WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU LEMONS…

So this isn’t a post about Beyonce and her recent album, Lemonade (although my favourite track is Hold Up). And this is probably the only time that I will ever be able to make a link (and a tenuous one at that) to the lady herself, in that I have received a few lemons recently and I am a bit unsure about what to do with them next.

Following the ongoing mission with the careers course that has required me to reach out to people of interest; I was really pleased with the initial response. Some people replied within a few hours and some individuals higher up in the connecting tier asked for some questions to be emailed to them, or said that they would get back to me. It was a promising start.

So back to the lemons; what are they and what am I unsure about?

A couple of months ago (before the mission was originally set), I replied to an advertisement that was reaching out for writers to contribute to a new online lifestyle magazine. I was asked to provide some links to some of my work and say a little about myself. When I heard nothing back within a week or so, I assumed that perhaps I wasn’t what they were looking for.

Whilst I was still visiting family in Europe, I received an email from John* who ran the website asking to set up a meeting. I pretty much got up and danced around the room; I was ecstatic! I mean, why wouldn’t I be? This was I was hoping for, to be offered a chance of some sort, any sort of having my work published. A meeting was swiftly arranged for the following week.

THE RESEARCH

Although it wasn’t a formal interview, I wanted to treat it as though it was to an extent, so beforehand I conducted some research on the website to establish more of a feel of what, and importantly who I might be working with:

  • Was there a sense of a brand of some sort? What made the site stand out?
  • Was there a message that the site wished to convey?
  • Finally, what was the sites position? Who was it aimed at?

Although the questions posed above perhaps seem rigorous for this early stage; I still wanted to know, how could I add value to the site with my work? And will the site work for me?

My initial impressions were mixed. Before I continue, I need to hold my hands up and admit that I am not a website designer and nor am I qualified in marketing. But, I do know what I like in terms of design and like any other human, we often make snap decisions based on our first impressions. However this is not to say that these judgements necessarily stick or are warranted.

To summarise, the site covered a large range of topics from fashion, lifestyle, food, relationships, improving skills in the workplace and so on, and employed a minimalist theme incorporating a simple colour palette of black, white and red for the header and various menus.

So far, so good. Yet the main issue I found was that the site was incredibly ‘busy.’

The sheer number of menus and articles on the homepage meant that it was difficult to cut through it all and find something that you might want to read, and it prevented me from wanting to delve further. To add to that, I felt bombarded with pop-ups asking me to register to the weekly newsletter and to the various forms of social media.

This could be more about personal taste than anything more objective or more sophisticated in terms of design and marketing. But isn’t that partly what they are both about? Although many organisations may wish to appeal to the vast majority of the population to encourage sales (or hits in this case), not everyone is going to be wowed by particular campaigns.

By the time the meeting came around, I decided to put those ideas to the back of my mind. Who was I to be commenting and effectively criticising (albeit internally), an opportunity before it had truly presented itself?

THE MEETING

To say that John was enthusiastic would be underestimating it, he was a ball of energy. He raced through the website’s origins, his background and his list of other projects, of which there were many. I just about managed to interject with some of my questions about what he wanted from contributors in terms of content, style, approximate word count and so on. However, his energy was infectious, the gremlins of doubt and pessimism were quietened and I began to feel that buzz of adrenaline that you experience around those who are truly passionate about their work.

Then he threw me a curveball or a lemon if you will… he offered a position on the team. It transpired that, aside from some of the contributors that he had sourced through Facebook and other free creative source sites, he was doing everything else himself – from the website creation to its development.

The offer appeared so straightforward; I would join the team as a website editor and contributor. I would ensure that the existing contributors submit their work on time (chasing these up where appropriate), search for new writers, contribute my own pieces, and I would also get a commission based on the revenue earned from advertisements. It’s got to be a yes… right?

But this is where the gremlins have slowly latched back onto my thinking, and I don’t think that their concerns are entirely unjustified.

John estimated that I would need to spend at least eight hours a week on the role. That doesn’t sound like a huge amount, I could set aside time on my weekends and some evenings to do this. If I was really organised, I could even use some of my breaks at work in my day job.

