Slow build

One of my posts, 2015: my year of writing, was a sort of call to arms. It was a way to try to get me to blog more, to write more and to basically take the leap – when the time was right – and hope for the best.

Unfortunately 2015 was not exactly as successful, in the writing sense, as I hoped. The regular gig was my writing for Together magazine and I sort of let the blog go, perhaps because I was running out of steam, and other things in my life were becoming more of a priority.

However, a couple of months ago I sort of came to the scary realisation that I can no longer pretend that I will be content doing the day job for the rest of my life, and if I don’t sort of get a move on, and have a crack at giving the writing a go, I might miss my chance, and I might regret it.

As I’ve spoken to people, read up on how to make the leap and heeded the pleas of my other half to not just quit without a plan, I imagine that a bit of a plan will help to make the transition a little less scary.

The plan is this: write more, save cash and quit job. I also have a deadline. And I’ve told as many people as possible of my plan so that I don’t chicken out of it (it’s very easy to do so when you work in a golden cage). Finally, it will be slow and I might not have any money for a long time. Eeek.

2016 has been pretty darn awesome – my editorial internship at Delayed Gratification, my Together gig, and some friends have asked me to write for them. Yes! Also, I volunteered for this year’s TEDxBrusselsWomen conference. I met a particularly mouthy and inspiring freelance journalist Rosie Spinks who gave me good advice on how to become a writer (basically: just write and keep at it). For the Tedx blog, I interviewed a really fantastic British engineer  – MBE at 30, energy manager at Starbucks, Asian, a woman, just yay! – and I wrote about how women should have more of a say in their health technology.

In other news: On the advice of Rolf Dobelli’s essay I’ve quit reading news websites and subscribed to The New Yorker instead – I feel like my English is improving with every sentence I read! Also, I interviewed my parents back in 2009 to learn more about their lives as youngsters and only just transcribing the interviews now. I really recommend interviewing your parents!

Till next time,

Gemma Rose

 

Late bloomers

“The fashion in recent times has been for the young to hold centre stage as if they were the only important form of human being.”
– A.C. Grayling, The Meaning of Things

For the February 2015 issue of Together magazine, I wrote about “Late Bloomers”.

I consider myself a bit of a late bloomer. My love of writing, reading and philosophy only came to me later in life. I certainly recall hating reading as a child and the only writing I enjoyed was doodling a few poems here and there on the back cover of my exercise books. As for philosophy, well that involved reading so enough said. I did, however, have an inquisitive mind.

I was (and am) particularly struck by very talented people who also happen to be very young. Unfortunately, it is more out of envy rather than awe or admiration. To appease my jealousy and reassure me that it’s ok to be one, I embarked upon a quest to discover late bloomers. I learnt about many a late bloomer, some to my surprise and perhaps to yours.

Although it’s wonderful to marvel at the great, late bloomers, we should just as well welcome the lesser known ones: those who flourished in adversity; or those that found joy in finally finding something they enjoy doing and became good at, e.g. cooking, aromatherapy, mentoring, DIY.

Here’s a short excerpt to entice you with the link to the magazine. It’s on page 29 of the magazine (p. 15 of the Pdf). Alternatively you can read a shortened online version. But to get a good sense of what I’m talking about, read the full magazine version.

Enjoy and do leave me a comment. Are you a late bloomer? I would love to hear from you.

Late bloomers : Gemma Rose writes in praise of those whose talent bloomed later in life

At last year’s TEDxBrussels, I was particularly struck by one of the speakers, Lina Colucci, who spoke about health hackathons. Health hackathons bring together specialists from different disciplines as well as consumer groups to respond innovatively to medical problems. At the age of 16, Lina began redesigning the ballet shoe so as to limit the pain and deformity done to the ballerina’s foot. This award-winning idea led her towards collaborating with Nike in updating the pointe shoe. Currently, she is a PhD student on a joint MIT and Harvard programme, dances ballet with the Harvard Ballet company and is an accomplished clarinetist. Judging by her CV and her appearance, she could not have been any older than 25.

