I’ve always felt that I’m lucky to have had the varied, intriguing, and exciting career I’ve had. I left my probably bemused parents in Teesside in the late 90s to head to London and ‘do something in music’ without a clear idea of what that actually looked like. And I’ve retained that sense of feeling my way forward, moving from job to job, arts organisation to arts organisation, full-time to freelance to part-time and then back again.
Like so many of my peers working in Learning and Participation teams within small and medium sized organisations, I focused on the job in front of me. I picked up multiple skills and learnt on the job from the people who came before me, so that I could support the best work possible, developed for and with the young people and communities who matter so much.
I applied value to being three steps ahead, to knowing the answer, and to being uncompromising on behalf of the artists and communities I worked for. Or at least, I came to believe that only by projecting these things could I be convincing as a ‘safe pair of hands’. And the buzz comes from the work, right? The pressure, stress, sleepless nights, and simmering imposter syndrome which comes with it is a price worth paying. Getting it right every single time as an arts and culture professional, as a Mam, a daughter, friend, and wife is the only really important measure of success. There’ll be time for self-care, for investing in myself and my own wellbeing later…
In my early 20s, a much respected colleague reflected to me that too many of his peers had built careers on a core of self-doubt. At the ripe old age of 42, it has FINALLY registered with me that this isn’t particularly healthy! I have come to the realisation that by accepting my own secret self-doubt as ‘normal’ or even deserved, I’ve really only ever been uncompromising with myself and have disregarded what is (for want of a better phrase), the business case for my own wellbeing.
The catalyst for this came a couple of years ago when I found myself (for the first time) in a toxic work environment which transformed some of the tools I’ve habitually used to support my sense of ‘getting it right’ into bear-traps which prevented me from feeling anything much at all about what I had to offer. Moving away from this environment was a necessary step, but it has been the therapy, coaching, reading, space, and support from friends and peers that followed, which has helped me to re-evaluate and move forward onto new projects and into new opportunities. Interrogating how I can navigate my working life in ways which will better support my own development and health (and by extension, my family and the people who work with and for me) is a journey I will remain on for the rest of my career I think.
And my biggest learning? That vulnerability is often the most powerful (and empowering) decision I can make.
Which brings me to the point of this blog, which is to describe what felt a little bit like a Christmas miracle. After the requisite period spent dosing myself up on Quality Street, all-day pyjama wearing, Judy Garland films, and present building, I began to grapple with the idea of returning to work. Whilst on one hand, this felt exciting (I’m involved in some really interesting projects right now), a very familiar sense of becoming overwhelmed came with it. That quiet and insidious voice which whispered ‘But what if you can’t do it? What if you get found out? What if you’re not good enough?’
So, fuelled by the last of the green noisette triangles, I chose to be vulnerable. I posted on my social media channels:
‘Looking for advice friends... Like many, I’m prepping for an intense few months. I am a procrastinator, often made worse by fear, stress, and slightly flaky self-confidence. What are your top tips for getting on with it? My current ‘just f$*king do it’ approach is not always the healthiest...’
The response I received was extraordinary! Suddenly I was surrounded by recognition, support, and practical resources. Friends and colleagues posted ideas on Facebook and on Twitter. They sent DMs and emails. A couple rang me to check in. And this avalanche of understanding came from other arts professionals, but also from teachers, NHS workers, civil servants, artists, translators, charity managers, consultants, office managers, lawyers, and stay at home parents.
And their advice is really great too! My friend Liz (a senior leader in education) opened me up to my inner Labrador. Gemma (a facilitator and coach) explained that to eat an elephant, you need to take one bite at a time. Katie (a teacher) talked about training myself to stop ‘gold-plating’. Tas (a photographer) convinced me of the value of a well-placed motivational diagram. Dana (a friend from my youngest child’s school) reminded me to take a break and to walk every day. So many people recommended tools, apps, and time management approaches which had worked for them – the Eisenhower Matrix, Pomodoro, bullet journaling (something I’m already a fan of), Focus Keeper, My Tomatoes, the Kanban method, Swallowing the Frog.
The Covid19 pandemic means that being in a support bubble feels very familiar these days. But it occurred to me as I reflected on the extraordinary bubble of people who reached out that day, that this concept of intentional transparency and generosity is something we must all adapt and maintain in our working lives. Because in many ways, the posts which meant the most were from colleagues I respect and admire who put their hands up to say ‘I feel like this too.’ We must all be better at saying that out loud. And we must all be ready to listen, and to scatter kindness with abandon. We will all be better for it.
I’ll finish with the post from my best friend Cath, a senior mental health nurse who is currently dealing with a workload and level of stress I can’t begin to fathom:
‘Remember kindness and compassion to yourself. This year is not a normal year so it’s unrealistic to expect normal outcomes. Maybe identify work priorities and write them down… but remember you are more than your job and will continue to achieve amazing things as a parent, friend, daughter, and partner too. Try to add and enrich each day rather than taking away or withholding. None of us have a lot holding us round the edges at the moment, so remember that we have a hierarchy of needs and can’t get through any of the other stuff without the basics of some self-care and kindness. Oh and remember to call your friends who will remind you how brilliant you are.’
It’s very wise advice. We should all take it.
Maria is an arts consultant and producer with expertise in evaluation, strategy, fundraising, partnership and project development. She is also a Senior Manager for Children and Young People at Arts Council England. She has developed and delivered learning and participatory programmes - particularly with children and young people - for a range of organisations including Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, the spnm, Lewisham Music, and Spitalfields Music. She was an Arts Council England Relationship Manager for six years, working with music education and young people’s delivery organisations in the London region. Maria is a Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts and a trustee for Girls Rock London and Lewisham Education Arts Network.
- The Compassionate Mind by Paul Gilbert
- The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris
- The Chimp Paradox by Prof Steve Peters
- Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself by Dr Joe Dispenza
- Eat the Frog: Get more of the important things done today by Brian Tracy
- The Now Habit by Dr Neil Fiore
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey (including the Eisenhower Matrix)
- The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod
- Be More Pirate (or how to take on the world and win) by Sam Conniff Allende
- The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown
- Good explanation of the Pomodoro Technique here. My Tomatoes or the Focus Keeper App are both useful tools to support use of this method.
- Kanban Method
- Useful introduction to Bullet Journaling here, but LOADS of resources available – Pinterest is particularly helpful
- Worry Tree App
- Loona App – simple but effective tool which helps you to switch off and sleep!
- Calm or Headspace – both very effective tools to support mindfulness