Pushing past your comfort zone in your public health career with James Flint

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Show Notes

You’ve probably heard of the saying “growth and change lies outside of your comfort zone”, and this is true for our careers too. To advance in our careers, we need to do things that we are not comfortable with, whether that’s standing up and presenting at a large meeting, saying yes to a project that scares us, or perhaps even pushing a little bit more than usual, and relocating to a new city or even country for a public health experience you wouldn’t have otherwise gotten.

On this episode of PH SPOTlight, Sujani sits down with one of her mentors and someone who has pushed her to continuously push past her comfort zone, James Flint. James has worked in public health at the international, national and local levels with several governmental and non-governmental organizations around the world. We talk to James about pushing past our comfort zones and we hear about some of the decisions he has made to do so, from turning down permanent job offers to moving his family across the world, all of which have been driven by his “why question for his life”. As someone who is passionate about social justice, he really wanted to craft a career where it gave him opportunities to help other people…and that’s the reason he’s constantly pushing past his comfort zone.

James has constantly been an inspiration for Sujani’s public health career, and she hopes to bring that inspiration to you as well! We hope that this conversation with James leaves you inspired to think about how you too can push past your comfort zone in your public health career so that you can keep growing and serving.

You’ll Learn

  • How James is constantly thinking about pushing past his comfort zone, and doing things differently.
  • That you don’t need to make drastic changes or decisions to push past your comfort zone.
  • How his “why” drives his life and career choices.
  • Two examples of how James pushed past his comfort zone and what he was thinking during both of these times:
    • Why James turned down a permanent and safe job the day before he was supposed to start so that he could take on a temporary post that offered more scope for international work.
    • Why James decided to try out the STOP Polio mission even though he didn’t know anything about polio or the country he was going to be based in.
  • Why someone might be reluctant to push the boundary on their career, get out of their comfort zone and really challenge themselves.
  • That everyone feels incompetent from time-to-time, and that it’s common to have those feelings.
  • As a manager, James’s approach to hiring.
  • About some of the work he is doing in Australia (and his work with the WHO). (Stick around to the very end to listen to this part.)

Today’s Guest

James Flint

James Flint has a Masters degree in Public Health from the University of Adelaide in South Australia and has worked in public health at the international, national and local level with several governmental and non-governmental organizations. He has worked on infectious disease surveillance and outbreak response activities with WHO and PAHO, including post-disaster surveillance and response activities in Asia and the Caribbean. James currently works with Hunter New England Health in NSW Australia, and leads a team supporting the development of Field Epidemiology Training Programs in the Pacific. James is also the founder of an international charity working in Africa, Asia and the Pacific.


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Episode Transcript

James 0:00
There’s a great quote I used to have up on the wall at work it was, “You cannot discover new oceans unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.” And I kind of ran that quote through my head on many occasions when making these tough decisions. It’s just “Okay, let’s just do it.” If you want something different, you just got to take a step, take a leap of faith and and go for it.

Sujani 0:26
Welcome to PH SPOTlight, a community for you to build your public health career with. Join Us Weekly right here. And I’ll be here too, your host Sujani Siva from PH SPOT.

