Why your back pocket isn’t as secure as you think: choosing creativity over compliance

hairdressing talk

So I was sitting in the hairdressers recently – the greys in my roots meant I’d started taking on a zebra-esque appearance which required swift attention – and the hairdresser serving the client next to me enquired about her daughter. I observed the following conversation (C is client; H is hairdresser):

C: “She’s doing so well with her acting; in fact, today she has another audition to be in a film and there’s only a couple of others in the running. She’s been acting and dancing… she just loves it and she’s really doing well”.

H: “Ah how lovely- you must be so proud! It sounds like she’s going to be a star. Does she want a career in acting?”

C: “Oh yes, she talks about it all the time. And I don’t mind her trying it out but I’ve told her she needs to stop for the next 3 years and complete an academic degree in something so she has something in her back pocket in case it doesn’t work out”

say what now?

When I heard that last sentence it took all of my energy not to turn around and say “what are you doing?!”. Here’s a girl who’s clearly talented and you’re telling her to cut her creativity and success mid-flow and park her ambitions to complete a degree in anything academic just so she has something to “fall back” on? Where would that leave her acting career in three years time and how is she supposed to switch her attention to something “academic” if she’s not persuaded that it’s going to serve her future ambitions?

And even if she does complete a degree and then pursues acting, the fact that she hasn’t utilised her degree or gained any practical experience might make her qualifications effectively redundant if there’s no connection between her qualified subject and her acting. I’ve experienced enough rejection from recruiters to know they can smell commitment from beyond your LinkedIn profile – try explaining that you’ve completed an International Relations degree and then trained as an actor for a few years but really all your heart ever wanted was a job at the UN or Foreign Office.

let’s talk (on my terms though)

I wondered whether the mum had entertained thoughts of a year out, a part time degree or a vocational qualification perhaps for her daughter? Or better still, allowing her the freedom to express her creativity and then revisiting a return to academia at some point in the future. I pondered if it had been a mutually agreed two way conversation or whether the mum thought she was actually being very generous, accommodating and even forward thinking, by letting her daughter have the option of going back to acting after her academic degree had been completed.

Because I (a) wasn’t supposed to be listening and (b) thought if I said something and it wasn’t received well the next two hours would be rather painful and awkward, I kept silent. Maybe I oughtn’t have. I’m something of a reflector so making spontaneous decisions like whether to intervene or not, doesn’t come naturally to me and I replay scenarios over and over in my mind before I often actually decide anything.

what’s actually going on here?

But I did reflect on it and the possible motivations and mindset of this lady.

It was abundantly clear that she loved her daughter and wanted her to be successful – in whatever made her happy. But to me it seemed that there was a fear which perhaps unwittingly was driving her decision making.

In the Asian community we place great pride in academics. Perhaps it’s because as the children of migrant families we’ve been able to establish ourselves, access education and create opportunities which otherwise may not have been available. And as beneficiaries of this we consider academic achievements as the hallmark of success.

I’ve seen the hardships of my own parents in establishing themselves in this country and the tenacity and resilience they’ve shown, to be able to provide opportunities for me and my siblings, is both laudable and inspiring.

But the landscape of success for our children doesn’t have to be confined to academic prowess.

looking within

What if we asked our children to look inwards, identify the skills which come naturally to them and encourage them to pursue what they’re passionate about? From hairdressing to fashion design to engineering and computer programming – if we look closely at the people whose names are synonymous with success we’ll see a combination of talent, persistence and truck loads of passion. These people don’t work to live; it’s not even considered work for them – they are living their passion everyday which is what gives them the edge over everyone else in their field.

Steven Pressfield talks about each of us being born with the most unique identity and nothing – however powerful – can change it. In his book The War of Art, he postulates upon our existence:

“We come into this world with a specific, personal destiny. We have a job to do, a calling to enact, a self to become. We are who we are from the cradle, and we’re stuck with it.

Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.

If we were born to paint, it’s our job to become a painter. If we were born to raise and nurture children, it’s our job to become a mother. If we were born to overthrow the order of ignorance and injustice of the world, it’s our job to realise it and get down to business”.

If it’s sounding a bit deep, it’s because it probably is. I love the idea that each of us is so incredibly unique holding an abundance of talent which isn’t replicated in a single other body in this universe. And yet, culture and societal norms unwittingly lead us to shoehorn our children down a path which might not serve their true calling on this earth.

my journey

Taking my own example, I always loved to write. I recall writing an essay until 3am at the age of 12 because I simply couldn’t stop riding the buzz of words flowing from my brain to my finger tips. I created my school’s first ever year book at the age of 14. I took photos of every single girl in my year group (it was a girl’s school), interviewed teachers, procured quotes from pupils and raided the art submissions for the past year to create a collaged outer cover. I had no experience of putting a publication together – but I did it. There was a fire in my belly and it came so naturally to me.