Society tends to place a lot of value on youth. We often hear of the meteoric rise of actors, musicians, entrepreneurs, CEOs and inspirational leaders in their twenties, sometimes even in their teens. Forbes magazine does an annual “30 under 30” with movers and shakers in several domains including law and policy, education, entertainment and social entrepreneurship. This phenomenon is nothing new. Some of the greatest artists, composers, writers and scientists were so notable in part due to their youth – Picasso became well-known at 26, Mozart at 21, Orson Welles at 25 and Einstein at 26.

Read more… (pp. 15 – 16 on the Pdf)

cezanne-gardanne

Gardanne (1885 – 86) by Paul Cézanne, a late bloomer.

References

Late Bloomers, Malcolm Gladwell for The New Yorker

Interview with Uncle Yee, Lite FM

The Meaning of Things, A.C. Grayling

Why we should all hack medicine, Lina Colucci, Tedx Brussels 2014

It’s not too late to make a difference, Jonathan Sackner-Bernstein, Tedx Brussels 2014

2015: My year of writing

Now I know there is no value in sitting about wishing and hoping. If I’m daydreaming about something, it’s down to me to make it happen.

– Daisy Buchanan, ‘Lessons in life that online dating taught me’, The Guardian

2014 was the year of meeting more men. I wrote about it in my article ‘The art of conversation’ for Together magazine. I realised that if I wanted to meet the right person for me, I had to have a good idea about what I was looking for and then get out there and look for it. I learnt that my love life is in my hands.

It has been over two years since I started Living room philosophy. Thanks to the blog, I got the opportunity to write for Together magazine: my very own personal development column. Thanks to the magazine, I did my first interview: it was with Ratna Osman, from Sisters in Islam, an NGO fighting for equality and justice for muslim women in Malaysia. I will post the interview on the blog soon.

I am so thankful that my writing is gaining traction, although I admit I’d like to do more and I guess I am looking for that lucky break: the opportunity to write full-time on the topics that really interest me. The freedom to choose and still be able to make a decent living.

Earning a living is for me what makes writing as a career so scary. I hear a lot about how journalism doesn’t pay, it’s all about free content, and it’s best to find other lucrative channels to support your writing. Yet, I can’t help but feel that earning a living in the arts has always been tough and always will be. Plus, I hear that some people do earn a good living: a journalist recently told me that he’s faring very well. In Margaret Atwood’s book ‘Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing’, she accepted that when she started out in late 1950s Canada as a poet, she definitely wasn’t going to earn money. But she did.

For making the transition into writing, the most sensible advice I’ve read (and heard) is to start building it up slowly and then make the leap when I have the resources to. As the Guardian journalist George Monbiot says in his article about career advice, “Work hard, but don’t rush. Build your reputation slowly and steadily.” And he thinks specialisation, instead of what journalism school (and actually many schools) thinks is a trap, is actually the key to escaping the trap: “You can become the person editors think of when they need to cover a particular issue from a particular angle (that is to say your angle). They then respond to your worldview, rather than you having to respond to theirs.”

So 2015 is going to be my year of more writing: more blog posts and more published articles. And just like my love life, my career is in my hands.

Finding the highest expression of ourselves

Passion is your greatest love. Passion is the thing that will help you create the highest expression of your talent.

– Larry Smith

Last week, I gave a careers talk to my former secondary school. I had been tracked down via LinkedIn and was contacted because my career path looked interesting.  I decided that I would use this opportunity not just to talk about my professional life but also to provide some tips about what I’ve learnt over the years about careers. I know that when I was 17 and making decisions about University,  I would have liked to have heard similar advice.  For your interest, I’ve provided my top ten career tips at the end of this post.