Hey, what’s up everyone, thank you for joining me today on another episode of PH SPOTlight, a space for you and me and everyone else in public health to share our stories and inspire each other. My name is Sujani Siva, the host of PH SPOTlight, and I’m here to help you build your public health career. So you’ve probably heard of the saying growth lies outside of your comfort zone. Or another version of that is change lies outside of your comfort zone. And I believe that this is true for our careers too. To advance in our careers, we need to do things that we aren’t comfortable with at times, whether that’s standing up and presenting at a large meeting. Perhaps it’s saying yes to a project that scares you. Or maybe it’s even pushing a little bit more than usual and relocating to a new city or even a country for a public health experience you wouldn’t have otherwise gotten. Today, I am so excited because you’re going to hear from James Flint, a mentor of mine and someone I look up to. James, who was trained in Public Health at the University of Adelaide in South Australia has worked in public health at the international, national, and local levels with several governmental and non-governmental organizations. He’s worked on infectious disease surveillance and outbreak response activities with the WHO and PAHO, including post disaster surveillance and response activities in Asia and the Caribbean. As you can see, he’s done a lot of work around the world and has so many experiences that leaves me inspired every time I speak to him. He’s currently now located at Hunter New England health, which is in New South Wales, Australia. And he leads a teen supporting the development of field epidemiology training programs in the Pacific. James is also the founder of an international charity working in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. So I think it’s an understatement when I tell you that he is just such an inspirational individual. And you’ll hear me right off the bat spilling to him about what he means to me. James has been someone in my life who has constantly inspired me, both on a personal level and for my public health career. And I wanted to bring him on this podcast to do the same for you. And so in this conversation, we talk about pushing past our comfort zones, and we hear about some of the decisions that he has had to make to do so from turning down permanent job offers to moving his family across the world, all of which have been driven by his why question for his life. As someone who’s passionate about social justice, he really wanted to craft a career where it gave him opportunities to help other people. And that’s the reason he’s constantly pushing past his comfort zone. So I hope my conversation with James today leaves you inspired to think about how you too can push past your comfort zone in your public health career so that you can keep growing and serving. So without further ado, here’s my conversation with James.

So James, you know, I think I’ve told you this many times, and you are one of the very few people I think in my life who constantly tells me to take the path less traveled. And I think you- You’ve not only challenged my way of thinking for the sake of you know, just saying we need to think outside of the box, I think you’re someone who actually walks the talk. And you’ve pushed me to think about you know, other opportunities you’ve gone as far as sending me endless opportunities to move across the world sometimes and you’ve connected me with people in different countries, you know, from the Congo to Australia to Fiji. So when I think about someone who constantly pushes past their comfort zone in their in their own career, and then also goes to helping others do the same year sort of on the top of my list. And that’s the reason I wanted to bring you on as one of the very first guests of this podcast because I think as public health professionals, we constantly need to push past our comfort zones because not only does growth sort of lie outside that comfort zone, good work also lies outside of our comfort zone. And so just to be clear, you know, pushing past your comfort zone doesn’t have to be you relocating across the world or spending a few weeks on a remote island solving a mystery serious outbreak both of which you have done. But it could be just asking the question that no one wants to ask at the table that challenges the way of thinking, for example. So the first question I have for you to get us started is, how are you like this? So how are you constantly thinking about pushing past your comfort zone over and over again? And then you’re just always looking for ways to do things, doing things differently?

James 5:28
Yeah, well, thanks, Sujani. That’s very kind words you said. I think yeah, I think it’s just part of my personality is just like, I like to be challenged at times. And you’re exactly right, it doesn’t have to be a challenge that results in a massive upheaval of your life. I remember one of the kind of the first challenges I guess, pushing myself outside my comfort zone was when I was finishing off university, my undergraduate and we had to do a research project. And we had a whole list of different research projects to choose from. And there was one that I had no idea what it meant whatsoever. And that’s what I chose, I just remember thinking, yeah, just do something a little bit different. Try something a bit different, challenge yourself. And it turned out to be fantastic and out of bounds, you know, over and over again, it’s those really challenging decisions that you have to take, which ultimately end up being the ones which are most rewarding, and most meaningful. So it gives a little bit of confidence going forward, just to have faith and have confidence that these tough decisions that you make the unsettling ones, the ones that do push you out of your comfort zone, typically nearly always turn out to be the most rewarding ones, and the ones which will really kind of changed your career path. And those pivotal moments, I guess, which nearly always turned out to be so rewarding.

Sujani 7:03
Why do you think that’s, you know, you’ve been in many different working environments, why do you think someone would be reluctant to push sort of their boundaries on their career, you know, someone who deep down, they want to take that challenge and step out of their comfort zone, but something is stopping them? How do you think they can sort of practice getting out of their comfort zone?

