(This piece was originally published in the Wits Vuvuzela Newspaper)

“After living, working and breathing in Shanghai for 2 months I think I naively started to believe that I was actually a local.  I had gotten lost in the city, conned by a taxi driver, eaten food from a street vendor, mastered (using the term very generously here) the art of eating with chopsticks, and had even been called by a Chinese telemarketer, twice!  I think that’s why I found this situation so amusing.”

While on internship in China, I was sitting in the food court and enjoying my lunch when I spotted a group of foreigners eating a few tables away from me.  One of them in particular caught my attention because he looked like a South African.

Now of course, I have no idea if he was or not – but that is beside the point.

He was really struggling with his chopsticks but he was doing a fantastic job of making sure his futile efforts at grabbing his food were as subtle as possible.  I am quite sure he left about half of the meal in the bowl just to save himself the embarrassment.

I laughed.

One could perhaps forgive him for his lack of ability with the foreign food instruments, but as I watched it was clear that the chopsticks weren't the only thing going awry.  Over the next 10 minutes he burnt his tongue on the soup, he spilt sauce down his tie, his jacket fell off his chair, the strap on his bag got caught under the chair, and I am willing to bet that he wasn’t the best company in the world.

Quite simply, he was a nervous wreck.

It’s amazing what can happen in an unfamiliar situation, we can lose our grip on all the small things that we should have control over.  Even though we were in the middle of China, the only real difference in this situation was the cutlery – it didn’t explain the clumsiness.  However, this rudimentary failure to eat his meal effectively caused everything else to become doubtful as well.  The uncomfortable situation manifested itself in an half-eaten bowl of food.

In uncharted waters, even the small tasks become difficult and that is what makes it so challenging.  The quicker we can acclimatise to our surroundings and ‘feel comfortable in them’, the quicker we can start making meaningful contributions and gain control again.

So sometimes it might be more advantageous to stop pushing forward by “trying harder” and harder because you might just become more clumsy as a result of your increased effort.

Sometimes we should rather consciously work on acclimatising ourselves first, thus improving our efficiency and the quality of work that we can produce.

It’s not enough to just work hard – we need to work smart too.

Oh by the way, that South-African looking guy?

That was me.