For a long time I was convinced that a “creative career” was an oxymoron; surely exercising creativity was something one did in their spare time and not something to be mistaken as an acceptable or sustainable occupation. It took almost three decades for me to realise now how ridiculous that is, but I got there.
A couple of weeks ago, I was asked by one of my friends to take part in a video series for a mentoring program for young women who are in their first three years of their career. I spent some time putting together my answers and thought I’d share them here, especially since tomorrow I’ll be speaking at a local careers expo, and sharing some of the lessons I’ve learnt on my journey to becoming a writer. Sometimes I still feel like a bit of a fraud when I tell other people that’s what I do for a living, but I’ll learn to own it… eventually.
I wish I had a mentor when…
I was at uni or earlier in my career – someone to who I could ask the tough questions, and who I could trust to be honest with me about my strengths, weaknesses and the types of work I should seek out. If I’d had a mentor then, I probably would have been a lot braver in pursuing the career I really wanted. Even though I knew I could write – and write well! – I wasn’t sure what type of writing I wanted to do, and I’d also been conditioned to believe it was impossible to support myself financially as a writer. I feared failure and chose the safe route, applying for jobs that suited my skill set but were meant to be “stable”. As a result, I spent a lot of my time wondering if I could be doing something else.
In the absence of a mentor, I was doing a lot of guess-work. I was diligent, adaptive and quick to learn new industries and skills, which meant I could apply for a job and get it, without having to worry if it was really the “right” one for me.
The downside is my career journey has been a bit all over the shop – I’ve been a youth worker, executive assistant, technical sales assistant, multimedia producer, communications manager, video editor, script writer, website developer, magazine editor, engagement manager, project manager, change manager… the list goes on. I’ve worked with businesses with 5 or 5,000 employees, each teaching me something new about how to engage and communicate with people.
The upside is that I now have really a really diverse skill set, which I can now leverage as a freelance writer and digital creative. But I almost certainly could have taken a more direct route to where I am today, had I sought out guidance early on.
My most memorable mentor was…
an informal arrangement with my boss from ten years ago. He’d hired me into my first professional role as a team leader – I looked after a team of writers and designers for an internal communications division, and we had so much fun, partly because my boss had a really good way of making us feel like our contribution to the business was really important (far more important than it probably was at the time), that our skills and input were valuable, and – despite many of us being fresh out of uni – that we had the common sense to make good decisions without him always having to be there. He was also really good at preventing bottlenecks and shielding us from office politics. He would really bat for us when he thought our ideas were great, and he also knew how to deliver the bad news in a way that we didn’t take personally. So I learnt a lot from him, his leadership style, and his sense of humour, despite it not being a formal mentoring relationship.
He was the leader who taught me that you go to work as your “whole self” (a lesson I carry with me and am passionate about sharing), and that more often than not, output and results are more important than how many hours one spends in the office. “There are plenty of people who spend their entire day here but achieve nothing,” he told me. “Get the urgent, important work done quickly, so you still have time to do the fun stuff.”
We’d have meetings over coffee during the day or a drink after work, and he would share some great advice about so many different topics; from how to read and influence people to how to get over a crisis in confidence. He was great at sharing lessons from his personal experience and seemed to innately build confidence and encourage innovation, often by throwing me into the deep end and allowing me to make mistakes and try again.
I’ll never forget the values and skills he taught me in those early years.
The best thing about being a mentor is…
seeing the people I’ve worked with discover their strengths and succeed. It’s such a rewarding experience to know that somehow, by being present and generous with sharing what I’ve learnt from others – other people have grown and developed their own sense of confidence in the work they do. I love learning – I never stop learning – but what I love most about learning is being able to share that knowledge with someone else, kind of as a way of paying it forward.
If there’s anything I’ve learnt in my work, it’s that generosity goes such a long way. When we are generous with our time, support and knowledge, it almost always ends up being a win/win situation for all.
My first three years of working professionally were…
a bit all over the shop. Straight out of uni, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself so I spent a year doing volunteer work in high schools. After that, I did a bit of work for the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney and then left to do further study. Two years and a bunch of different jobs later, I graduated with a Masters in Publishing but was still unsure of myself and whether I wanted to or had the ability to work in either the magazine or book industry. My tutors had great faith in me, but unfortunately, I didn’t. Looking back now, I should have listened to them and just taken a chance on myself. It took another 4 years for me to gain the confidence to quit my day job and start freelancing, and a few months into that I was offered an amazing part-time role as a staff writer.
I did learn a lot in those early years about how easy it is to burn out. I’d say yes to almost every project and worked long hours. But thanks to some concerned leaders and good friends, I was reminded that time for recreation and rest was critical if I wanted to succeed. During my time working with the Archdiocese of Sydney, one of the bishops told me,
“Even God rested on the seventh day. Take a leaf out of his book, will you? If he sees the value in rest, you probably should too.”
In short: you can’t keep giving if your tank is empty.
I also learnt that people are people, and it doesn’t matter all that much what title they hold, how old they are, or where they come from. Everyone is human and there will always be someone who knows more or less or does better or worse than I do – so there’s little point in comparing myself or worrying about what other people might think. Comparison really is the thief of joy. After years of working with and interviewing so many different people, I’ve come to appreciate that deep down, despite our differences, we’re all essentially a same. We’re all human. This really helps keep me grounded and helps me enter a room or step onto a stage knowing that at the end of it all, I’ll be fine.
Brené Brown has an awesome mantra, which I’ve adopted:
“Courage starts with showing up and letting yourself be seen.”
As a creative person, I find myself constantly battling between the voice that tells me I’m not good enough and the voice that tells me I’m too big for my boots. In those moments, I remind myself that courage starts with just showing up and starting. Once I’ve done that, everything gets a bit easier.
What were some of the lessons you learnt early in your career? Have you changed careers, or are you secretly wishing you could but are still a bit scared to? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!