And then I got good grades and was pondering what path to take. I wanted to become a journalist but I had no idea how to go about this and had unsuccessfully approached many newspapers for work experience only to be told ‘no’. My careers officer at college produced a compatibility report having asked me some basic questions about things I was doing well at. The report recommended a career in law amongst other humanities based jobs which I now can’t recall – but journalism wasn’t on there. Added to that, family and friends started to ask which illustrious profession I was going to pursue. It felt like such a burdensome question to answer – that once I’d declared my chosen path that was it; I’d be wedded to that career for life. There was lots of encouragement to be a lawyer and the seeming financial incentives – having come from a thrifty background – made it attractive.

So that’s the path I took.

to law or not to law

I won’t say I didn’t enjoy it, I did enjoy parts of it – I loved research, writing essays and I made some lifelong friends. But I didn’t ever feel complete or aligned from within. I never felt I was an excellent lawyer; I was a hard worker and certainly competent and thorough but I didn’t have the flair and exuberance as some of my colleagues who loved to debate points of law until the small hours, got excited about tax issues and were giddy with excitement when the Human Rights Act was about to become ratified into UK law.

I followed the path; I became a lawyer and I felt that now this was my career, any deviance from this into another career was a big no-no. I didn’t just tell myself this story; I contacted several organisations about policy or other public sector work and the feedback was always that my experience was only legal and this is what I was best suited to. Thankfully, the employment industry has since evolved to take better account of transferable skills.

square peg, round hole

But this feedback and feeling that I was destined for a life as a lawyer and nothing else, left me feeling inadequate and dented my self esteem because it seemed to me that I had to work so much harder than my peers to achieve the same results they did. It didn’t occur to me that perhaps I wasn’t in a job which I felt aligned to and through which I could achieve my life’s purpose.

Fast forward and I ended up working for a public sector organisation when the markets crashed and every property lawyer I knew was clinging on to their job. It was a refreshing change where I learnt more about myself; I loved to write, serve people through my work and feel like I was making a difference – lots of continuities from being a lawyer but I felt better about this job and could feel some inner alignment coming through – but not completely.

Finally, following my operation [see Accepting Life’s Lemons] I took up writing. Now I can see how everything I’ve ever enjoyed has led me to this moment; the first year book, the numerous articles for the college magazine, the dissertations and legal arguments – the thread which bound everything together was my love of words and writing. So here I am, I want to write and to serve through my writing – I’m doing it and it feels good. I’m feeling pretty aligned right now which is a feeling that’s quite incredible. Sometimes I don’t know what I’ll write about but I’ll sit down and it all flows out – it isn’t dragged out or jostled along – I feel like a mechanism from which my inner creativity pours.

setting up our children

Maybe on some level as Asian parents we think that if we’ve put our children through university then in the eyes of society, we’ve properly discharged our parental duties. Forcing our children to study an academic qualification just to satisfy a checklist which we’ve had no input into is both an insult to the creativity of our children and is potentially damaging for their long term outcomes, including their mental health and sense of fulfilment.

If we accept that we all have at least one gifted talent, then forcing our child to compete with others for whom the area is one of interest, passion and purpose is setting them up to fail – because they’ll never have the edge those children have; the edge that comes from working alongside and harnessing your innate talent – the edge that makes work hardly feel like work.

are you excited?

So I’d invite you to ask yourself and encourage your children to do the same; what makes you excited? What things do you do that come so naturally to you you don’t even have to think about it. Maybe you’ve always loved creating fusion food or drawing still life pictures; maybe you’re into animal welfare, writing poetry, applying make-up, creating handicrafts or creating a travel blog – whatever it is, it’s fine if it’s just a hobby and you’re happy with that.

But don’t rule out turning your hobby into something more just because you’re afraid it’s not the “done thing”. In the end, you are harnessing something within you which no-one else in the world can offer. Aren’t you even a little tempted to see the impact your talent could have on the world? Don’t wait for society to tell you to pursue your dreams; society praises results and likes predictability and conformity. If you ask others, they’ll ask why you want to upset the apple cart because presumably things are quite organised in your life (you have a regular income, a loving partner and maybe a kid or two – it’s all quite a pretty picture).

