Josie

When I asked to talk to Josie for Work In Progress, it was because I knew she had been unhappy in her work and desperately wanted a change. I’d known her for about a year and had seen her taking steps towards turning her passion for music into a career.

What I didn’t expect to learn was that she’d had a particularly bad experience in one job, where she was taken advantage of by her boss, and experienced sexism and bullying. We’ll come to it later, but I just wanted to give you all a heads up that this is part of her story.

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Josie and I hit it off immediately when we met, finding we had plenty in common, from a love of singing (we met at We Are Sound), to sharing a dream of one day living in the country and running an outdoor adventure centre.

As we got to know each other, to my surprise I learned that Josie was a software developer. I was surprised, not because she’s not capable of this job, but because of the following:

  1. There are so few women working in tech/IT and studying computer science, so meeting a female developer is like meeting a mythical creature (only 17% of the UK tech sector was made up of women in 2017)
    • Seriously, in my 10 years in ‘digital’ I’ve worked with one female developer. One.
  2. The idea of Josie sitting quietly at a desk all day is just silly. No offence meant to any developers out there, but Josie is constantly buzzing with energy, and brimming over with enthusiasm, and it just didn’t seem to fit.

And of course, she didn’t think it fit either.

Josie’s first career aspiration was to be a vet. She loved horses and did show jumping, skipping school to work at the stables.

At 8 or 9 she started playing the flute and realised she had a real talent for music, passing grade 5 before she started secondary school. She also took up piano and saxophone, getting to grips with those just as quickly, and participated in choirs and shows and sneakily played the school piano when nobody was around.

Where for many children (me included) playing an instrument at school was a chore, Josie loved every bit of playing and performing she did. She probably even loved practising scales. If anyone did, it would be Josie!

At secondary school, Josie initially found it difficult to fit in and so joined orchestras and choirs, focusing on her music and practicing at every opportunity. Thankfully she soon began to build up a group of like minded musical friends, with whom she’d have ‘classical jams’.

“I found where I fit in”

“I found where I fit in” she says, “and I knew then that I wanted to be a musician”. Josie wanted to go to the Royal College of Music in London, and continued to be in bands, the orchestra and choirs at school.

But, at around the age of 15, something happened.

“What?” I ask.
“Boys” she says.

Josie tells me that this distraction sent her off the rails, the focus in music was lost.

Although initially predicted average GCSE grades, Josie got “amazing results” she says “I realised I could be academic” and was accepted to do Sciences, Maths and Further Maths at A-Level. But, she hated it and was kicked out after the first term.

“I should have done music. I really regret it” she says.

So at around 17, Josie started a job in retail and was living with a boyfriend. She sold her instruments – she wanted independence, but really she just ended up “directionless”.

Josie thought a better path would be to follow in her dad’s footsteps, who is a director in the property industry. After sending off CVs to numerous estate agents, she got a job but immediately knew it wasn’t right and only stayed a couple of weeks.

At 18, Josie got a job as a marketing assistant at a new homes company. She said she did OK here, lasting 18 months, but she tells me she didn’t ever feel mature enough to take charge, and kept thinking, “Is this it”?

She started getting itchy feet to go travelling but instead got another job working at a media agency in London, commuting but saving up. She enjoyed the social “glamorous” side of the job, and learnt a lot in a short time, but since the idea of travel had been planted, it was something she had to do.

Josie and her boyfriend spent a year away, travelling through America, Fiji, New Zealand, South-East Asia and living in Sydney for 7 months.

While there, she got a job working in learning and development, looking after the provision of training for large company called APRA. “They were swanky” she says – she was working from fancy office high up a nice building, with great views of Sydney harbour. They offered her a permanent role, but she was homesick and so turned it down. This is another big regret for Josie.

But, the travelling had given her the space to realise that she needed a new plan. She hadn’t loved any of her jobs and she was fed up of constantly getting itchy feet. Josie decided she either needed to do something she loved, or something that would make her enough money to pursue a passion in her free time.

“…I underestimated how much time you need to spend doing something you love to be happy”

“I chose the latter” she says, disappointedly, “and I underestimated how much time you need to spend doing something you love to be happy”.

I agree, and think this is an easy trap to fall into. We need cash, so we follow ‘traditional’ career paths, hoping that we’ll have enough time around work, family and life admin to do the things that really fulfill us. While some people manage this, it is a difficult balance to strike, and many of us get stuck on the merry-go-round as a result.