James 7:30
Yeah, yeah, it’s a good point. And it’s not easy at times, especially big decisions that require, you know, upheavals, changes in your life, it’s really that stepping out into the unknown, which I think is the most fearful thing for everyone is just that the fear of the unknown, it is kind of nice to be safe and secure. And, and for some people, that’s, that’s great, they found what they’re really looking for in a safe, secure environment, and they’re very content with that. But other people, you know, looking for something a little bit different, or something more, and they’re looking for that challenge, or looking for a more meaningful way to contribute, and they need to step out. And it’s, it’s really, really difficult. And, you know, there’s multiple times I’ve really question myself, what on earth have I done, but you just got to keep pushing through. And once you’ve done it a couple of times, and kind of seen that it does work out. And it always works out typically for the good for the best, will give you more confidence to perhaps take bigger risks in the future. And there’s a great quote I used to have up on the wall at work it was, “You cannot discover new oceans unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.” And I kind of ran that quote through my head on many occasions when making these tough decisions. It’s just, “Okay, let’s just do it.” If you want something different, you just got to take a step, take a leap of faith and and go for it.

Sujani 9:03
I think I’ve- I was reading some of the examples you had provided in that blog post you wrote for us two years ago, “Thinking outside of the box”. And there were some examples where I went, what were you thinking? So maybe I’m talking- maybe we can talk about two of those that I pulled out just to help people sort of consider the- the questions that you may be asked yourself when you are making those decisions. And I think one of the first ones that I really wanted to ask you about was you said that you turned down a permanent and safe job one, one day before you were supposed to start so that you could take a temporary post that offered more scope for international work? I think rarely would someone consider even doing that. So like what was going through your mind and so what made you ultimately say “Okay, I’m I’m gonna turn this down.”?

James 9:57
Yeah, yeah, I’ve done that. Twice. Now actually. The first time, it was extremely difficult because I felt really bad for obviously the person that hired me and the day I was supposed to start, I had to phone them and say, “Look, I’m, I’m not going to take the job, I have another opportunity.” And it was a very difficult kind of phone call to have to make. But-

Sujani 10:27
Was this a job right outside right after you had graduated? Or was this-

James 10:32
It was actually. It was- it was a job. Just after I’d moved to Canada and my first job in Canada I had lined up. So yeah, it was- it was a good position, it was a permanent position. And, yeah, someone else had contacted me, just a few days before I was supposed to start and wanted to put me on as a short term contractor at an agency, which I felt was definitely much more in line with what I wanted to do longer term. And ultimately, that’s what it boiled down to, it’s just looking at that bigger picture. And, you know, it is your your life, your career that you’re embarking on. And, you know, there may be some short term disappointments from different individuals that maybe difficult choice personally at the time, but in the long run, it was so the right decision to make looking back in retrospect, it, it opened up so many opportunities and so many doors, and it turned into a permanent position in in the long run. And it was just absolutely the right decision. But it was, it was a tough one. And I had to do it again, when I, I left that permanent, safe position that I had had got with all the, you know, with all the hooks in you to keep you there with you know, benefits and retirement and all that stuff is difficult to- to leave all that behind. But I did it again to take a temporary job in a- in a different country that- that time. And in retrospect, it was totally the right thing to do again, like it was absolutely the right thing. But it’s a really, really tough decision at the time to make.

Sujani 12:15
Do you- do you just have sort of this one big goal that you’re working toward that you sort of choose your opportunities based on that one big vision? Or how do you go about that, because, you know, I know, for myself, when I was graduating, I was sort of just wanting that ideal job, if it was permanent, it’s perfect, because you’re just so scared when you’re graduating because you worked all these years to now, you know, get into sort of a safe job, at least that’s what my mindset was? What sort of advice would you give someone who’s starting off in their career? And you’ve mentioned, you know, the, the permanent job didn’t align as well as the temporary job did with sort of your bigger vision for what you wanted to do in your career? Can you kind of share with us how you went about deciding what that, you know, big goal was for you?

