Nic Tan: Redefining & Reimagining Communities
Nic Tan is a Co-Founder of the Mad Cow Project, a social enterprise built on the concept of the reimagining communities. The journey towards reimagining communities involves travelling in ways that promote the interests of tourists and their hosts, engaging in development work, while working alongside local communities and organisations. A conversation with Nic, reveals how we can build communities in more ways than we know and form connections with others.
C: Reimagining communities is central to the Mad Cow Project. Can you tell me about what that means?
N: It means forming a community for giving back. Through the Mad Cow Project, people form new communities. It is with the people they travelled with or the people they meet overseas. After one trip, we were helping out a community in Sri Lanka improve their livelihood; by helping them find new jobs and learning new skills. For the pioneers who went on the first trip with The Mad Cow Project, their community has grown and the community they visited is now connected with ours. We are learning from them and what they do. We can’t understate that there is a shared learning within and between both groups – our skills, experiences, jobs and livelihoods have also changed. The reimagining of community involves being much more open to what the world is and being cognisant towards the value of international connections.
C: What do you see your world and your community as?
NT: Full of like-minded people and less constrained by geography. It’s amazing how I can be connected to someone completely different in another part of the world, just through a conversation and I might not even meet them. I’ve met people in developing communities and I’ve met NGOs in developing communities who are connected to other people around the world. I have never physically met some of them, yet we have a shared intent. By having conversations focused on where I can contribute and where I can collaborate, suddenly my community has grown. Every conversation and every interaction in my community helps me define where and how I want to spend my time. Everyone’s only got so many hours in a day, but as I meet more people, it pushes me towards what I want to do.
C: Where do you want to spend your time and how?
N: I’ve always really wanted to find my ‘place’ in the world and be at peace. I’ve always had a romantic view of nature and travel. For me, ‘place’ is looking more like a community and less like a physical place and it’s still developing.
C: Is there something you can tell people who are finding their place?
N: Give yourself time and be patient, be kind to yourself because it comes about when you least expect it – it was only through a number of unexpected collisions. Whether positive or negative, you have to interact with many people to work out what’s congruent with you and your values. Then why is emphasised a lot, the how is equally important too.
You might want to play sports professionally but how you did that says a lot more. Do you play by the rules? Do you play outside the boundary of the rules? Do you see yourself as a role model?
It comes back to your values and that’s why finding your place takes a long time. It forces a lot of introspection and that requires headspace, comfort and support. Be patient and find people who support you.
C: What are the values that guide you in your everyday life?
N: Integrity and openness. As best as I can, I like to keep my word. It can be difficult for someone who talks a lot. Sometimes things come out of my mouth without having thought about it and suddenly I am committed to something. I’ve learnt to keep my word but not say so much so that I am overcommitted.
My view of openness is represented by my belief that it’s easier to find people who are like-minded by sharing my values. It can be difficult because it can lead to clashes. Words matter and they can hurt. I know not to be afraid of who I am, as long as I am respectful and can avoid conflict.
C: How do you approach situations where people have competing values?
N: I remind myself that I have had a very different lived experience to the other person and it’s not always easy in the heat of the moment – sometimes you just think you can’t see eye-to-eye and it’s never going to work. Sometimes I need time and distance to getaway. Depending on the relationship with the person and how they are, I need to call out where we have a disagreement and look at where the underlying issues are. I’ve found that most disagreements are about how we want to see things get done or what we are trying to do.
C: Walking away from conflict is a tool which can be used to resolve it. Does distance from conflict have to be physical and emotional distance?
N: Personally, it’s walking away or just ignoring them. The emotional side of things, I haven’t given a lot of thought to the emotional side of it. If honesty is something someone prides themselves on, there is a fine line between too emotional and too honest. When the heat is building, you need the emotional distance – it doesn’t have to be physical because you can change the topic.
C: We have just talked about situations where conflict arises because of competing values. On the other hand, what is your definition of peacefulness?
N: It’s about being content with where I am physically, emotionally, spiritually. In other words, being aligned with – the heart, the head and the gut. That’s not to say you are standing still but you are happy with where you are headed. It’s an overall sense because you can experience peacefulness while things are pretty rocky if you can accept the situation and be ok with what it’s working towards.
At other times you might want to see a certain change in the world and the situation has upset you and caused disconnect from where you are going – you can find peace if you work out how to contribute to an outcome.
C: In the early stages of starting the Mad Cow Project, how did you find peacefulness in moments of confusion?
N: Initially, it was a little random and uncertain. Recruiting people, sharing your ideas and how it is going to work involved searching for answers to their questions and removing doubts for myself. I had to find comfort in the desire for others to find more of themselves in ways outside the workplace. If that didn’t work out, then there would be something else and all those conversations were moving me in that direction.
C: When did you know you were moving in the right direction?
N: The biggest comfort I got was when I was able to have a conversation with someone about the concept and they got it. Early on, I was trying to convince people that the Mad Cow Project was a good idea. I got to the stage where I just put it out there. I would say ‘this is what we are doing and this is why’. I stopped feeling a need to explain it because people were able to grasp it. I was comfortable with what we had created, whether other people agreed or disagreed.
C: So having the confidence to put your idea out there without having to justify it helped you?
C: Why is confidence important when starting a project?
N: Being a confident person is important because there is a lot of uncertainty. Uncertainty is tied to doubt and on the other side of uncertainty, creativity. Creativity and doubt are inherently linked – if I am trying to do anything different and that’s inside of me, I need to find confidence.
I’m not going to be confident all the time and we all get our confidence from different places. If I have some level of confidence and understanding of myself, then I can surround myself with people that give me confidence. Sometimes, I just accept that it’s a difficult period.
C: What is the source of your sense of confidence?
N: Validation of my thoughts and actions from like-minded people gives me some level of confidence. It’s also something inherent. If it was about validation, then people who are detractors would shake my confidence a lot. At my core, my confidence comes from my beliefs and my values. As long as I am giving an honest effort and keeping my word, I can be confident that my pursuit is just and that helps me deal with detractors.
C: Can you explain what a detractor is?
N: A detractor is not a terrible person but someone or some experience that takes away from my confidence. That can be really positive because detractors force some level of thought, whether that be introspection or reworking a business model. A detractor is a cause for pause.
C: When you take a pause, how long is that pause?
N: It really depends on the source and the content of a detractor. Sometimes I can be dismissive and I don’t agree with the facts that a person is basing their argument on. When there is no legitimacy in the argument, I respectfully decline the advice. Other times, it can be something I don’t quite understand at the time. I take the message on board and have to let it sit. I might pause the conversation while carrying on with what I am doing around that. When a detractor shakes my foundations a little, I actively sit down and become introspective about my strategy.
C: Do you ever revisit when you had to pause?
N: I tend to reflect on the positive times more than the negative, sometimes the detractors have been useful in creating positivity and those I file away in the back of my head as life lessons. Next time I come up with something and the next time I try to do something, that lesson is there and I am reminded of it.
C: I love that you are talking about focusing on the positive. How do you stay positive?
N: I have a lot of interactions outside the work I am committed to and they are great channels for me to spend my time. When I work long hours at work, I look forward to what is to come and continue to have conversations. I also look forward to seeing people at work because they give me my energy back.