I’m writing this on Sunday, early afternoon, and I’ll admit to really struggling to know what to share with you. There is, I think, a real pressure when you run an online business to only ever show the good stuff. To cut and curate your life in such a way that you always look like you are “bossing” it: working hard, getting shit done, and moving onwards and upwards.
Yet when I was thinking about this newsletter, and what I wanted it to be, the one word I kept coming back to was “honest”. I describe it on my website as “stories and insights from my own adventures in running a thoughtful, creative business.” I wanted it to be a place I could share in real-time what I’m learning, struggling with, and hopefully, succeeding at, with regards to my business.
Which brings me back to why I’m struggling to write this letter: I have not bossed this week in the slightest. Not even a little bit. I’ve probably done about 5 to 10% (if I get this newsletter out on time) of what I wanted to do.
Flashback to last Sunday, and I was determined to have a great week. I’d meal planned and prepped. I knew what I wanted to achieve, it was a lot, but I had a list broken down into daily actionable tasks, and a strong desire to really get it done. I’d spent the first couple of weeks living in Frome hibernating somewhat, and I was beginning to feel a tug towards needing a bit more company, so I was going to work from my co-working space everyday. I was going to go to a networking event in town, and meet another entrepreneur I’d met online who also lived in Frome for coffee. I was going to start working my podcast, which I’ve been talking about forever, but never actually gotten anywhere with. I was all ready to go.
Then I woke up Monday morning, after a fretful night’s sleep feeling a bit off, and sniffly. But I plowed on anyway with my plan, going to the co-working space, and trying to ignore the increasing pressure behind my eyes. But, by lunchtime, my new co-workers were giving me side-eyes as I sneezed for the twentieth time in half an hour. I didn’t want to be *that* person, so I came home.
The idea was to continue working, just under a blanket and with a mug of tea permanently in my hands, but I couldn’t concentrate. I was so frustrated, I had it all planned out and now it was all going tits-up. I was pissed off.
So I wallowed instead. I caught up on the Graham Norton show, and then fell into a Nicholas Sparks movie shaped black hole. And I stayed there for most of the rest of the week. Each morning I would wake-up, and feel even more annoyed that I was still feeling rotten, and rather than attempt to do some writing between sneezes, I let myself be distracted by TV and movies and books.
It is, unfortunately, a pattern I’m familiar with. I put so much pressure on myself, that when something, anything gets in the way and I can’t be 100% perfect, I get so frustrated that I just throw everything away. If I had just dialled down my expectations a little, I might have achieved 30% of what I wanted to, rather than just 10%. I could have had a better week, if I’d just let myself not have a perfect one.
It’s one of those lessons that I seem to have to learn over and over again.
So, this week I’m going to try to have an okay week. Despite what we all see online, I very much doubt everyone nails it every single day, every single week. We all get blown off course occasionally. And we just have to keep bringing ourselves back in. Keep chipping away at what we want to do.
So let’s just try to get some shit done. Boss it a tiny bit. And move a little bit forward.
And let that be enough.
Three Years Ago Today
This morning Facebook kindly reminded me that three years ago tomorrow (or rather yesterday, as you will be reading this on Monday) I left London to travel solo around Asia. I had a one-way ticket to Myanmar, and a stomach full of butterflies. I remember a friend saying to me, when I admitted to having last-minute doubts just before I left, “this will be the best thing you ever do”. And it was. It completely was. Yet if, back then, you would have asked me where I would be in three years time, it would definitely not have been here: a cosy coffee shop in a, currently rather soggy, small town in Somerset. SOMERSET???
The idea when I left was to spend a year travelling around Asia, then fly across to San Francisco and spend another year travelling down through South America (just writing this makes me feel exhausted!). Living in Bali was never on the cards, I wasn’t even planning on going there on my travels. And as for spending a year on a sustainable farm up a mountain in Umbria? What?! I thought my appetite for travel and new adventures would keep me moving for far longer than it did. I massively underestimated the energy that travel takes, and overestimated my dedication to it.
