigm shifts within the industry. Some might disagree I suppose, but I think, what we need to do is to be able to engender this spirit of sharing and collaborating. You know to, I guess spark a movement where we can all move towards that new paradigm. Because, you know it is the only way that we can all progress to the next space, you know. For example in the theatre, in the theatre industry here we can think about the many different arts companies and arts groups as competitors, but really we probably shouldn't. If we think about them as collaborators, you think about sharing audiences, think about how we can leverage each others abilities and skills. I think we would be very much all the better for it, so yeah.
It’s a fine point, I mean yes, you're right, we cannot excuse the reality of business, that business is money, but to live with a sort of a bitterness that we have so many competitors at whatever level is I think definitely a mistake and to at least find commonalities and advantages of having people so close to us who do our skills.
Yes. There are always opportunities, you know. If you, if you have a roadblock, you know something is troubling you or challenging you, in itself that is an opportunity. That’s an opportunity for closer work, for you to, you know cross that hurdle and get into the next stage, you know grow. So I truly believe in that, so you can probably accuse me of having a glass half full perspective. But, you know I think having that sort of slightly positive view is important, somebody said to me once that in our industry at the end of the day the most important thing that we need to make sure we have intact is our sense of humour. I think that is very true, I think that without a sense of humour we probably wouldn't survive the day to day tribulations of what we do. But I think ultimately it’s also integrity, I think, and by that I mean integrity in its many facets.
You know it could mean so many different things to so many people, but I think at the heart of it, you know having your integrity means that you know what you want, and you know what you want to achieve. And just be mindful that from time to time that changes, it’s like reading a book again 5 years down the line. You probably get something different out of it and, you know I think constantly checking in with yourself, taking a bit of time to go am I doing what I want to do, am I doing what I need to do? How can I do it better? Asking those questions every now and then will probably serve you good.
Well on that note Square we’ll leave it there, thank you very much for your time, and helping us understand how a freelancer can expand their mindset while still providing a very specialised service.
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Related Member Profile: Yee Yang 'Square' Lee