I chose my University course predominantly according to what was most likely to get me a job. I had seen the long hours, sacrifices and hard work my Dad had put in throughout his working life to provide his children with a comfortable upbringing. Both my parents endured hardship that is unimaginable in our society today. My Dad in particular rose out of poverty by winning scholarships to prestigious schools and Universities. I thought that I would have to do right by my children, in the same way that my parents had done right by me. At 17, the only way I felt I could do this was to choose a job which may not give me particular enjoyment, but paid well and gave me security.

When I was lately confronted with failure, I decided to become honest with who I was. I realised that life is indeed short and I can no longer spend it doing the things I ought to do instead of what I would love to do. I made a list of my personal qualities, what I enjoyed doing, what brought me pleasure and what came natural to me. And guess what? Being a lawyer did not make it on the list! It was then that I turned to the book ‘What Color Is Your Parachute: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career Changers’ by Richard N Bolles.

The section of this book that I found really enlightening was the epilogue at the back, entitled ‘How to Find Your Mission in Life’.  I take two profound insights from it that I can benefit from. First, that my mission/calling/dream job takes time. I have to take things one step at a time, and I have to understand that I won’t necessarily know where each step will take me. This ties in quite nicely with what Steve Jobs said in his Stanford commencement speech about joining the dots: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” He continues, “Believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well-worn path.

The second insight is that my mission in life may not be grand or life-altering, and I may never reap the rewards that following it brings. That in fact, my “mission” may just be to deal with the daily trials and tribulations with more kindness, fairness and grace.

So having a purpose in life can be very simple one. Yet, I do believe that one of the sources of my happiness is to do the things that I love. Larry Smith argues that we will fail to have a great career if we do not act on that which we are most passionate about. Steve Jobs agrees that the only great work is to love what we do. But there are costs involved in pursuing our passion. First, we need to know what it is. Secondly, realising what our passion actually is, added on top of the fact that we are not actually realising it, is really scary. Doubts about our ability invade our minds. Then there’s feasibility. Even if we find our passion, can we make a living out of it? If we are already quite experienced in one career field and have a family, can we really just recklessly up sticks and pursue our passion? And what about the hand that life has dealt us – that some of us may not have the luxury of doing what we love because of economic or social circumstances?

Larry Smith and Steve Jobs take no prisoners when they affirm that we must do what we love. But, their message is so powerful because they each use a weapon to stun and shock us into reality: Smith uses regret; Jobs uses death. They are connected. Being on the brink of death and regretting the fact that I didn’t at least try doing something I loved is a terrifying thought.

Four years ago, I went back to my secondary school to help out at a careers evening. That time, I sat in the politics and law section speaking to students eager to know more about these fields. I remember one girl who came to me. She told me that she was worried about her future as she really wanted to study art but felt pressured to do law instead. As if from nowhere, I gave her this piece of advice: “Do what you love and your career will come to you. It will lead you to the right path.”

I know that this may not be easy, but I think we have to at least try.

Here are my top ten tips on career that I recently gave to the sixth form of my secondary school:

Gemma’s top ten tips

1. Please, please, please, please do what you love

Whether this is in your studies, in your working life or in your hobbies, please do not forgo what gives you great enjoyment, pleasure, fulfilment and satisfaction for the sake of what society/parents/teachers expect of you, or, what you think you should be doing. If you forgo what you love or try to suppress it, in the long run you will be unhappy. If you only take away one tip from this list, please let it be this one.

 2. Find outlets to channel your loves and passions

We all have passions and loves, we just find them in different things and express them in different ways. If you are studying a subject (or doing a job) which is suppressing your passion then try to find ways to let it out (like with extra-curricular activities).

3. Be open to trying new things

You can and should have at least a few passions (or many). If you are struggling to find your passion(s) then one way to start is to say yes more and try out new things. Saying yes more does not mean you can’t say no (and there are definitely times when you can and should). If you are in tune with your passions you will start figuring out which ones you can make a living out of and which should just stay as hobbies. Also, by trying new things you never know where they may lead.