I’d also thought that I would earn a living through travel writing. How and why I decided this wasn’t for me is a story for another letter or blog post, but becoming a brand storyteller and copywriter was again, something I hadn’t even imagined. Yet there is very little I would change about the last few years (I’d take back the laksa with blood jelly that I ate at a street food market in Malaysia and those weird chips covered in weird cheese and weird sauce I had in a Japanese train station when I was craving British food).
It’s a common joke among travellers of how different your actual route looks to what you had initially planned (“Where were you meant to be right now?” I once asked a couple in a coffee shop in Vietnam. “Brazil”, they replied.) Everyone ends up going off-course. You meet people along the way who tell you about cool places you hadn’t heard of. You learn more about yourself, and how you like to travel and what you like to experience. You get temple fatigue and dial back, quite considerably, on the sightseeing. You sate some curiosities and gain new ones. You fall in love with places and stick around for far longer than you thought you would. It’s all part of the experience.
Thinking about all of this has served as a reminder as I begin another adventure – that of setting up and running by own business – not to hold too firmly to one course. We all need something to aim for, a guiding light, but when you start something you often do so from a place of not really knowing that much about it. It’s ok if, as you learn more, you change tack or even follow a completely different route. My business three years from now will probably look completely different to what I currently imagine it will look like, and that’s actually quite exciting. Sometimes the path you can’t see is better than the one you can. Even if it does involve blood jelly.
Everything is Hope
Something has definitely shifted in the air this last week. Spring is on its way, even if it might be quietly tiptoeing into the room rather than making a grand announcement. And I can’t wait. Spring is such a hopeful time of the year, which brings me very neatly, and not at all obviously, onto this week’s theme: hope.
I met someone a few days ago who described Frome as a “hopeful town”, and I thought that was such a perfect description of it. It’s a town that invests in local businesses, in new solutions to old problems, but mostly, in its community. It’s a town that attracts people who are hopeful about the future, who prioritise living over working, and community and connection over competition. It’s a town where people are kind to each other. It really is a hopeful town.
Yet the phase stuck in my head for another reason. I feel like I’m currently living in my own, separate, hopeful town. I had a Skype chat with my friend Beverley a couple of weeks ago, and I found myself saying the same phrase over and over again: “I just hope”.
“I just hope that my business works out.”
“I just hope that I can make it work out.”
“I just hope that Frome is the right place for me.”
“I just hope that I will make friends here.”
Everything feels like hope at the moment.
It’s a pretty uncomfortable feeling. We think of hope as such a positive thing, and it is, in so many ways. It’s the speck light at the end of the dark tunnel. It’s the feeling that things will get better, however tough they might currently be. But it also comes with a side of wanting. To hope for something means not having it, not yet, and wanting it.
For the last three years or so I’ve been living much more in the immediate. You might hope for things while travelling – that your bed doesn’t have bugs in it, that the street food stand you’re eating from won’t make you ill, that you’ll catch your train tomorrow morning – but these are all small hopes that are easily resolved one way or the other. There’s no long term investment.
Since moving back to the UK I’ve felt that the stakes have been raised, considerably, and in this last week, for some reason, it feels like they’ve jumped again. Perhaps its because I’m falling in love with this hopeful town, and am even more keen for it to all work out. Perhaps its because the more you invest in something, the more you want it. I don’t know. But what I do know is that I’m learning to sit with the discomfort of hope.
What I keep reminding myself is that everything is built on hope. Hard work, grit, co-operation, might be the next few layers, but that first foundation? That’s always hope. It’s the beginning of everything. And that is wonderful.
So here’s to hoping. However uncomfortable it might feel.
There Are Other Ways
This week I recorded the first two episodes of my new podcast, There Are Other Ways. It’s a project I’ve been thinking and talking about doing for over a year now, and it feels good to finally have it underway. Each episode will be a conversation between me and someone who I think is living life a little differently. I hope that it will provide insight, encouragement and support to anyone who is keen to explore a less obvious path in life.
