Balancing the Grind With Merlin Kong, Head of innovAGEING & Principal Adviser for Innovation at LASA

Merlin Kong is the Head of innovAGEING & Principal Adviser for Innovation at Leading Age Services Australia, the association for all providers of age services.

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1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your background and career?

My career has been eclectic. In a nutshell, I’ve been the ICT head for a consortium of private schools, spent time in diplomacy, managed trade and investment for the Capital Territory, was policy strategist for an election campaign, and helped a community sector organisation through sector reforms and changes.

On the surface, there’s not much here that spells out a clear career focus. Though scratch the surface, and you’ll see that much of my career involved helping organisations navigate through change and ambiguity, getting them to be commercially viable, and delivering value to communities in the process.

If I look at where I started and where I’m at now, my background and career is made up of being equal parts humanist, technologist, and entrepreneur. On reflection, this is also no different from my education background, having studied philosophy and economics, electronic communication, and business.

Ultimately, if you can’t change and transform yourself, how can you lead an organisation in doing the same?

2) What is your current role and what does it entail on a day-to-day basis?

I helped start-up and run a national innovation network for the age services industry called innovAGEING.

A snapshot of my role would see me forming strategic partnerships, giving talks and running workshops on innovation, connecting network participants, advising on innovation policy, and the list goes on.

3) What does a typical day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

No two days are the same in this job, which is one of the reasons why I enjoy what I do.

My workday might include waking up at around 4am, make coffee (very important this), pack my bags, head out to the airport, get on a plane, land, grab a cab, check-in at a conference, give a talk, network with delegates, attend meetings, help a start-up to raise capital, answer emails and maybe draft a media release or write an opinion piece.

4) Do you have any tips, tricks or shortcuts to help you manage your workload and schedule?

Nothing ground-breaking here. I keep an ever-changing ‘to do’ list, and set goals as I progress through the week. I make sure to quarantine time during the day where I’m unavailable, and give myself space to do focussed thinking work. And if I just completed a mentally draining task, I’ll reward myself with a few easy tasks — that way I don’t stop, and get to control the pace of my day.

5) In between your job, life and all your other responsibilities, how do you ensure you find some sort of balance in your life?

This is a good question since the ‘office’ for me is pretty much an abstract concept that tends to blend into my personal space these days.

I’m mindful of the need to find balance between doing meaningful work and having meaningful personal/leisure time. Unfortunately, there’s no formula that you can apply to this, everyone’s different and so you gotta go with what works for you.

That said, in commercial life, there’s sometimes a tendency to place the onus on the individual when it comes to work-life pressures. In this regard, you run the risk of inadvertently mistaking organisation-level problems as individual-level problems on things like lack of job security, unrealistic work demands, etc.

Essentially, what’s needed here is organisational change, not personal work-life balance skills.

6) What does work-life balance mean to you?

For me, it’s about making the best use of my time for work, family, friends, and community commitments. If you think about it, time is a level playing field, very democratic stuff—everyone gets 60 minutes per hour, 1,440 minutes a day. The point to emphasise here is, if you do more of one thing, you’re going to have less time for another. This isn’t rocket science, but worth stating.

7) What do you think are some of the best habits you’ve developed over the years to help you strive for success and balance?

My mobile phone is always on silent mode when I’m doing thinking work. There’s nothing worse than being interrupted when you’re in your flow. When work and life are full of distractions, your competitive advantage is to afford yourself proper space to be focused, clear, and determined.

Plan for holidays. I used to not take them, but as responsibilities and work pressures increase through the years, you need to rest and recharge. We’re a family of surfers (or try to be), which takes us to some really incredible places around the world. On my own, it’s usually a motorcycle trip with an added modicum of adventure, and a good book.

8) Are there any books that have helped you improve over the years?

I just finished Shoe Dog by Nike co-founder, Phil Knight. Good reading for entrepreneurial folks. There are parts in the book where he laments not spending enough time with family, but you’ll have to read the book to find out why.

If you want something more long-term, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick has gone from a book report I had to write in high school to one that I read every once in a while for leadership insights—being flexible with one’s vision, valuing outliers in your team and avoiding group think, listening and learning from other’s experience, avoiding the cult of personality, and the list goes on.

It’s a great story, and I thank my teacher for this.

Another long-time favourite is a book called the Conference of the Birds, by the 12th century Persian Sufi poet, Farid ud-Din Attar.

It’s an incredible book, and I still have my copy from university. Sure, it’s a religious book about finding enlightenment, but for the purpose of this interview, it’s a book about human nature and the things that keep us from becoming who we’re meant to be.

9) What is the number one thing you do to make sure you get the most out of your day?

I think it was the American Philosopher, William James, who said that: ‘Wisdom is the art of knowing what to overlook.’ You need to be clear on your priorities—and with that, go full throttle!

10) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

Ultimately, it’s not about how much you make, or what you get or give. It’s about what you’ve become. Life’s really not about finding yourself, it’s about making something and making yourself. This doesn’t just happen with a neat idea or wanting an adventure, it begins with a risk.

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About Author

Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.