One year ago, I graduated from the IMPACT – Leadership in Public Life course. We all call it “a course in politics” as a shorthand, but the truth is, beyond campaigning, I haven’t really figured out my direction in politics yet. After all, as much as I admire William Wilberforce, my idol has always been Eleanor Roosevelt, and her platform came from being a first lady. And I’m still single, so…
Public life is a slightly more comprehensive term that probably still applies, especially as a Christian, when your life becomes public witness. Pope Francis has been very outspoken about the role of the laity in a church often criticised for her clericalism, and there is a sense that things are changing as more and more people are embracing their vocations.
On this almost a year-long journey I’ve been in for a ride, with many preconceptions about myself and the world done away with. It started with forcing myself to just say thank you after a compliment, and I’m not sure where it will end. These are 10 lessons I picked up along the way.
- You’re never too young to take the leap.
My biggest fear was not being taken seriously because I’m 27, but at uni, in my work with Good Works and in so many other circumstances I’ve found myself around many older people who not only put up with my opinion, they actively build me up and demand my opinion. After growing up with the message that you have to revere and internalise the opinion of your elders, and are not allowed to disagree unless you have an equal amount of experience, it’s a complete shift in worldview. Earlier this year, I pulled myself out of bed at 7am on a Sunday to drag myself to a conference for student entrepreneurs at LSE. Being a mature student, everyone else was younger than me. The speakers took the time to come and address us, and were also unapologetic about admiring our grit. That was really encouraging.
- It’s okay to ask for help.
Another seriously damaging message from my upbringing was that you can’t ask for help because it reflects badly on you. It means that you aren’t good enough. I’ve come to realise it’s a sign of maturity to know your weaknesses and your strengths, and people are more than happy to help. We all have things we’re good at, and we’re going to achieve more if we build up with the strengths of people who have different gifts than our own. Which leads me to…
- It’s not about what you know but who you know.
It’s a bit of a cliché but it’s absolutely true. You obviously need to know something, but your network and your relationships matter and are often key to finding the answers to your questions about things that you don’t know. And unlike Google they are there for moral support and drinking wine too. Social capital can also be extremely valuable in purely monetary terms, and not just in terms of access to capital.
- You need a plan and having a plan doesn’t mean a lack of faith.
I’ve had some seriously painful conversations with other Christians about this. There’s a widespread attitude that things are just going to go well if you have faith. It did not work out too well for Job among many so why would I be any special? It’s taking Isaiah 55:8 out of context and making it the end all be all of things.
The thing is, making a plan doesn’t necessarily make it your plan. Market research doesn’t mean you’re building things yourself. It’s about discernment. What you do with the information and where you look for guidance. There’s a danger in walking by faith, and that’s the self-delusion that you’re not walking by sight just because you don’t have a plan. Without discernment, you could be hearing your own voice. A plan just makes it easier to keep focused on where you want to go, and explain your vision to others along the way. And that includes people who would not just meet your confession that really you’re just doing what God told you to do with a resounding “Amen”.
- You don’t have to be a woman playing by men’s rules to be successful.
I have all the qualities that are traditionally associated with women. The first thing that people usually say about me is that I’m very sweet. I care about people. My top 5 skills in the Christian Vocations’ Gifting Exercise were Creativity, Teaching, Hospitality, Pastoral Care and Mission. I’m as unsuited for the cold grey corporate world as it gets, no matter how good I look in a pencil skirt. Which is a lot, if you’re wondering. Growing up, I was fed the message that I needed to aspire to the top of the corporate ladder and that there’s only one type of woman you can be, a strong one. That is, one who is like a man. My aunt, basically. That’s how you prove yourself. I’ve learnt that you go a long way by being yourself. And you have nothing to prove to anyone anyway. And strength is not about being an alpha male.
- You deserve what you put up with.
I hear a lot of complaints about sexism and men not taking women seriously on the grounds of being a woman, but my experience of that is limited. One reason is that I hardly ever make a point about my sex, which means I don’t internalise the message that I’m less worthy than men, so I project a bit more confidence to start with. Another is that I just don’t let it happen, and so very few people crossed that boundary. Same goes for age concerns. I used to take a lot of rubbish from my aunt (see point 1), but not anymore.
- You’re going to do the wrong thing a lot and that’s okay.
Growing up, I’ve never felt good enough. I was constantly criticised and compared to other, better people. The idea of making a mistake would paralyse me, to the point I’ve developed real panic attacks while at university the first time. I felt that if I made a mistake clearly I was a failure and I couldn’t allow that to happen. However, failing and being a failure are different things. What you do is not who you are. This is the greatest lesson from my faith, I was made in the image of God. If I were a failure it’d be God’s failure, and that can’t be possible. I can only fail, and make mistakes: they’re external to me. I can never be a failure.
- You have to take care of yourself, there’s only one of you.
That’s true for everyone, but it’s especially true when your business needs you to hold together (especially at the solopreneur stage, when literally the business is you). I’ve been ill for about 3 weeks now, finding it really hard to recover. I’ve had a chance to take a couple of days fully off, but mostly I’ve been very stressed out by a lot of circumstances that have time concerns and therefore I could not avoid. You have to eat well, take time for yourself even when it feels counterproductive and make a budget for treating yourself, whatever your financial circumstances. I’ve invested a lot in making sure that I don’t push prayer out of my life, although I never manage the perennial good intention of daily Mass (I’m not a morning person). If you feel good about yourself tackling whatever comes is easier.
- You have to learn to say no.
That goes both for work and personal life. I used to be the kind of person that always has to please. I would accept any invitation because I wouldn’t want to insult the person extending it. I would accept any project out of fear than nothing would come up and I would be left dry, and when something better came along next I would try to do it all because how can I turn that down?
The past few months have brought up a lot of reshaping my friendships and commitments. I’ve found myself increasingly surrounded by people who get it, pushing away those who don’t. I can become horribly stressed out when I feel overwhelmed by competing priorities and the fact it all depends on me makes it even worse. I’ve started to feel like some people just don’t get it and try to make me feel bad for being busy and/or too tired. Just because I don’t have a 9-5 it doesn’t mean I don’t have things to do. In fact, it feels like I have to pull a 70h work week to get any progress. My social calendar has turned into a list of entrepreneur events because I just need the space to vent about how hard it is and how I wish I had never listened to my friend’s advice about what to do with my life at one of its lowest points.
- You’ll never be ready so if you’re waiting to be ready you’ll never start.
Who you are is more important than what you know. What you know matters, but there is a difference between those who start their own businesses and those who work for these people, and it’s about who they are as a person. Soft skills go a long way, and so do the entrepreneurial qualities. Knowledge can be gained along the way. If you wait to be ready to go, you’ll never go, because the signpost for being ready keeps moving. The only way to become ready is to move with it, learn more everyday and catch up with the signpost along the way. You’ll realise you know more than you thought you did anyway.