Josie looked to the world of IT and decided she wanted to write code. She knew there was money to be made there, and she was good at maths and with computers and wanted a role where she would be respected for these skills.

She admits that part of this was that “it looked cool. I even applied for a job with MI6 Business Intelligence”. Josie realised she needed a computer science degree, so in 2008 when she got back from travelling she started studying through the Open University.

Of course, there were bills to pay and after initially struggling to find work in the recession, she got a job locally at nutritional animal health company Merial, doing DNA profile testing for cattle organisations.

I had to stop her at this point and gawp in amazement at the range of jobs Josie has had in a relatively short period of time. I thought I had been around the career block! She laughs, and agrees it’s all been a “bit random”.

Josie struck up a online friendship with a fellow employee who taught her to code over MSN Messenger (remember that, kids?). He gave her tasks to do and she gained enough knowledge to get her first developer job. She was still doing her degree but it was a useful boost.

While at Merial, Josie and her partner had their son, Charlie, and it was when he was six months old that she moved into her developer role. It was with a payroll outsourcing company, and although she’d looked forward to beginning her career there, it turned out to be nothing like she hoped.

“I felt like I had to work ten times as hard as anyone else [to be taken seriously]” she says. Her colleagues assumed she got the job because she was a woman, and because she was attractive. She was shown no respect for her intelligence, or her skills and experience.

The job itself was draining, and she felt like she was chained to her desk, coding non stop in a silent room with no interaction or social element.

Most damaging however, was the treatment of Josie by her boss. Josie‘s relationship with her partner ended during this time, and a relationship with her boss had struck up. But this was toxic – he promised her stability and love, while at the same time treating her horribly at work.

“He timed my bathroom breaks” Josie says, “and he yelled at me, telling me I didn’t make enough progress with my work”. Nobody else experienced this. He would call her into a meeting room just to shout at her, and she often left in tears.

Josie was exhausted and vulnerable, a full time single mum with a baby that didn’t sleep well, and she was taken advantage of.

I’m getting angry at this point. “He bullied you” I say. “Yes” she agrees. This was emotional abuse, as well as a massive abuse of power. With one hand he was promising her a happy life, and with the other he was crushing her spirit.

Josie had to quit her degree, having neither the time nor energy for it anymore.

I’m pleased to say though that she decided enough was enough and she wouldn’t be treated that way. Josie threatened to sue the company, and wrote them a letter detailing every bit of abuse she’d faced.

They rolled over, offering her money to keep quiet.

As for her boss, he did not lose his job. As far as she knows, he suffered no consequences.

Josie has suffered with anxiety and stress since then. “It was a massive confidence knock” she says, “and not the best start to my new career”.

Despite this, she stayed in IT for 6 years, eventually getting the respect, experience, training, and money she wanted and deserved. But, she found the day to day of it boring, and started thinking about other paths.

She came very close to starting a therapy business but “chickened out. I was interested in the treatment of anxiety, it’s fascinating with good money, but it wasn’t the right time. How could I help other people when I wasn’t happy myself?”

So, Josie started to see a therapist, and it was through this treatment that she realised she needed to do something for herself. “She [the therapist] asked me, ‘what do you do for yourself, what are your hobbies?’ and I was like, errrr…”

Josie realised she wanted excitement, not just a life that “goes through the motions. Not a 9-5, go to work, go home, see to Charlie, go to bed, repeat”.

One of the things that therapist asked was what Josie loved to do as a child. Perhaps that could help her discover her hobby, a passion, and a path. For Josie, that was music. She had to rediscover music.

She started with an adult guitar course, but it didn’t spark anything. When she moved to Cambridge with her new partner however, she discovered We Are Sound and this was the ignition she needed.

“I’d forgotten what it felt like, that pure joy from making music” she says, grinning. And that was it, she was hooked again.

“I never dreamed of doing some of the things I’ve done now” Josie tells me, having joined a band, performed in all sorts of venues and started a volunteer role in music therapy. She tells me she has largely overcome her fear of performing, and it has helped improve her mental health.

“I never dreamed of doing some of the things I’ve done now”

And this reignited passion made Josie realise that she needed to focus on happiness – it was too important not to. “It’s not about money anymore. All you do is spend it on drink and food to make yourself feel better about your shit life. I just want the joy”.

