Things I’ve learnt

Travelling solo – and trying not to learn too much in the process

Asking (non-camera thieving, potentially artistic-looking) randoms to take your picture is the only way to avoid having 100 selfies when you get home

Asking non-camera thieving, artistic-looking randoms to take my picture was the only way to avoid having 100 selfies in my Mexico album.

I’ve been taking planes, trains, buses and yes, auto-mobiles, to and from places on my own for years, but really taking time out to travel by myself? Well, I’d have to say never. Until this May when I decided that Mexico needed a visit and none of my friends were able to take the time or budget.

I’m not really sure why it’s taken me so long to write about it when all I really wanted to say was I’m glad I did it, for a couple of reasons, other than the obvious… the proof that I could.

It certainly wasn’t that whole eat, pray, love thing, but then it was only two weeks, I wasn’t really expecting any real revelations, and most of all I’m still a fair way from actually enjoying my own company.

That, however, is definitely now a work in progress, because the very first thing I realised was if I am going to expect someone else to want to spend time with me, in the short, or long term, then I really have to start valuing my own company more. And actually, when I look back at the balance of that holiday, compared to say, a trip of similar length and exploration factor with a friend or a boyfriend, there were probably just as many low points (after that fight, or that hidden frustration) it was just of a different type (that dinner alone).

As for the high points, that was the second learning, there were loads. I met people. Not people I’ll be best friends with or even perhaps see again, but real people from completely different walks of life, that I would never have spoken to for any length of time if I was with someone else. I spoke Portunhol and therefore learnt a lot about Mexico from Mexicans. I went where I wanted to when I wanted to – that took the longest to get used to. And I wrote a lot, and realised how much I enjoyed it, not only when I was there (an extract follows this), but also when I got back.

Go, if you can, go alone. Be prepared for some loneliness and few low points, but revel in the highs, and start the journey to enjoying the company of the person you have to spend eternity with.

—-

Oaxaca, Mexico, 13.05.15, 

I have a view of the Iglisa de Santo Domingo and the blue sky with its gathering clouds, the sun behind me warming my back and arms. It’s hard not having anyone to share this with me but I’m very happy to be here and feeling 11424670_10153377960950185_3556554495112004555_othis. Mexico is an adventure, an assault on the senses, and it feels more like home to my bones. The clouds are the ones that gather over the hills on the horizon and then sneak forward, advancing surreptitiously, with flat black bottoms and cotton wool heads. They complement the green and purple hills and the golden and green-tinted stones of the church. The palms explode gently into vision lower down, evoking holiday…but oh the flamboyants…those are the things that really hit my heart. Remembering playing with their huge flat banana-shaped seed pods in Botswana. The flat, polished seeds…don’t eat them…which fall and pop out, the fanned leaves which feel so soft and tickle nicely when you run small fingers through them. Pull off the leaves from the stem and you have useful bendy straws that can be tied in knots or stuck in dry sand like goosebump-ed hair.

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How to make decisions and stay calm

Head space

I always think of myself as living more spontaneously than in a planned way and with that seems to come the need to make fairly big life decisions fairly quickly and pretty confidently. I don’t think that makes them easy, but I’ve recently had to make an important (and exciting) career decision and I was asked how… so here’s how I got there:

1. Go with your gut

If you have most of the answers to most of the questions you might ask about a decision then your brain doesn’t need days or weeks to come to a conclusion. It may be a throw away term when people talk about gut instinct but I do believe your mind can work that fast.

You know how that feels.  The spark of excitement you get when you or someone lays it out for you. The way you can easily imagine what it might be like to choose that. Not the spikey fear that makes you want to hide under your duvet but that good scary feeling that gives you energy and drive to move forward (or at least more of the latter than the former!). It’s the decision that resonates. The one that feels right.

2. Align that with how you want to feel

Now think about how it might feel to have made that decision and be a few months or years down the line from it.  Does it align with how you want to feel in your work, in your life? When you make a goal it’s not just about achieving something for the sake of it, it’s about knowing how you want to feel, who you want to be and how you want to be living your life at that point.  It may be that the decision gets you out of a hole now, or makes financial sense, or indeed is something that your best friend or colleague might do, but is it right for you, for your life goals, for your personal values?

If you haven’t done any work on this before, there are of course many resources out there that can help. I’d recommend Danielle LaPorte’s Desire Map.

3. Ask for specific advice

Do not take a survey.  There is great video on this by the fabulous Marie Forleo, and indeed with the serendipity that often comes along in times when you most need it, this episode of Marie TV was perfectly timed for me.  However,  my experience has generally been that if you go through the two steps above you have a fairly good idea of what YOU want and asking a few well regarded opinions will help you reinforce that in your own mind along with some great insights you may not yet have considered.