4. What you thought you wanted to do at 18 may not necessarily be what you end up doing

I’ve known many people (including myself) that started out doing one thing and ended up doing something completely different. Sometimes your career changes because of circumstances beyond your control or because you realise that what you are doing is not right for you. It’s ok to change your mind and change your direction. So because you don’t know what life brings, it is far better to study what you really enjoy now than choose something because it will give you job security in the future.

5. It takes time to get your dream job

Unless you just happen to be in the right place at the right time (with all the hard work you have put in), it is unlikely that you will get your dream job tomorrow. So in the meantime, enjoy the ride! Try not to force it, go with the flow, create space for things to flourish and for ideas to flower. Also, if you do have a big dream, try breaking it down into little steps, taking it one step at a time – it is known that some of the big shifts in society came about through small victories. Focus on the small victories.

6. You will face failure and uncertainty in your life

There’s no running away from it. You will just fail at something. You will also face uncertainty. I know that times are hard for young people, I know that jobs for life are very few on the ground. But it’s also a time which is ripe for opportunity – to be creative, innovative, think out of the box. If you have to get a stop-gap job to tie things over whilst you think about the next step or to allow yourself to do the things you love then do it! If you can afford to take a break from work or study to really think about where you want to go next, then do it! If you fail, who cares? You gave it a shot and it just means something better is out there for you, just keep going!

 7. Create networks and get creative

If there are people you know of or heard about who are doing the job you would love to do, seek them out either through social networks like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter (or google them – you never know how easy it could be to contact them) or if you know them through friends of friends of friends. Exploit weak ties, looks for gaps or niches in the job market . Use the internet to publicise/showcase your work and skills or create your own job!

 8. There are more jobs out there than being a doctor, lawyer, accountant, etc

At career fairs we only see these type of professions because a lot of the time they sponsor the fairs and they are looking for young blood. According to research, there are at least 12,860 different occupations or careers that you might choose from! Hurrah for diversity!

 9. Your primary reason for choosing a course should not be because it will give you job security

Job security is a factor and it is an important one. But, it should not be the overwhelming reason for choosing a University course. Also, due to the rapid changing nature of the economy, jobs that are considered secure now may not be in ten years time.

 10. Please watch these great TED TALKS

The first is ‘Why you will fail to have a great career’ by Larry Smith – http://www.ted.com/talks/larry_smith_why_you_will_fail_to_have_a_great_career.html

and the second is ‘Why 30 is not the new 20’ by Megan Jay – – http://www.ted.com/talks/meg_jay_why_30_is_not_the_new_20.html

They both give fantastic advice on careers and on life.

The flip-side to failure

“Failure is everywhere. It’s just that most of the time we’d rather avoid confronting that fact.”

– Oliver Burkeman

This week I had a job interview where I was asked if I had ever failed at anything. The interviewer had started the question on the default position that failure was alien to me. I had come across in such a confident manner that the question had appeared almost rhetorical.

“Of course!” I cried, “I’ve failed so many times!”

About a year and a half ago, I was obsessed with failure.  I had failed miserably at trying to become a barrister in London and I was beginning to accept that I was a failure. I guess I had never really “failed” before. If I failed an exam at school, I would study hard to get my grades back up. When it came to my career, if I had my sights set on something, I would strategise, manoeuvre and pester until I got where I needed to go.

Except for when it came to becoming a practising barrister. For some reason, this was a goal that I had failed to achieve. I didn’t quite understand why the Universe was really not letting me become one. I was prime lawyer material: I had a CV littered with human rights work and academic accolades; I enjoyed public speaking and arguing. On one occasion I got close to the coveted prize, but I never quite hit the mark.

After trying for three years, I decided last year to say “f**k it” and give up. It was at that point I became obsessed with failure. “What does it actually mean to fail?” I asked myself, “And why can’t we admit our failures: in careers, in love, in life? Why can’t we be honest and open about failure?”