Also, one of the bigger concerns I had was that despite hearing that he was working 15 hour days on the project as it currently stood, he was also trying to set up two other websites aimed at entirely different markets. Two! Where did he find the time? And what did this mean for the site he was asking me to come on board with?

Thankfully, John accepted my request and need for a period of reflection. I have therefore spent the time subsequently making more lists that compare and contrast the option of accepting and of not accepting, of reminding myself that there is something to be gained here in editorial experience, and to have my work published on a new platform. But there is another voice, albeit a quieter and more reflective one, that has also spoken up during this time and has asked me: am I just side-stepping or even avoiding what I truly desire – to use my imagination to write stories, specifically fiction. Since the thought came to my mind, I haven’t been able to shake it.

So this is where I find myself, do I accept the role and make something that resembles lemonade for the type of experience that it can offer, or do I make the kind of lemonade I want?

*The name has been changed.

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REACHING OUT

As I introduced in my previous post, I am a little over halfway through a course intended to help me to make an eventual career shift. I have found the missions so far exciting, thought-provoking, and some others a little odd (with me wondering ‘How will doing this help?’). But overall, I am enjoying the process. Significantly, it is encouraging me, actually it is forcing me to question things about myself – my likes, dislikes, and my path to date in terms of my career and other related areas.

One of the earlier missions in the course was to actively search and reach out to people who may be already working in my fields of interest. This was to get a feel for their line of work and discover if it was something that I might want to investigate further.

Sounds pretty straightforward? Just throw out the emails and wait for a torrent of responses…

Well the universe and my thinking don’t work like that; would the people whom I contacted actually reply? Hadn’t they got better things to be doing than answering a random woman’s email? These were just two of my initial misgivings about the mission, but all of them pretty much centered on people not responding.

All in all, I was feeling fairly cynical about the process. But to help overcome the gremlins of doubt and pessimism, I decided to think along the following lines:

  1. WHO DID I WANT TO REACH OUT TO?

At this stage, the coaches encouraged us to not limit ourselves and our search for information and vitally, people.

This was perhaps a little easier said than done for someone who feels as though her brain is often a congealed mess of ideas. Therefore I started to do what I do best; I made a list. Lists ground me and provide a vital resemblance of structure for some of the messiness. Although they may not always inherently have ‘a point’ or ‘lead somewhere’, making a list of areas of interest allowed me to spill everything onto a page. It was a starting point.

For me, I found that my some of my core interests were in writing, mentoring/coaching and design. These, having been narrowed down from some of the earlier missions. Once I had done this, I now needed to focus on people – who was I aware of that worked in these areas?

The coaches recommended that this process best works like a hierarchy; at first consider reaching out to people already familiar to you, such as friends and family. These will hopefully be easy to contact and are much more likely to respond. Secondly, get in touch with people who you may have met already in a looser context, an acquaintance for instance or someone you know through a mutual friend. The third and final tier poses potentially more of a challenge. These may be people who you don’t know and it may be difficult to contact and interview; such as celebrities, experts in their field and so on.

  1.  WHAT IS THE BEST WAY TO CONTACT PEOPLE?

So I had identified areas of interest, this was all well and good, but how do you go about ‘sourcing’ people (and their details)?

Simply? Research.

Initially, I contacted friends and acquaintances whom I knew were already doing work in these areas (and not necessarily in those highlighted above). I received a response from a few within a matter of hours. This bolstered my confidence and so I also started to reach out to more, including to a few of unknowns (such as authors, journalists and designers) having located their details mostly through their own professional websites. Other good methods included; LinkedIn and even other social media like Facebook.

My research led me down a number of avenues, some of which hit a dead end immediately. For instance, a writer/author that I admire did not provide contact details on her website. The only way to make contact was through her publisher and agent (understandable, when I imagine she receives many emails per day). After a little more research, I realised that perhaps this was one connection that should be put on the backburner, at least temporarily. It was something I could (and still will) go back to once I could put more energy and time into it.

Overall, I found that email was the best and perhaps most straightforward way for me to contact people. I was able to curate my correspondence in a way that showed a part of me in terms of my personality but also ensure that I had covered certain bases, such as making that important request – can I find out more about you and your work?

Some of the people I have got in touch with so far have emailed me back with answers to my questions, I have held Skype meetings, and I have even had some agree to meet in person.