James 13:12
Yeah, that’s a really, really great question Sujani, it’s, for me, I don’t really have like a vision of what my career should look like, I just have a really clear why question for my life. And for me, it’s probably partly my upbringing and the opportunities I had as a kid growing up and being taken to different- number of different countries around the world. But I’m just really passionate about social justice and, and I really wanted to kind of craft a career opportunities around doing something to help other people. And for me, it was it was really focusing on- on people in low to middle income countries and sharing expertise and skills and kind of empowering and partnering with them to do development working in health or other or other aspects. That’s was my big why in my life, the reason kind of that got me excited, and what I love doing more than anything, and it was just trying to figure out a job which could allow scope and opportunity to do that. And at public health was a great, a great choice. But it got to the point in one of one of my jobs where it was just not fulfilling that at all. And you know, it was- it was really difficult as we’re talking about earlier to, to make a big decision to leave a permanent job to move family to the other side of the world and start all over with people you didn’t know and a job that wasn’t even permanent. But I vividly remember being quite unhappy with- with the job I was in and it’s just mundane, it wasn’t fulfilling this passion of desire that I had. And I just remember, one day, I was actually riding my bike to work in the winter. And just having this thought, you know, I just cannot do this for another decade, or whatever it was gonna be, or more until, you know, I retired, it was just this moment where I thought, “Ah, it’s, there’s no way I can just keep doing this. So, you know, let’s just take that risk, make that decision.” And, and again, in retrospect, it’s turned out to be just really, really great decision and have a position now where I can really contribute in a way which is much more aligned to my, you know, deep passions and interests.

Sujani 15:41
I think, yeah, like, figuring out your why really helps in so many different aspects of your life, not only your career, and if you can, sort of anchor that why down, I think when you’re when you’re- when you’re stuck in those kinds of situations where you’re thinking, “Can I do this for the rest of my life?”, that “why” really saves you, we’re going to have to get you back on to talk about that a little bit more about how we can sort of, you know, figure out what our “why” is and how to align that with our careers. So thank you so much for sharing that. And I think the second sort of example you had provided in that blog post, and you sort of alluded to this a little bit in one of your examples. It was around your stop mission with the WHO, I think you had said that when you accepted the stop mission with WHO you didn’t know anything about polio, or the country you are going to be based in. And I think, you know, this example is, I think anyone would be scared to sort of move across the world to work on a topic that they don’t know about. But something that’s sort of common is when someone comes across a job posting, and they think, you know, I don’t know anything about this. I don’t even know how I could do this job. I don’t meet 100% of the qualifications, should I even apply? Or maybe it’s a new project at work, you just don’t volunteer yourself because you don’t know anything about this. So I’m thinking, how did you go about making that decision to say, “Okay, let me give polio a shot in this country. I’ve never been to.” What’s that? What did that decision look like for you?

James 17:22
Yeah, absolutely. That was very early on in, in my career. And, yeah, again, definitely aligned with that, that why this was really what I wanted to do. And it was really clear that this sort of opportunity was- was a right fit for me. So that was really the driving force. But you’re exactly right, I felt really inadequate, totally, under qualified to do something like that. I didn’t know anything about polio, I didn’t know anything about Kenya, the place I was being posted to. I was very, very green. But when we went for the training at the CDC, before we got deployed, I was relieved that everyone was in the same boat. Like, and I think that was a really powerful lesson for me that nearly- nearly everyone feels like this, a lot of the time, they just feel nervous when they’re going into new different opportunities. And they, they feel really insecure, inadequate, but- But everyone’s in the same boat. And, and when you with other people that, you know, just like you, you can relax and feel comfortable. And you know, it didn’t take a lot to get up to speed. And when you were in the field, it, it was- it was great. Like if you were more than equipped before you’re headed into the field, you felt really comfortable going in there and kind of drawing on all your- your training any epi skills and just applying it in a slightly different context. But it’s common to have those feelings of like, you’re a bit of a fraud at times, and I just liked the phrase, you know, just fake it until you make it.