So I went on my quest. Albeit, I focussed on my failure to become a barrister. I contacted a journalist at the Guardian who wrote about legal education and I suggested to him that he write about those people like me who would never get the chance to be one. He proposed that I write it myself. So I rose to the challenge.

If I wanted to at least try to answer my questions, I would have to begin by publicly admitting my failure. My aim of the article was to dispel – no – thrash this myth that failure is bad and it’s a sin to admit it.

I couldn’t believe the fantastic feedback I received from the article. Words of comfort and wisdom from my fellow failures poured in. The article had liberated us.

I’ve learned so many things about failure. In brief, that it’s good to fail! Because if you’ve failed at something, at least you’ve given it a go. I do believe in trying hard at something and keeping at it, but the key to well-being is to know when to quit. I also see the cosmic value in talking about failure, because by admitting failure, it makes us human, it makes us interesting, and not least we get a few sympathy votes (but don’t milk it).

Since I’ve “failed” so many wonderful things have happened, one being the creation of this blog. I enjoyed writing my story so much that it gave me the confidence to write more and tap into my creative side. I became more honest about where my talents lay best and what I really wanted for my life.

And once I started delving more deeply into failure, I discovered some wonderful insights, such as some of the most iconic people of past and present having failed at something. Martin Luther King scored below average on his test scores, Abraham Lincoln suffered many failures, Colonel Saunders had a thousand rejections before he got a partner to go into business with him. Failure was common among these success stories too.

Yet, for every failure-success story, there are probably more failure-failure stories (visit the Museum of Failed Products for example) and that is nothing to be ashamed of or scared about. It is just a fact of life. Or one of probability: the more things we try, the higher the likelihood that we will fail at them (certainly at the beginning). But once we start realising that failure is part and parcel of life, perhaps then we will stop fearing it in such a way and become friends with it. Failure and I have become good pals.

In his book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman explores emerging studies on how too much positive thinking may actually do us more harm than good. By blocking out the negative: failure, uncertainty, fear, loss, loneliness, we actually make it harder for ourselves to deal with the inevitable failures in life.

Failure not only makes us healthier, more creative, innovative and resilient, but by being open about it, it makes us more likeable too, as no-one likes a show-off. And perhaps we can view someone who is a failure (I use this term affectionately) as a role model: you learn from their mistakes and you take encouragement from their courage.

To perhaps go against Oliver Burkeman’s anti-self help stance, I will end this post with my favourite quote on failure by the late Queen of self-help (who also failed by the way), Susan Jeffers of ‘Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway’: “I am not a failure because I didn’t make it, I am a success because I tried.”

The perfect role models

“You have been looking for the perfect Pepsi. You’re wrong. You should have been looking for the perfect Pepsis.”

– Howard Moskowitz

In his Ted Talk Choice, happiness and spaghetti sauce‘, Malcolm Gladwell exalts Howard Moskowitz for changing how the food industry thought about food. Moskowitz, a market researcher and pyschophysicist, was hired by PepsiCo to find the perfect diet Pepsi. When charting all the preferences of consumer tastes according to the artificial sweetness of the cola, he was confused as to why there was no one preferred level of sweetness. The chart was an uncorrelated mass of results.

Later on, through his breakthrough with spaghetti sauces, Howard Moskowitz democratised the food industry. Like with diet Pepsi, he realised that there was not a perfect spaghetti sauce, but rather there were perfect spaghetti sauces. He believed that neither variation of spaghetti sauce was more superior to the other; and that there was no universal notion of how a spaghetti sauce should be. Howard Moskowitz taught us that since we have different preferences, to apply universal principles to food would most likely bring our total happiness down.

