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.

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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.

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.” 

My prerogative to change my mind

“It is a lady’s prerogative to change her mind,” my Mum said to me the other day. For a while I had a big, bold ambition to do something big and bold in the near future, something which I had thought about doing six years ago and thought that maybe now was the time to go for it. But, circumstances in my life changed and I was starting to wonder whether I should still implement this big, bold ambition? I decided, no.

I was intrigued by the quote so I did a bit of googling. It looks like the quote’s original meaning stems from marriage contracts, where a woman was lawfully entitled to “breach her promise” of marriage. Googling this quote then brought up quotes about how women are fickle and change their minds very often. Putting my views on sexism to one side, I started to think more about the subject of “changing one’s mind”.

I used to think that changing one’s mind was a sign of weakness. When I was pursuing my plan to become a lawyer, I had doubts about whether this was what I really wanted to be. However, I had invested a lot of time, scholarship money, hard-work and perseverance into this career that the thought of it all going to waste scared me into submission.

But in the year of doing things differently, I have let my mind wonder free. The other day, when I told my career plans to a friend, she playfully exclaimed, “Gems, last year you were telling me you wanted to do this, now you are telling me you want to do that, make up your mind!” And the truth is, I am still making up my mind. I thought I wanted to be X, and then I decided that perhaps Y might be better, but who knows, maybe Z might be the best? I don’t owe it to myself to stick to a plan which is making me unhappy for the sake of sounding assured to others. I do owe it to myself to give something a go and change my mind if I don’t think it’s for me.

Changing one’s mind is not a sign of weakness or of being fickle; it is a sign of being brave and honest. It means being open to the possibility that what you thought you wanted may not be what is deep-down the right thing for you. Changing your mind means re-adjusting your position from time to time to help you get to where you would really like to be (irrespective of whether you get “there” or not).

One of my favourite columns is the Guardian’s Private Lives, particularly when the clinical psychologist Linda Blair used to respond to readers’ problems. I leave you with her reassuring passage which I like to associate with changing one’s mind: “Make the decision that feels right for you, and be prepared to review that decision from time to time. Remain open to changing your plans, but always base your decisions not on appearing “good” or “promising”, but rather on living the way that you believe is best“.

The prerogative to change one’s mind lies not just with the lady and I, but with everyone.