I am lucky in that I have a fantastic network of friends and colleagues who all have different strengths and experience and so I tend to choose 3 or 4 of them to ask their advice. It’s not always the same 3 or 4, it depends on the decision and of course what situation they are in their own lives. I make sure I don’t do this lightly – they know I’m asking for a serious and considered answer. I will schedule in a phone call or take them out for coffee or lunch. Each one of the people I ask has given me good advice in the past and I know has my best interests at heart.

If it’s a work based decision then I ask one or two colleagues I have worked well with in the past who are senior to me and more experienced in my field as well as someone who’s career I admire who is not necessarily in my industry. I also always ask one of my best friends who knows little about my career but a lot about me and my life away from work.

4. Take some time out

I was lucky enough to have had a week’s holiday learning to surf already booked in my diary when I was thrown my most recent big decision (there comes that serendipity again!) and I took the time not to dwell on each pro and con,  but just to remove my head from murky indecision-infested-waters all together.

If you don’t have the time for a full-on holiday escape, it can be as simple as going for a long run,  taking a few hours of pampering time,  a night out dancing with friends – anything that not only distracts you but is good for your soul. It’s amazing what your subconscious can achieve when you’re not watching it.  I came back clearer and calmer having spent less than a few hours in that week with my decision at the front of my mind.

Meditating, just to clear the mind, can also be a really effective way of getting some head space in which the right answer just seems to appear. I have relatively recently become a headspace convert.

5. Don’t flip flop

Give yourself a time period after which you will assess the results of your decision in line with where you wanted to be and how you wanted to feel (make sure to write that down now!). Until that time, unless you are really struggling (and I mean unable to work, panic attacks, you know, the big stuff) go with what you have decided and make the absolute best out of it that you can.

Once you’ve made the decision there is no point in going back on it until you’ve given it a proper chance to take hold.  If you keep wondering what might have or could have been you’ve never really made the decision. Give yourself and the situation the best possible chance to succeed.

You are exactly where you need to be right now.

How I changed my perception of networking

Friends

Last week I was having a drink with a friend/colleague and she accused me of being good at networking. Or at least that’s how I initially felt! A networker?! Urgh, slimy! Does she mean I’m tarting myself around only being nice to those who could be “useful” to me? Networking, especially among the self-employed, has got a bit of bad name, particularly here in the UK where it seems to fit in the self-promotion category and any kind of self-promotion is looked down upon. But then I thought about it a bit more, and got her to elaborate, and realised she was actually giving me a compliment and that, scarily, she was right, it is one of my strengths.

I’ve never seen what I feel I do naturally as networking. I see it as keeping in touch with people that I like, respect and believe that we can have a mutually beneficial working relationship, as well as putting other people in touch so they can enjoy the same. It’s like having a whole new group of friends with inspiring interesting people who understand the business you’re in. Who wouldn’t want that? But like friends, I believe you are building and developing relationships among people who can help each other in professional and sometimes personal ways and that’s not to be taken lightly.

I realised that to me, that’s the key – networking is maintaining a network of people for mutual assistance, built out of mutual respect. So, fine, I’ll refer to keeping in touch with my cross-industry colleagues and friends as networking, but hope to explain it in a way that makes it feel much less slimy and much more of a solid, fun, interesting part of work.

Probably the easiest way to network, and certainly keep aware of who your network is and what they’re up to, is LinkedIn. However, there’s really nothing like personal, face-to-face meetings, even just a 15 minute catch up, to feel connected and understand where your colleagues, contacts and friends are at in their work and lives. Especially as a self-employed person, I find that just the energy and inspiration created by talking to people is immeasurable and invaluable.

1. Make the time

This is the most common excuse for not connecting with people: I don’t have the time. Would you say this about your friends or about dating? If you need to, do it systematically, decide on a number of hours or coffees or lunches you want to have per month to keep those relationships going. Use LinkedIn or make a list, but above all else, make it fun for you and for the other person – enjoy it – you’re not sitting at your desk, you’re talking about things that excite and interest you and if you’re not, then change your job!

2. Connect and engage

Many professionals tend to overestimate the important of their technical skills and while of course that’s important and a huge factor in getting work, remember that potential clients or referees are human and (usually) think like humans: whether they can trust and get on with you is of primary concern. Would you get married without meeting someone and connecting on some level? (Please don’t say yes to this one!) Successful business people, in any industry, will be there mostly because they are good at relationship building over time and across many industries, including with the media.

3. Give more than you receive

Make sure you listen for at least 50% more than you talk. If you don’t listen you won’t have any idea how you can help. When you do talk, use that time to share: ask questions and give (tailored and asked-for) advice, recommendations, contacts and praise. It’s not rocket science – it’s the basis to developing any kind of successful relationship – just remember that professional ones are no different.

Finally, remember that networking is not about getting something out of the relationship now, it’s for the long term benefit of both parties – you may not even see how you can be useful to that person or how they might be able to help you in the future, but if your relationship is based on mutual trust, respect and a healthy dose of fun and good humour, then it will bear fruit for both of you at some point along the way.