Watching this Ted Talk got me thinking about role models (bear with me). There has always been a sense that we should follow “one” role model to lead our lives. When faced with dilemmas or decisions, one of the most common questions people ask themselves is: “What would (insert most inspiring, outstanding or upright member of society here – e.g. Jesus, Martin Luther King, Eleanor Roosevelt, Immanuel Kant) do?” When we were children, we were asked which famous person do we want to be like when we grow up. In our careers, we are often advised to seek out a leader in our field to aspire to.

As commendable as these approaches are, I don’t agree that they are entirely realistic or at times helpful. These outstanding members of society are, well, outstanding and unfortunately, not all of us are blessed with such ‘outstandingness’. Secondly, can we really look to that one role model to guide us through the multi-faceted aspects of life? And to top it off, we are not them (the role models), but us (me and you) – and because of this, we need different people to help us with the different parts of our lives.

It is widely reported that there are not enough female role models and that such role models can have a positive impact on women’s performance. I whole heartedly agree. But I would like to share the view that role models closer to home – in their many, and either female or male – have just as much of an impact.

I have certainly benefited from having role models who correspond to the many roles in my life: be they the unattainable ones or those that live next door. What I have found however, is that the latter have had a much greater impact on me: I follow a female colleague’s example of effectively managing expectations and setting boundaries at work; I look to the erudite and laid-back manner of an old professor when figuring out the ways of the world; I look at my best friend’s loving partnership when trying to set the standards of my own; I am spurred on by my mother’s relentlessness to always see things through, even when the going gets tough.

By testing different types of spaghetti sauce, Howard Moskowitz taught us about happiness. “That is the final and most beautiful lesson of Howard Moskowitz,” says Gladwell, “that in embracing diversity in human beings, we will find a surer way to true happiness.” Following the spaghetti rationale, we ought to embrace the wisdom of the many perfect role models in our lives. That, I believe, is a sure way to true happiness.

Driving with the headlights on

My Dad is great at emailing me motivational and inspirational videos. I am very attentive when I listen, usually with a pen and paper in hand to jot down useful insights or words of advice, making sure some of it will stick. The one I saw lately was of the 2013 Ivy Orator speaker for the Havard Graduation Class, Blythe B Roberson. At first you wonder where she is going with her speech but keep watching, she’s incredibly smart and funny and she provided inspiration for this post.
The main theme of her speech is don’t try to construct a single narrative for your whole life. She encourages the Class of 2013 to make “whatever weird, scary choices” make them happy. She referred to a wonderful quote by the American author E.L. Doctorow: “Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights but you can make the whole trip that way.” When writing this blog, I sometimes struggle with my thoughts on what to write about; and in finding the right balance between providing entertainment and enlightenment.  This quote encourages me to just keep going.
Since I moved to Brussels, I too am moving away from a single narrative. I moved here two years ago to do an internship in law. I managed to convert my internship into a short-term post; however, I was only offered a two-month contract. Out of sheer desperation, I took it. I wanted to stay in Brussels until the end of 2011, and I felt that anything beyond that was simply a bonus.  
Since then, I have had three pretty different jobs. When one job was coming to an end, I managed to get another. I didn’t have to try so hard to find them, they were opportunities that seemed to pop up at the right place, at the right time.  Every time I got a job, I told myself the same thing: that I wanted to stay in Brussels until the end of the year and anything beyond that was a bonus. I never felt terrified of what was going to happen next, I just trusted that it was all going to be ok. 
I do laugh about the number of jobs I’ve had in the last two years and yet, I feel very proud of this feat. I’ve taken chances and gained a lot both professionally and personally. But, the most important lesson I can take away from all of this is that sometimes (or even most of the time) you just have to follow your gut, try something new and trust that it will all work out. I am by no means in a “stable” position job-wise but I have never felt more stable in myself.

As we approach the summer solstice, my goal is still to stay on until the end of the year. Yet, maybe next year it will be time to leave, to construct a new narrative, and to drive just as far as my “headlights” take me. As I finish this post, I am also reminded of one of my favourite quotes by Dr Martin Luther King Jr: “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”