For the last few months, I’ve been going through a process of intense, and at times guided, self reflection. It started in earnest with a residential leadership course run by Clore, who are well regarded in the arts and culture sector for the impact of their programmes, and has continued since then, with support and challenge from peers met on the course and Clore alumni. This self-reflection is critical because I’m on the brink of something new. I’m working through some strategic plans with my employer that I know are very likely to result in my job changing significantly, and perhaps even ceasing entirely. I’m facing this likelihood with excitement, and also with trepidation: I’m not at all fearful about losing my job, but I am afraid about having to talk about myself in the big wide world.
As a generalist and a pragmatist, my tendency is to get on with whatever the task in hand is, whether I’m especially well suited to the job or not: don’t get me wrong – I don’t take things on that I know other people could do much better; rather, I often ‘plug the gap’, becoming the raft that keeps things afloat whilst somebody else does the cool, notable stuff. I’m a behind-the-scenes kind of person, happy simply to have made something happen. But how do I sell that quality to a prospective partner/employer/collaborator? Moreover, how do I make sure that I work as much at the core as at the periphery?
As well as reviewing what I’ve done and how it went, I’m currently looking to the future, and to that end, I picked up Mrs Moneypenny’s Careers Advice for Ambitious Women because I am an Ambitious Woman. It soon became clear, though, that the book wasn’t aimed at ambitious women like me – it was aimed at Hermes scarf-wearing, clay pigeon-shooting, money-focused executive women, and that strikes me as a very narrow definition of ambition, anathema to the future I idealistically imagine. (A shame, because it’s hard to heed advice that seems to come from a place where your values wouldn’t go, even if it’s good advice).
So, having wondered for a few weeks what I mean by success (if ambition is simply a desire or drive to succeed), I read this remarkable post by Stef Lewandowski about makefulness. Stef posed the question ‘Is seeking s state of flow what work is really all about?’ and I think it is. So much so I want to shout ‘Yes’ from the rooftops. It’s so simple, this notion of flow, of acting purposefully and using your skills and instincts naturally, harmoniously even, for a desired outcome. Simple, brilliant and of course a fundamental tenet of what I see as success.
Thinking about flow has helped me realise that it’s the process, not the product, that’s important to me. Setting the stall of success by the integrity of a process is a recipe both for small and regular fulfilment, and also for a sense of anti-climax at the culmination of something. I notice this happens when I read, too: I feel many things during the course of reading a book, but finishing a book is almost never a pleasure. Of course, I understand there’s a complex interdependence between product and process, and that the product matters in so far as believing the work I’m doing is worthwhile is a part and parcel of achieving flow. It’s also true that no matter how great the product, if the process hasn’t been fulfilling, I’ll still not be happy about having worked on it.
It could be argued that the secret to success for process-led people like me is making sure there are enough projects ‘in the ring’ at any one time, so that any hint of staleness can be countered by a shift of focus. Some things need mulling over for some time; other things need to work on you as much as you work on them, and having a few things on the go can allow space for ‘hands-off’ time without feeling either lazy, or obsessing about not having found the answer yet. I’ve noticed that my appetite for projects outside of paid employment has increased dramatically in the last four weeks – and I’d go so far as to say that I’m interested in the space where failure isn’t just an option, it’s revered.
When I say ‘quiet is beautiful, too’ I’m proclaiming the art of the small, unassuming, delicate and intimate – I’m making the case that something doesn’t have to be big or shiny or cutting edge in order for the maker to be proud of it. I’ve made a lot of new friends in recent months, and am aware of how difficult it is to explain what I do, and what I’m interested in. So I’ve decided to be more open – to share things that I did for fun, or because I was learning something, or just because I thought it was important. These things are quiet – they won’t change the world, but they might help you and I to get to know one another better.