The name comes from a blog post I wrote a while ago about the pressure I felt when I was younger to live life a certain way, and it includes a rather convoluted cheese and hole analogy. There is, I think, an expectation that our lives will unfold in a particular way. That we will post certain Facebook statuses and tick off certain key milestones. And if you decide to deviate from that, it can be very difficult. To use another, equally convoluted, analogy, it is like stepping off pre-laid train tracks with clearly signposted destinations, into a barren wilderness. You might not like where the tracks are heading, but at least you know they are going somewhere. Plus there are plenty of other people following them so it can’t be all bad right?
It was fear of the wilderness that kept me on the tracks for long after I realised that they weren’t right for me. Yet I had no idea what my life could or would look like otherwise. The only thing that helped, and eventually gave me the courage to step off them, was hearing other people’s stories of how they had done it, and made it work for them. And I am incredibly grateful for that. My hope is that this podcast will provide more examples of people who have chosen to live their lives a little differently – whether that means building their own business, exploring their creativity, moving to another country, or prioritising adventure and freedom over stability.
Goodnight Mister Tom
I think that you can tell a lot about how I’m feeling by the book that I’m reading. If I have my nose in something thick and Booker nominated, I’m likely to be in a pretty good place. On the other hand, when I moved to Italy I spent my first tumultuous days there reading Sophie Kinsella’s My Not So Perfect Life. Books are my comfort blankets, and chick-lit or young adult are the softest and cosiest of the lot.
So it says quite a bit about this week that I decided to re-read, for probably about the twentieth time,Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian. It’s one of my all-time favourites, and my edition is the most worn book on my shelves (it’s also missing a couple of pages. Luckily I know the story well enough to be able to fill in the gaps). I picked it up because my over-riding feeling this week has been discomfort. It’s been a week where I’ve felt constantly pulled and stretched, and out of my comfort zone.
It started when I arrived back from Cornwall to a small flurry of work enquires. This was obviously a really good thing, but there was one in particular, which even entering into the conversation to do the work felt like a stretch. Then I wrote and published a very vulnerable blog post. It was about what I was trying to articulate in last week’s Letter & Notes, but don’t think I quite managed to. And then, throughout the week, I’ve been getting the first episode of my podcast ready for publication. This has involved interviewing people, editing, finding theme music, recording the intro and outro, creating artwork, finding a hosting service and submitting it to iTunes. None of which I had any idea really how to do, and most of the time I’ve felt like I’ve been working in the dark. With oven gloves on.
In short, pretty much everything I’ve done this week has felt like a stretch.
It’s a feeling that I’m sure most of you are familiar with. The slight tightening in the chest, the brutally vivid images of people laughing at you, the second-guessing absolutely everything (do I sound like a plonker on this???), and the jittery hands as you press publish. Stretching isn’t comfortable and isn’t fun. But more than anything, it’s tiring. Sometimes doing just an hour of stretchy work can leave you just as exhausted as a full eight hours can.
Throughout the week I’ve been telling myself that stretching ourselves emotionally, creatively and with our work, is like stretching a muscle. It gets a little easier over time, and the space we can reach without stretching gets a little wider. And that’s a good thing. We just need to keep stretching. Keen leaning into it. And keep doing whatever it takes to make it easier on ourselves. For me, that means not feeling guilty about diving into yet another comfy, well-worn book. I think I might re-read Cuckoo in the Nestnext.
For the first time since I started this newsletter I’m actually writing it, as I promised myself I would do, on a Friday afternoon, not at some point over the course of the weekend. I really enjoy writing this little letter every week, but it is still work, and I’ve been finding that work has been seeping into my weekends and evenings somewhat recently. It’s something I think most freelancers and entrepreneurs struggle with, especially when you have a side hustle, but it means that I don’t start the week feeling as refreshed as I could. So this is the last thing that I have to do this week, and I’m determined to get it all done and scheduled so I can really relax into my weekend.
What I want to write briefly about this week is the constant tug of war I feel between two things: being seen, and staying hidden. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who experiences this.
(I feel like this newsletter has basically just become me saying “I feel like this, please say you feel the same!”)
