I am not a careful, planning type of person. A recent strengths assessment found that I am simultaneously strong in curiosity and weak in self-regulation. As a result, I’m a bit like that dog, Doug, in the movie Up, who was constantly chasing after squirrels and other shiny things. I relish the excitement of the new and the thrill of the chase.
On the other hand, I am also not very brave. In fact, bravery is at the very bottom of my list of strengths. It is a true weakness of mine. I would rather poke my eyes out with sticks than jump out of a plane. I am terrified of getting something wrong, getting injured, losing loved ones, going broke, becoming homeless and many other myriad, visceral fears. As you can imagine, this creates significant tension between the part of me that wants to go exploring new pathways and the part of me that would rather hide under my doona with a book and a nice cup of tea.
Now picture this: you have a 7 month old baby. Motherhood is not the blissful bubble you thought it would be. You’ve been diagnosed with postnatal depression and generalised anxiety disorder. You’re living in your mother’s small house with your husband, who’s in his first year of teaching. You go to a therapist and start to work your way through the maelstrom in your head and feel like you’re seeing progress. And then, suddenly, you find out you’re pregnant again.
On the list of unexpected things, an unplanned pregnancy is pretty epic. Especially when you’re already struggling.
Fast forward 9 months, and the baby is a non-stop screamer. She’s tiny and miserably unhappy and she doesn’t sleep for more than 45 minutes at a time, day or night. Chronic sleep deprivation becomes your new normal. You enter yet another extremely steep learning curve on this motherhood journey; one filled with medical diagnoses, gastroenterologists, elimination diets and a very supportive reflux community.
Unexpected events can be terrifying when you feel like you have no control, and it’s all too easy to feel overwhelmed by circumstance. Sometimes, everywhere you look there’s evidence piling up that life is shit and going downhill fast. In these moments you have to try to remember that you always have choices, even when you think you have none.
I returned to work when reflux babe was 10 months old, to a role where I had previously been valued as a hard worker and strategic thinker and given exciting projects to undertake. I hadn’t changed (apart from aging exponentially and growing and birthing two babies), but the way I was treated was dramatically different. Exciting projects were withheld from me because I was ‘only three days’. I was left out of meetings, and left to my own devices. I was bored shitless.
It was around this time I found out that an organisation like mine had something called a ‘Women’s Network’, to advocate for, empower and celebrate the women who worked there. I thought it sounded amazing, and I wanted one where I worked. So I started one myself, with the help of some fearless friends and colleagues. It wasn’t easy and we experienced almost constant pushback, but we kept building connections and gathering momentum until we had a network of nearly 300 women, divided into four activity streams, with a full 12 month calendar of events and initiatives, and two senior executive champions.
Once the network was up and running, I started to notice my mental health declining again, which seems to happen when I feel like I’m in a psychological cul-de-sac. And those rhetorical questions start going around and around: ‘What does it all mean? What’s my purpose? What do I really want out of life?’
I was lucky enough to get some pro-bono life coaching through a friend. While we were discussing the things that were most important to me, I mentioned that singing brings me huge amounts of joy. We explored some of the ways I might be able to indulge my singing and I said that I wished there was a choir where we all just sang indie pop songs in three part harmony. She said, ‘Why don’t you start one?’ and I laughed and laughed! How could someone like me start a choir? I have no formal training, no credentials and absolutely zero capital to invest.
The idea really got under my skin though, and started to percolate. I had already proved to myself that I could start something where nothing previously existed and that I was good at bringing people together for a common cause. I started researching and talking to people. I found a co-conspirator. I held an info night to test my town’s appetite for an indie pop choir and it was clear that this was something people wanted. So together with my lovely friend and co-founder, we wrote and sourced some arrangements of good indie pop songs, and we ran our first term of Mixtape Chorus. It was fun, and it worked and we continued to build it up until we had between 70 and 100 singers turning up every week, and several gigs organised.
In both of these situations, however, I reached a tipping point where I’d had enough. I became mentally and physically exhausted with the huge and ever-expanding operational requirements of both of these creations, and they brought me correspondingly less joy.
I felt terribly guilty for handing over and stepping down in both cases, but what I have since come to terms with is that I’m a maker, not an operator. It’s actually better for me to hand over my creations because once I’ve got them up and off the ground there are people out there who can take them and run them far more efficiently and effectively than me. And that is okay.
I’ve learned many lessons along the way, and I’d like to share three of them with you.
1. Know your strengths and use them. I am very good at enthusiastically convincing people to get on board my bus, but I am completely awful at navigating or planning the trip. I’m also not at all brave, but gosh I’m curious! When I find something challenging that requires me to work from a place of weakness, I now try to leverage my strengths. I use my curiosity to help me be brave.
2. Find your people. Following on from my previous tip, there will always be people who have strengths that you lack. And there will always be people who believe in you and want to help you bring your dream to life. Find those people to tread the unexpected paths with you. Find the people who can help you navigate and drive your projects. It’s much more fun with company and you’re more likely to reach the end in one piece.
3.Take the leap but don’t jump off the building. If you take the unexpected path, just take it one step at a time. It’s like following the breadcrumbs in Hansel and Gretel (but hopefully you’re rewarded with a giant gingerbread house at the end of the trail instead of a child-eating witch). It’s much easier to step outside your comfort zone if you’re doing it little by little. Before you know it you will have done something you previously thought was not possible.
How about you? Have you ever taken a small leap and just followed the breadcrumbs to something awesome?