Josie wanted to set her own hours, sing, perform, gig, and spend more time with her son. It was at this time that she lost her then current IT job, but actually saw it as a blessing – now the time felt right to put wheels fully into motion.

wrinkles and smiles logo

To make some cash to get by on, Josie recently started an ironing business locally.

It suits in terms of setting her own hours, and she is starting to get some regular business, but she sees it as temporary.

Josie is also starting to teach piano which fits her better, and her first pupil starts soon. She’s also in the process of getting a function band off the ground – “I’m super excited. I just want to sing on stage, forever!” she laughs.

Josie admits things have become very tight now that she has switched decided not to go for another full time IT role. She’s claiming Universal Credit and has “just enough for bills and food”.

She tells me how she’s been accused of not doing the best for her family. She has worried this herself, but remembers how miserable she was and says her being miserable helps nobody.

…”my family comment on how happy I am”

“I had to think about my values and what is really important – creativity, freedom and adventure… my family comment on how happy I am, how much sparklier I’ve become. I just need to make some money now!”

Josie has also thought about pursuing music therapy but she would need a degree and training which she can’t currently afford. While she isn’t 100% sure which musical path is the right one, Josie admits spending thousands on further education isn’t wise.

“Nowadays, you need to be sure of what you want to do so you don’t waste your time or your money.” She’s right, I think – while there are some low cost or free educational resources, many others are expensive, and your time is valuable too.

But, like Josie, you may be able to dip your toe and see what you like, providing you know your general direction. She says that just because you don’t like one thing – in her case the guitar lessons – it doesn’t mean that direction is the wrong one.

josie at pianoThis is good advice. If you know your spark and joy lies vaguely ‘that way’ then take a step and see where you end up.

Josie has had a series of negative experiences in her working life, from simple boredom, to the seriousness of sexism and bullying in the workplace. She has regrets, times she wishes she had gone another way – we agree that you make choices that feel right at the time.

I also think it’s important to recognise when something isn’t your fault, or when life deals you a shitty hand. You don’t have to carry the weight of every experience on your shoulders and if your mental health is compromised, there are many sources of help and advice out there. The Mind website is a great place to start.

Career wise, Josie and I agree that you might end up somewhere you don’t want to be, but it’s never too late to change it.

Rethinking our relationship with money could be an important part of this. We often get stuck because not having that job will mean having to change our lifestyle and being less comfortable, and honestly that’s scary. It terrifies me for one!

But we can create a prison for ourselves by thinking this way, and perhaps we must come to terms with sacrificing comfort (at least for a little while) for the sake of pursuing what will make us truly happy.

Josie’s advice? “Be brave! It’s scarier, and I’m poorer, but I’m so much happier”.

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Direction

I’ve not posted for a while and there are a few reasons for this:

  1. I’ve been busy…
  2. I haven’t been proactive enough in finding contributors (related to 1)
  3. I’m changing the direction of the blog. Just a little.

The last point there is the important one. By coincidence only, all but one of my (small) selection of stories have been about women. I didn’t set out focusing on any particular group, I just wanted to capture people and their individual experiences.

However, my gut is telling me I need a focus, and this has coincided with me feeding my inner feminist recently in terms of what I have been listening to and reading.

Here’s what I’ve discovered: I am a bad feminist. And I think I’m a bad feminist because I’ve assumed I’ve gotten off lightly, and therefore that I can’t relate. I’m reading Margaret Atwood’s ‘Cat’s Eye’ at the moment, and there is a part where the protagonist goes to a women’s meeting. The way Elaine feels at this point sums up this feeling quite nicely:

“I don’t say much, I’m awkward and uncertain, because whatever I do say might be the wrong thing. I have not suffered enough, I haven’t paid my dues, I have no right to speak.”

I’ve never wanted to ‘blame’ my negative experiences (professionally or otherwise) on being a woman: I’ve taken full responsibility for these. I always thought it must be me as a person or the choices I’ve made that’s been the issue.

I have buried deep the idea that my gender has had any impact because I haven’t wanted it to be true.

This, in retrospect, is quite a naive way to think and I am finally now connecting some dots.

I’ll take responsibility for some of my poor choices, but I also have to take responsibility for my ignorance, and finally accept that maybe I haven’t always been treated fairly, as a result of being of the female variety.

(I also think my perpetual shyness and tendency to go tomato red in most situations hasn’t helped, but that’s for another day.)

‘Get to the point’ I hear you cry!