  1. HOW DO I MAKE A GOOD IMPRESSION?

There will be people who are too busy (or who may not wish) to reply and so may see your email and send it immediately to the trash. The odds are not necessarily in your favour; you may submit 20 emails and only receive a handful back. It’s a shame, but unfortunately a reality of the process.

However, the personalisation of that initial contact may cause people to stop and put the time together to reply, particularly higher up in the connecting hierarchy. A generic email with little grasp of the person or their work may elicit a response, but something that has been crafted for an individual may enable them to see part of the real you and thus lead to a better chance of a response.

So for this part, I considered carefully why was this person someone I wanted to reach out to in the first place? And what were they doing that resonated with me?

The idea of making a good impression was significant on a number of levels. People who are taking the time to get back to me offering their own nuggets of advice deserve to be met with someone who at least had a sense of purpose, and certainly not see a time-waster. So I ensured that I actually had something to say; what led them to their work, what mistakes did they make on the way and what advice would they offer to those looking to get into that field for instance.

Furthermore, I also ensured that I followed up with the contact shortly after the event. This is not only polite but it also allows a dialogue channel to open up and possibly remain open.

  1. ENJOY THE PROCESS

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of reaching out, is to keep reminding myself to enjoy the process. Enjoy meeting new people especially if they work in something that fires up your imagination. And also enjoy the changes that you witness in yourself and others as they make their own career change.

Yes, there are going to be moments of frustration, such as when someone fails to get back to you, or you leave a conversation experiencing a sinking feeling that makes you realise that their line of work is after all not something you wish to pursue. But that is all part of the journey.

My two gremlins named doubt and pessimism still raise their heads every so often; their voices certainly are a little louder when I am tired or feeling fed up, despite receiving some feedback from some amazing sources.

It was a fluke!

Why are you doing this? Isn’t life easier as it is?

And so on.

But when I remind them that part of the shift process is that it’s meant to be fun, it shuts them up fast. As those gremlins are far too serious to understand the idea of fun.

SPARKS

So I have sat down to write.

I have no formal plans (i.e., I am definitely not at work today), no social engagements, nothing that could and should distract me. I have even turned off the internet so that I don’t feel the urge to check Facebook, the news or my email. Yet, after an hour or so I am tinkering with the structure of sentences rather than actually writing anything new; flicking between ideas for some blog posts and then a couple of other fiction pieces.

In effect, I am procrastinating.

I don’t want this to happen. I want to be productive.

I have lots of things that I want to be doing. I want to complete the plan for a story idea that I have. I want to make a proper start on the story that I had months ago that I have completed a plan for.

I don’t want to be sitting here wasting time.

I feel a familiar sense of frustration bubble away inside of me, but the bubbling never reaches boiling point. Time to write and to be with your thoughts is so precious that I want to make the most of it, savour every little second.

I get up and make a drink, perhaps that will help. I wait for the kettle to boil and wipe around the kitchen surface, noticing specks of dust. I should really give the kitchen a thorough clean. One where each room is disemboweled of objects and scrubbed clean of dirt and grime. I have all the cleaning products ready to go… then the kettle boils and I tell myself to sit at the desk.

It’s as though the ideas could burst out of me sometimes, and I cannot write fast enough or for long enough. It’s these times that I try and focus upon when I’m struggling, praying for a window of inspiration.

But then writing isn’t always about the inspiration, those sparks; instead, it’s reminding yourself that you are letting yourself be one with the words forming in your mind. The images conjured need to be instructed to pause for a moment so that they become clearer, tangible.

The sentences, the grammar don’t always make a whole heap of sense at first, certainly not to others if they were to read them. More often than I wish, sentences are left dangling in mid-air, unfinished or not started. But I can’t bring myself to hit delete, in case they form something more coherent later on, so I hit return and push them further down the page out of sight. For now.

Sometimes when a spark does strike and I am writing fast and loose, I find that a part of my mind wants me to become distracted. It dares me to stop, to check my email or just to take a break. Because doing this, listening to that part of myself, the doubt, allows the insecurities that I have about what I want to say take precedence.

I sit back and allow myself to daydream and for my mind to wander, the cooling tea in my hands.

The sparks will come, I know it. I’m ready for them.