Sujani 19:02
Oh, that’s very true. So you’ve been in like, as a manager in many different organizations. And when you’re typically I guess, preparing a job posting, do you expect someone to be perfect in that role? I think for some of our listeners, who are, you know, very new into in the field of public health are just about to graduate, and they’re kind of looking at a job posting and thinking, you know, there’s no way I could qualify for this. What would you say around that?

James 19:34
Yeah, you have hired a lot of people and I mean, everyone’s slightly different in in the approach they take to hiring somebody, but certainly, from my perspective, and I think perspective of quite a few of managers that have sat on the panels with me is where, you know, experience is important and technical. expertise is important and you know, a demonstration of you know, ability to learn and, etc is important. But even more important, on top of all those things is really kind of the person’s attitude and approach and willingness to learn and ability to be part of a team as a productive player. And I think we’ve probably all experienced being in, in a career or working somewhere with with really highly technically competent individuals who are just awful to work with. And just really disruptive, it affects the dynamic of the team, it has a massive impact on productivity, it’s so technical competencies is important, but it’s certainly not more important to note, in my mind anyway, over a person’s attitude and approach and outlook and willingness to engage as a team and, and share opportunities and responsibilities with their colleagues.

Sujani 21:04
Absolutely, yeah, I think if people can sort of look beyond just the job posting and see how some of their experiences and other skills are transferable and sort of get their foot in the door, get that interview, they can really shine to show sort of their true self there. So you’re currently doing amazing work, you’re doing work that sort of aligns with your why and you’re extremely happy. And so in a, when you’re in that kind of a place with your career, how do you sort of keep pushing past your comfort zone and not get too comfortable with what you’re sort of liking to do? And what you’re good at? How do you keep yourself sort of challenged?

James 21:50
Yeah, it’s, um, I don’t tend to have a problem with looking for opportunities and trying different things, I’m actually- my managers are constantly writing me back into stay focused, is more of my problem, I think. But yeah, I just, I just love to look out for opportunities, and very much a kind of an ideas for the person and I love connecting with people who, you know, think in a similar way to you, and when you make those connections, and together, you can just generate endless amount of ideas and opportunities. And, and, and then, you know, pull some of those good ones together and, and find the resources to make them happen. And I think once you have, you know, have some energy behind it, and you’ve demonstrated some good work in the past, I think the opportunities to do things will just be there. And we’ve found that over the past several years with our work out in the Pacific, it’s started off, you know, in a small way, and it’s just grown and grown. And we have a really kind of enthusiastic group of people now who are really engaged in the activities, and we’ve been able to kind of attract quite a bit of funding to support the activities as well. And it’s just, there’s just no end to different avenues, I’d love to take and explore, and develop and some of them will, will feel so into nothing others will kind of develop into something. But it’s, I think it’s just yeah, it’s just having those great people to, to be around and to work with and, and to, you know, get the hard work done and to slug it all out. But don’t lose those opportunities to, to brainstorm and think creatively and, and be innovative in what you do. And really question you know, the approach that you’re taking, are there better ways to do it, and just keep pushing for, you know, delivering impactful results and exploring different ways to do that, I think is, is what keeps things really interesting and creative for me, anyway.

Sujani 24:11
Yeah. I think the people that you surround yourself with is so important, I think, even if they don’t, they’re not within your immediate workplace, I think I would recommend people to, you know, go out to networking events, or just find people that sort of think, think about pushing their comfort zones and wanting to do innovative things, and just really surrounding yourself with those kinds of people because you know, you ask those right questions, and that you can take that back to your workplace, inspire others at work, I think, if you if you sort of just settle and say, you know, this place isn’t going to change, I think you’re not going to be able to find opportunities, and you really have to be the person who’s going to change that environment if it’s difficult at your current work. And I know you did that. For me constantly, and I think that’s why I just love keeping in touch with you, because you’re that one person I go to, and I need to hear that advice that no one else is giving me. So thank you so much for that James, I think over the past five or six years, you’ve been that one person for me.

