Move Forward With Openness And Rules To Live By

Sim Phei Sunn, a public officer who completed the Seven Summits (the highest mountain peaks on each of the seven continents), shares the insights from mountain climbing and endurance running that have helped her keep going at work.
Sim Phei Sunn on moving forward with openness and rules to live by.

Sim Phei Sunn

  • Deputy Director, Organisational Development and Change Capabilities, Transformation Office, LTA (2020–current)
  • Principal Consultant, Institute of Leadership and OD, CSC (2014–2020)
  • Deputy Director, Americas, MTI (2013–2014)
  • Deputy Director, Organisational Development, MTI (2010–2013)

Dear Young(er) Officer

I joined the public sector about the time that I picked up mountaineering and ultra-distance running some 20 years ago. In a sense, my sports journey mirrored my professional one and the two are much intertwined.

I started with trekking, which evolved into climbing mountains in different countries. The idea of scaling the Seven Summits then took root. Likewise, I began jogging to lose weight and it eventually became a part of my identity. At the start, I would have never imagined both paths. What insights have I gained from these?  

1. Openness To Find What Sparks Joy

About three years into my mountaineering start, I hit a long dry spell where I questioned whether I should do the sport. I decided to venture into new ones such as triathlons and trail running. In the process, I discovered what I was good at (endurance), what truly sparked joy (mountains and running!), and what I was willing to forgo (swimming and cycling).

Those endurance sports gave me a new fitness base to build upon when I returned to mountaineering, eventually paving the way for me to complete the Seven Summits. More importantly, they reframed my self-limiting thoughts that I was not good enough, to one where I was learning and growing to be a better mountaineer.

The Seven Summits are the highest peaks on each of the seven continents, comprising: Everest, Aconcagua, Denali, Kilimanjaro, Elbrus, Vinson, and Carstensz Pyramid (or Koscuisko). About 700 climbers around the world (and three from Singapore) have completed the Seven Summits.

Over the years, I have worked in policy, operational, and corporate portfolios across the Public Service. The varied exposure affirmed my strengths, clarified what drains me, and gave me a clearer idea of my career interests. For example, I really enjoy connecting dots, translating between people in different domains, and seeing the picture come together. My current transformation portfolios tap these energies, and new things pop up all the time to add colour to the picture.

The Public Service offers so many career options bounded by a common purpose to serve. Do take advantage of your youth and life stage to try out different roles and domains. As you explore and grow, hone the areas that you excel in and enjoy, keep some that you excel in but may not necessarily enjoy, and steer away from those that are neither.

2. Simple Rules To Keep Going

I do a lot of self-talk during my climbs and runs, and have simple rules to keep me going through the insane durations. For instance, when I feel like stopping or giving up, I will do a body scan and ask myself: “Am I in real pain?” I differentiate between objective physical injuries and subjective discomfort in my mind.

Likewise at the workplace, things often get hectic or even chaotic, as we have experienced with COVID-19. When something derails or triggers me, I find it helpful to pause for a time-out and assess whether my reaction was about the situation or about me. When in doubt about how to respond, my simple rules are (a) Here to serve, (b) Uplift others, and (c) Grace under fire, and they steer my next step in novel settings.

Consider deriving your own simple rules to guide your interactions with work and others. They will be helpful anchors when you are faced with new or uncomfortable situations.

Since you opted to be in the Public Service, understand its terrain, crevasses, peaks, and beauty.

3. Accept the System To Move Forward

Mountains are majestic magical places to be in. We see the smallness of us and the grandeur of our dreams all at once.

Early on, I learnt not to go against the mountain but focus on how I can best navigate my paths and options. When I was slow-going, I used to get angry at myself and kick at stones and rocks for blocking my way. When I was hindered by deep snow, I would futilely try to “stomp” my way through. Of course, the mountain always won and all I received were sore feet and abrasive slogs with little progress.

That is not unlike the work scene, where we might angst about “the system” or “them” impeding our paths. In organisation development work, I am reminded to take a system as it is before finding ways to support and intervene.

Instead of wasting energy wishing for how certain things or leaders should be, it is more productive to accept the as-is and inquire for the best ways to harness the system’s strengths and levers to move forward.

Since you opted to be in the Public Service, understand its terrain, crevasses, peaks, and beauty. Then make your informed choices of where to go and how to serve. With humility and conviction, you can chart inspiring stories for yourself and others.

    Mar 23, 2022
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