Well, I’ve decided that this should be a blog featuring women’s voices. I’ve learned that no matter what progress we make, there is always more to be done. It will still be about finding meaningful work and making changes to become unstuck, but focusing in particular on the journeys my fellow females.

I think we’ll have a lot to share, and a lot to learn from each other.

Also, I want this to be a free source of advice, a community where we crowd source problem solving and give each other tips, legs up, contacts and laughs.

Finally, I’ll be changing the name. I’ve never quite been sold on ‘Escape stories’ as it just feels a little too negative semantically.  I don’t know what the new name will be yet, but I’m working on it.

Next week I am meeting with Josie who will be my first story after the re-brand. If you have something to share, or know someone who might, please do get in touch!

 

Liam

One of a number of things I learned from Liam was that you don’t have to dislike your job or situation to want to escape.

Liam was already pretty lucky working with one of his passions – music. Having always worked as a musician, his most recent ‘normal’ job was working at the Leeds College of music in student engagement. He loved it, but it wasn’t what he wanted to do forever. Liam wanted to be his own boss: “I’m a control freak” he tells me, smiling.

“I’m a control freak!”

His friend Nat agrees, telling me “he doesn’t like being told what to do!”

While playing in bands, Liam developed another passion – brewing beer. He was home brewing and branding up bottles to sell at gigs. He was good at it, and the idea of taking the hobby further was always bubbling in the back of his mind (pun massively intended).

So, in 2015, Liam left his job to pursue brewing as a career.

When we started talking, Liam admitted that he hated brewing when he started it ‘properly’. One week after starting a job in a large brewery near Sheffield, he “…was on the phone, upset” to a friend. Liam was at the end of a bottling line, on a factory floor and on the bottom rung of the ladder.

Plus, he had moved from home to take the job and was finding it difficult being away from what he knew.

Although boxing bottles is a necessary role at a brewery, there was only so long Liam could stick with it. After a few months, he left on good terms but in search of something where he could get more direct brewing experience.

Liam found this at a small brewery closer to home. They were (and still are) growing, and doing some exciting things, and within a month Liam found himself doing a lot of the brewing. He was busy, but getting that hands on experience he wanted and learning a lot.

After a year, Liam decided it was best to move on so that he could keep learning – learning from new people, with different ideas, and see other ways of doing things.

So, he packed up his life again, and headed a bit further north to a well established brewery based in Hebden Bridge. Liam’s potential was noticed, as was his keenness to develop, and he progressed quickly.

Liam made a lot of friends at this brewery, and gained more invaluable experience, but again he arrived at a point where he felt he’d reached saturation point. He stuck around in this role for a bit longer, but started to make plans.

Really, there was only one option: starting his own brewery.

We pause to reflect on Liam’s experience at this point and he admits that he was almost deterred after that first job, regretting the move and generally feeling miserable about the whole thing.

But, what got him through was meeting his boyfriend. “I felt in a shitty place” he tells me, but this relationship “really helped me through”.

“My relationship really helped me through”

Also, very sensibly, Liam didn’t want to run before he could walk. He knew he could make a delicious beer, but he wasn’t naive about what it would take to turn that into a business.

He needed to build on his skills, and working at established breweries while learning from successful people was exactly the experience he needed.

“If I hadn’t had that, my beer wouldn’t be as good” Liam admits. And, it was one of his employers who suggested he get a qualification, focusing on the science. “It’s heavy (the science), but it’s so useful – all the experience was useful” Liam says.

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“Brewing is a mixture of science, craft and creativity” he says, “but science is the one you need”. Without this, he informs me, you’ll always make flawed beer.

Liam’s love for this business is obvious, and his fervor isn’t just down to the wine we’ve had while chatting at a friends’ flat. It’s really inspiring to talk to Liam, who reflects on his experience and goals with matter-of-fact vibrancy.

I listen excitedly as he goes on to tell me about how he set up his own brewery – Anthology – after these years of experience. I expected a lengthy discussion on how he managed to fund such a venture, but actually it was quite simple.

“I got a business loan” he says.

“Oh…” I reply.

I’d almost forgotten such a thing existed! He had some savings, but when he was feeling ready to take this step, he entered his email address on a business loan website, and they got back to him. “They make it really easy” he says. He put together a business plan, which went down well, and after 3 months his loan had come through.

Obviously this comes with some risk and so might not be for everyone, but Liam was entering into a popular and still growing market, with a strong business plan and good references. If anything, he says he downplayed his experience and skill when applying for a loan as didn’t want to risk misrepresenting himself.