On the one hand, I’m terrified of being seen. I hate putting my work out there. I, more often that not, press publish with my hands over my eyes, or after having psyched myself up for ten minutes beforehand through The Greatest Showman soundtrack (“I am brave, I am bruised, I am who I’m meant to be…”). I’m pretty awful at sharing my work on social media, I frequently only ever share a blog post once, or sometimes twice, and not even on every platform. After having put something out there, I have to step away from my laptop and go for a long walk (I’ve also been known to crawl into my bed and sit with the duvet over my head. Like that will help??!).
Yet, on the other hand, I also feel a real pull towards sharing my stories and experiences. To me, that’s what creativity is: expressing yourself somehow. I know I could write a more traditional content marketing sort of blog, about how to write copy and create content etc., but while I love sharing the things I’ve learnt, it doesn’t thrill me in the same way. My more vulnerable, personal posts, as I think pretty much every blogger finds, are the ones that get the most views and the most responses. And when I have someone reply to one of my letters or blog posts, saying they feel the same – well that is just the best feeling.
I love how writing connects me to people, and I know I feel less alone when I read something that someone else has written that resonates with me.
I’ve never been a thrill-seeker or adrenaline-junkie. I’ve never been on a rollercoaster in my life and I can pretty much guarantee you that I will never bungee-jump or sky-dive. But maybe sharing and being vulnerable is how I get my kicks?! And I don’t think it would be as thrilling if I didn’t feel the pull to stay hidden, either. Just as you need that bit of fear during a rollercoaster ride to get the surge of adrenaline. If it was easy and safe, then we wouldn’t feel as good when we did it. And that’s what I’m going to keep trying to remember.
Sharing imperfect Work
I’m very excited because by the time you read this Jen Carrington’s episode of There Are Other Ways will have just gone live. Jen’s been my creative coach for well over a year now, and has been such a great source of encouragement and support. Today I want to pick up on one of the things we briefly discuss in the episode: embracing being a beginner, and sharing imperfect work.
I think when I wrote a few weeks ago about feeling really stretched, this was a big part of my discomfort: I knew that the podcast episodes I was creating and sharing weren’t perfect. The sound quality on the first few episodes really isn’t great (that echo!!) and it still needs work now. I knocked my cover art together in twenty minutes. There is a real knack to interviewing people, and it’s one that I don’t quite have yet. I say “right, ok, so” in every single episode, and use a LOT of filler words. I find listening to what my guest is saying, and thinking of what question to ask or where to take the interview next, very tricky. I’m not good at multi-tasking!
None of this is to make excuses, it’s just to give you an idea of where I am right now.
When I chatted to Jen about all of this in our coaching call, right before we recorded the episode, I said that I was worried about being amateurish. But then that is completely what I am right now: an amateur. I’m not getting paid for making this podcast, and I’m very new to it. I am a beginner. And I need to embrace that.
In the episode we mention Ira Glass’s The Gap speech.
I wanted to start a podcast because I really love listening to them. I love ones where the two people have a really natural and in-depth conversation. Where you feel like you have two friends in the room with you, chatting and laughing, and discussing the things you’re really into. I love ones where the people’s voices stay with you long after the end of the episode. That is what I want to create. But I’m not there yet.
The only way I am going to get there is by continuing to make and share episodes, however imperfect they might be. And I think that’s true of everything. For so long I used to hold off putting anything out that I hadn’t worked and worked on, often I think to the point where it lost it’s original spark. But as I’m now taking on more client work, I don’t have the time to do that with my own content anymore. That’s not to say that I don’t make it the best I can, just that I’m ok with it onlybeing the best I can make it.
Right now my podcast is as good as it can be. And that’s enough. There is no shame in sharing imperfect work, or being a beginner at something. And you have to trust that people understand that. That no one expects someone’s first podcast episode, first blog post, first online course, first product, first anything, to be the best. And you can’t compare your first with someone else’s twentieth, or one hundredth’s, either.
It takes time to get good at something, far more time than I think we realise. We have to let ourselves have that time. And until then we just have to keep creating and sharing.