If I had any advice for my younger self it would be this: trust yourself and just try. It might work out, it might not – but you’ll always learn something about yourself from every experience and you can build on this.

“Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be; embrace who you are.”

Brenè Brown

now what?

So if you’re thinking, where do I start? My humble advice is:

  1. Question your purpose.
  2. Carve a way to experiment with what you love, i.e. if you want to write, start a blog. If you like to paint, buy some paint and set aside one hour to just see what happens.
  3. Follow your instincts – how did the activity make you feel? Enjoy it? Then do it again.

It’s said that no-one ever regretted the things in life that they did; only what they didn’t have the courage to try.

Be brave and try; if we come to the world with nothing and leave in equal measure then by definition, you’ve literally nothing to lose.

Photo by jarmoluk on canva.com

 

“Did you hear about her son?” – Shattering the Stigma around Autism in the Asian Community

What is it that makes us Asians so uncomfortable talking about autism?

I’ve found that there’s a lot of misunderstanding – and a general lack of understanding – in the Asian community about hidden disabilities. I remember telling an aunty that my son was autistic and she replied: “There was no such thing in my day; it’s just the concoction of over thinking by western doctors who have nothing better to do. Parents just need to be firmer with their children”. Sound familiar?

I’ve noticed that it’s far easier to discuss physical disabilities with others in the community because they’re more obvious. And people seem more sympathetic and able to reconcile the child’s condition with God’s will – but that’s not the case with hidden disabilities like autism.

Asian ways

Even though we may live in Britain, we’ve kept a lot of our Asian ways for example, through celebrating rites of passage, observing religious days and practices and cooking traditional food. But in other ways, it seems we still need to progress our thinking about the world around us.

I’ve observed that as a community, we place a lot of weight on how others perceive us – and sometimes make counter intuitive choices based on what we think we should be doing.  And talking about having an autistic child ventures into the realms of extreme discomfort because many Asians don’t know what it is, how it manifests and why you need to engineer your life differently around your child compared to others.

Crossroads

But we have a choice; we can seize this opportunity to educate those around us about autism and break down some of the misconceptions about our children. Or we can carry on as normal, telling no-one, putting our children’s behaviour down to simply not listening and contributing to a future where they fail to be understood and are marginalised for not fitting in.

The impact of the choice we make is not to be underestimated. By not talking about our autistic children we create a sense of nervousness and shame around the subject. And so, we show up as introverted and uncomfortable. We tell ourselves stories that people might be judging us behind our backs and perceive our family negatively and that our children’s marriage prospects will be restricted. And because we present laden with all this emotional baggage, we end up attracting negative misconceptions from those around us.

Choosing a different path

I’m not prepared to subscribe to that.

Instead of shying away from my son’s autism, I’ve told everyone in our family what it is and how it affects him. Because of this, people now ask me how we are from a place of genuine concern. However my day’s been, I can be honest and authentic talking about it because by bringing them into the world of autism, I’ve effectively given them permission to ask.

By wearing different personas for the different people we’re meeting, we run the risk of losing touch with whom we really are because we’re so obsessed with ensuring the right persona is in place for the group of people we’re interacting with; whether it’s the aunties at the mandir* or the relatives at a wedding.

By committing to just being you – raw and authentic – you can conserve all of the energy spent trying to be the person you think others want you to be and instead spend it on the person who deserves it most – you.

But, how?

 “Ok but if I’m going to a function and I know my child struggles with big crowds, what am I supposed to do?”. The answer is, whatever it takes so that he’s comfortable and so are you. If that means no Indian clothes, wearing ear defenders, arriving towards the end of a ceremony so that he doesn’t have to hang around for hours with unfamiliar people or asking the host to seat your family somewhere specifically – then so be it. You’d be surprised how accommodating and understanding people can be when we let them into our world and show them how these changes can make such a difference to the experience you and your family have.

Tailoring experiences

Last week, I took my six year old autistic son to a bhajan sathsang* which I’d never before done. I’d attempted to run simple family prayer sessions at home previously and gave up because he just couldn’t sit still and was only interested in touching the bells, idols and the artificial (and real) tealights. Despite that, I thought I’d give this a go. I told the host family I was coming with my autistic son and I’d like a place near the front so he can watch the musicians, to which they happily obliged. My son sat for over an hour attempting to sing the songs and enraptured by the orchestra playing around him. By being open and honest, I created a completely different experience for us.

Great expectations

There’s a lot of expectation in our community of mothers being strong and holding it all together but being the parent of an autistic child is exhausting; anticipating their needs and creating a world around them where they feel comfortable and secure takes a lot of energy. So it’s important that we stand up to the stereotyped Mother India* image and ask for help.

Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of strength because it shows that you’ve identified what you want to achieve and you’re using your resources to make it happen.

If your boss asked you to put a pivot table together urgently, would you bury yourself in online tutorials or ask your Excel proficient colleague for help? We’d utilise the resources around us unashamedly to deliver the task. So why don’t we do this for ourselves?

What do you need?

You can’t pour from an empty cup. It’s important to think about what matters to you and to move things around to make it happen. I need time and quietude to be able to write. But my kids are like bulls in china shops and I don’t want to silence them with movies. Instead, my husband has moved his weekend run from Sunday mornings to Saturday afternoons so he can drop my eldest to drama (whilst toddler naps), go for a run and then collect him. This gives me one and a half hours to write. And I’ve created similar pockets of time across the weekend to dedicate to exercise, writing and self care by asking for support from those around me.

United we stand

There is so much strength to be derived from being part of the Asian community. But unless we’re prepared to be bold and go out there, sharing our experiences and talking openly and proudly about our autistic children, the community won’t move ahead with us and we’ll end up abandoning it as archaic and rigid all because we were afraid of how people might react.

Our children deserve to benefit from India’s rich, cultural heritage as much as any other; let’s pave a path together in the world where they’re embraced and celebrated – just as they are.

 

This piece was written for and published by Anna Kennedy Online – an Autism Awareness Charity

*temple – a Hindu place of worship

* bhajan sathsang – a public gathering at someone’s house where religious songs are sung

*Mother India – 1957 Bollywood movie about “a poverty-stricken village woman who, in the absence of her husband, struggles to raise her sons and survive… Despite her hardships, she sets a goddess-like moral example of an ideal Indian woman”. (source: Wikipedia)

Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

How I learnt to direct the movie of my life

This piece was written for an internal publication at work – it was published in May 2019.

kal-visuals-1104603-unsplash

I read an insightful article on LinkedIn about the importance of women having other strong women in their support network, to bounce ideas off, go to for advice and an honest opinion and pick you up when you’re down.

It got me thinking about my life, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) women more generally and the backgrounds we’ve all come from. Of course we all have our own unique stories to tell, and I’d like to share my own experience with you.

sacrifices

I was the first child on both my mother’s and father’s side that attended an extremely prestigious university and became a lawyer. I was acutely aware of the cultural burden I was carrying on my shoulders to make something of myself and honour the sacrifices my parents had made to get me to this point and beyond; getting up at the crack of dawn to run a shop seven days a week so that we could all have an education without saddling ourselves with debt. My parents worked hard physically so that their children could have a future with more promise and opportunity. But it wasn’t all perfect.

As a BAME woman, there were lots of things I wasn’t taught and which didn’t come naturally. I didn’t know how to walk up to a senior partner and speak with confidence and aplomb about my achievements. I always batted away recognition with statements that underplayed my achievements. I didn’t know how to build a network, what was a network anyway? When you have these social do’s, what are you supposed to walk up to random people and say and why would they want to talk to me anyway? I kept my head down believing that hard work will pay its dividends later in life through promotions etc. I didn’t need to feign interest in what others did on a weekend or be a burden on anyone by asking too many questions.

waiting in the wings

Looking back, I now realise that the place this came from was a lack of acknowledgement of my own self-worth. I never allowed myself to enjoy the journey of learning or work; I was constantly trying to prove myself to my parents, my employers, everyone. I was always taught to strive – and I don’t disagree with ambition – but if you’re never taught to stop and take stock of everything you’ve achieved, your life will become a movie film directed by others; a film where you don’t have a voice.

As a BAME woman, I don’t think my traditional Gujarati culture and home life leant itself to promoting my inner greatness. It was all about academics and actual achievements; not about the nurturing of one’s inner self, promotion of contentedness and finding one’s purpose in life.

building networks

Like many BAME women, I had to balance caring responsibilities with my studies and other roles in the family and community. So what can we do to help each other? I’d say look around you. Are there skills you can see in others that you’d like to develop? Ask them for help; whether it’s mentoring you or a one off chat so you can start building a support system of empowered women around you.

The richness of their personal experiences and cultural heritage make BAME women such incredible and empathetic ambassadors and leaders. I’ve realised that I’m not defined by what I didn’t have growing up but by the paths I’ve chosen to take into the future.

I’m directing this movie. And it’s going to be amazing.

 

Photo by KAL VISUALS on Unsplash