James 25:19
Oh, thank you. And likewise, for me, Sujani, your, your work is inspirational. And it’s always lovely to connect with, yeah, people like yourself to re-motivate and reinvigorate your activities. Because, you know, sometimes it can be difficult, and you can even lose steam and you just get exhausted. And- but you can draw a lot of energy from people who are creative, and the big picture thinkers as well. And, and recognizing that we need a diverse bunch of people on our teams, we need that good administrators. And as well, if everyone’s just blue sky thinkers, it’s not a lot, it’s got to actually translate into practical action. But it is great to be able to connect with those people as you suggest.

Sujani 26:06
I hope you enjoyed that episode with James about pushing past our comfort zones when it comes to our public health career. And as I mentioned, at the beginning of this episode, I truly believe that growth lies outside of our comfort zone. And the more we can practice it, the better we’ll get at it. So I hope this conversation serves as an inspiration for you the next time you’re faced with the decision, and that you’ll be reminded of James and some of the things that he shared with us today. And if you stick around till the end of this episode, you will hear from James again, because I asked him a bit more about the work that he’s been doing that he mentioned in this episode. So if you’re intrigued or interested in hearing more to stick around till the very end. And if you want to get any of the links or information mentioned in today’s episode, you can head over to pHspot.ca/podcast. And we’ll have everything there for you. And until next time, thank you so much for tuning into PH SPOTlight and for the invaluable work that you do.

On that topic of inspiration, I’d like to give our listeners an opportunity to sort of hear the amazing work you’re doing. So I’m wondering if you’re able to share some of the work that you’re doing in the Pacific right now?

James 27:20
Yeah, sure. So we will be working in the Papua New Guinea mainly for the past seven years, supporting their intermediate field epidemiology training program. And it is slightly unique model. And in that it, it kind of covers off what you would expect in a field epi training program, or the core competencies around disease surveillance and outbreak response and data management and analysis. But it is slightly different in the fact that there’s an operational research component to the work in the field as well as an intervention component. So the fellows go into the field on two occasions, the first time, they will do a kind of a more operational research study, though, collect information around a health challenge that they’re facing in their workplace or health system challenge that they are experiencing, they’ll collect data and really analyze and understand the issues. And then they’ll build evidence-based intervention around that and go back into the field and actually do something and then monitor and evaluate the impact of what they’re doing. And it’s just been really inspirational to see the projects that the fellows or the students are doing in their workplaces, the impact that they’re having in their communities, and just seeing their excitement as they come back and present to us what they’ve done from the very getgo they’ve designed, they’ve chosen the topic of collecting the data around it, that they’ve designed the intervention to address some of those challenges. And then they kind of have presented what they’ve done and the impacts that they’ve had. And I think that’s just so motivating for them personally to- to understand that they can do these projects, or they can make a big impact in their communities. And then they go on to continue to do these sorts of projects and interventions to improve health systems and the delivery of health services. So it’s a really, really exciting model of training. It’s not just sitting in a lecture, and having a bunch of PowerPoint presentations. It’s really, really applied and practical is most filled epi training programs are and is doing something really tangible and practical with- with the tools that they’re learning. And so kind of building off of that with we’ve just started in advanced programming Papua New Guinea this year, which takes some of the best graduates of the intermediate program and puts them through a similar training program just over a longer period. And this time they work in in teams rather than individuals to tackle kind of priority health issues that have been identified through a kind of a stakeholder prioritization exercise in the country. So it’s an exciting approach because it’s very much driven by the country. They own the program. The Ministry of Health owns the program. They provide the key faculty members. And our support has kind of diminished over the years as we are taking much more of a backseat now and transitioning full leadership over to the local faculty. We’re also expanding hopefully, in the new year, same model into the Solomon Islands as well. So that’ll be really exciting to see it replicated in another country.


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PH SPOTlight: Public health career stories, inspiration, and guidance from current-day public health heroes

On the show, Sujani sits down with public health heroes of our time to share career stories, inspiration, and guidance for building public health careers. From time to time, she also has conversations with friends of public health – individuals who are not public health professionals, but their advice and guidance are equally important.

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