Stephen Penman sees himself as an accidental academic, also a reluctant researcher and an unlikely yoga teacher, but now ‘a bit of an expert’ in wellness, health enhancement and lifestyle management. He’s not exactly sure what his dream is, or how far he has travelled towards it, except that he is on the right track. From his ‘earlier careers’, he brings a strong background in small business administration, financial management, legal drafting, human resources, information technology, databases and websites, basically ‘anything that needed doing’, to his third career which started when he walked into a yoga studio. Actually a bit before that.
Check out http://www.acnem.org/
Describe yourself in 3 words: Diplomatic, Visionary, Thoughtful.
What is your life motto? Bite off more than you can chew and chew like crazy! It’s tongue in cheek, but we joke about in my family.
When did you start pursuing your career and how long did it take to become successful? My third and current career probably started in 1999 at the age of 35 when a health crisis required me to make dramatic changes in my lifestyle. But it wasn’t until 2002, having recovered my health and looking for healing on a different level, that I walked into a yoga studio for the first time. I found what I was looking for not so much in the asana, but in the yoga philosophy. The next year I trained as a yoga teacher, and as a result found myself in a meeting at the Department of Complementary Medicine at RMIT University, at which the need for a national yoga survey was being discussed. I put up my hand to do it, quit my ‘perfectly good job’ as Financial Controller of an intellectual property licensing firm, and in 2004 enrolled in a Masters by Research at RMIT to conduct the ‘Yoga in Australia’ project, still the world’s largest yoga survey. That was the beginning of quite a few years as a ‘poor student’ but it was so worth it! As well as being inspiring, my supervisor was quite persuasive, and in 2005 I also found myself conducting research into the attitudes of general practitioners to complementary therapies. That was probably the first time my research interests intersected with the medical profession.
About the same time I again found myself in a meeting at RMIT about a new single semester online subject called ‘Health Enhancement and Lifestyle Management’ which was to become a core subject in the world-first ‘Master of Wellness’. I put up my hand to teach it, and did so subject for the next three years becoming ‘a bit of an expert’ in ‘wellness’ and online learning in the process. RMIT required that any teaching staff without formal teaching qualifications complete a Grad Cert in Tertiary Teaching and Learning, so I made enhancing the online learning experience the focus of mine.
By then I had also become quite active in the Yoga Teachers Association of Australia (now Yoga Australia) and was elected Vice President 2006-07 then President in 2008-09 with an agenda of organisational change and to unite the various groups of yoga teachers in Australia.
My supervisor at RMIT was also President of the Australasian Integrative Medicine Association (AIMA), and I found myself helping to organise AIMA’s annual Holistic Health Conference. Perhaps I put up my hand. It was through helping out at AIMA that I heard about a job going at the Australasian College of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine (ACNEM).
In 2008 I was appointed CEO of ACNEM, once again embarking on a program of organisational change, with an agenda to bring nutritional medicine into the mainstream of general practice. Surrounded by an inspiring network of like-minded, passionate medical practitioners, academics, researchers and other healthcare professionals, I found exactly the right individuals to supervise my PhD.
I am now developing an online lifestyle change intervention that interacts with both the patient and doctor, or with company and employee, or just for anyone who wants to enhance their health and well-being!
So when did start pursuing my career and when I become successful? Assuming I can answer either of those questions, I think when I first put up my hand!
How much time and effort did you dedicate to pursuing your dream? That question seems to require that I knew what my dream was, either then or now. Looking back, it seems clearer what that dream might have been, but I don’t really know, other than to feel passionately that what I am doing is worthwhile. I give it every moment of every day.
What are the challenges in your line of work? My line of work seems to involve bringing about change, and managing the people, processes and organisations that are involved in that change. Probably the biggest challenge is being patient enough to see it happen. I can visualise where we need to be in 5 or 10 years time and the multiple, somewhat organic paths and common steps we need to take to get there, but having done the groundwork, the right moment for any given action to take place or to come to fruition might still be years away.
What is the mistake that taught you an extremely valuable lesson? There have been so many mistakes it’s hard to pick the absolute clanger. But a common thread might be the times I have attempted to meet the needs of other people and other things either against my better judgement or to the detriment of my self-care. That one I’m still learning.
What is the best piece of advice you have been given to date? To meditate, to practice, just to be. It is the best advice I have been given and still my greatest personal challenge.
In your mind, is formal training essential? Not at all essential, in many cases. It’s all about aptitude and attitude. The right person for the job will have the personality, drive and passion for it. Training may or may not be needed.
Do you think having a mentor is important? How would you go about getting one for this industry? Having a mentor is valuable in every field and in life generally. The great shame is that we don’t all have one (or more) mentors! A mentor is anyone you respect and find yourself learning from, usually by example, so not necessarily a ‘teacher’ in the traditional sense. ‘Getting one’ is the same as developing a friendship. It means investing time and energy on your part.
What are some steps those starting out can take to start/further their career? Be the first to put up your hand, and keep putting it up! And if you feel passionate about what you’re doing, you’re on the right track. Fear of failure is counter-productive other than perhaps if it causes you to tread carefully at times. The worst thing would be to look back and wonder ‘what if?’
What kept you going when you weren’t at your best? I really don’t know how to put an answer to this question into words. There have been plenty of tough times and I can honestly say there have been times when the outcome could have been seriously bad, and when it could have gone either way. I don’t know what the mysterious quality or force is that saves us from ourselves or our circumstances at times like that. Perhaps it is hope or belief.
Do you believe that ‘making it’ is about luck and being in the right place at the right time? I don’t think there’s much luck involved at all. Certainly other people may see the opportunities, people and moments that seem to have come your way as lucky, but most of those things have been created by something you did, or thought, or felt or believed previously.