“If people like it, great. I’m not into marketing or forcing an angle…I just want to make beer and do it well, make a good product…be professional” Liam says.

After getting the keys to his brewery in March 2018, he set up and has been brewing since May. We talked in August, and there was already a buzz around his products, and he has been building strong relationships and friendships as he talks to bars and pubs about what he’s trying to achieve.

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Liam can’t pay himself yet so still works at a pub and plays gigs to make ends meet. He works all the time he can in the brewery, experimenting with flavours and improving his recipes. “It’s early days” he says, and he is a happy kind of tired. He tells me he doesn’t mind working 12 hour days because he enjoys it. “It doesn’t feel like work” he says, smiling.

“It doesn’t feel like work”

He credits his work experience again, telling me how vital it was. “People are very discerning now and it is a crowded market”. I agree. As someone who recognises their tendency towards beer snootiness, I admit it must be a bit scary needing to please all those ‘aficionados’ out there.

He says yes, but he doesn’t “…want to be a snob about it. It’s just beer, a beverage to be enjoyed…”. There are lots of people doing interesting stuff, but lots of really average beer out there too. He just wants to craft an honest brew.

While it comes across that Liam knows he’s good at what he does, he is still very modest about his successes. So, I press his friends a little.

“HE’S DOING REALLY WELL” our friend Hannah shouts across the room and I swear I can see Liam blush. One of his projects is combining his two loves through a beer and music collaboration. He’s also selling in a number of bars already, was featured in Leeds Beer Week and had a spot at the Leeds International Beer Festival in September where very few brewers of his size are given a stall.

I ask him where he wants to take it and he simply says he wants to pay himself. He isn’t in it to be a millionaire: he wants it to be sustainable, to be able to reinvest in his business.

“I’m lucky to live here and have support” Liam says when I ask him what advice he could give to others. “You have the freedom to try and do what you want” he adds.

What he’s getting at is that he’s grateful to have been in a position of fortune, just by living somewhere where there is support for small businesses, where you can get loans, where people are willing to help you. He cites The Prince’s Trust as a particularly good source of free business advice (if you’re under 30, it’s a good place to start).

“You can make a living out of your passion if you’re willing to try” he says. It’s a tough journey, and Liam is really still at the beginning of his, with many more long days ahead of him. He worked hard and had the sense to see that work experience was essential for his development, and he advises not to be so sure of yourself – or be so impatient – that you forgo this step.

Liam is 29, so started working on his dream at a good time in his life. But even if you are coming at this slightly older, I would agree that no matter how good you think you are at something, you can always learn from those that have been at it for a while.

And don’t make life hard for yourself! Use the resources that are out there for startups. With a strong business plan and the right idea, a business loan could be a the simplest way of getting going fast – you don’t need to wait for that lottery win before you can start making a dream a reality.

Just make sure you know the risks, that your numbers are honest, and you’ve thought through your plan in detail – including what you’ll do if things don’t work out.

Use your friends, family and your existing network to help get you established, and put yourself out there, making contacts, asking favours, and suggesting collaborations. The worst someone can do if you ask for something is say no.

And finally, be passionate! Underlying all of Liam’s hard work is pure passion for what he does, and I think this is why he’s already finding such success with Anthology, and will continue to do so.

Find Anthology Brewing Company on Instagram and Twitter – /anthologybrewco

A few useful links – please add more in the comments if you have them!

Singing

They say that singing is good for the soul.

I know from experience that this is entirely true. Singing is my only long term hobby, and something I can’t imagine not having in my life.

Many of us sing in the shower, in the safety of our own homes, where nobody can hear us apart from the cat, but I’m here to tell you that you need to take that voice and sing out to the world!

And, do it with other people.

I’ve been singing in groups and choirs since I was a teenager. When I was about 14, I was part of a youth group where we sang along to backing tracks and did ‘gigs’. We sang songs from the likes of Mariah Carey and LeAnn Rimes and I’m sure we were probably terrible.

The first time I sang in public was with a group this group at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff where I grew up, before a football match. I was crapping myself with nerves, and I’m sure the entire audience was cringing with the awfulness of it, but as a horribly shy teen, just having the guts to get up and do it was incredibly empowering.

So that’s number 1, the first reason you should sing: empowerment.

Even if your nerves make your voice shaky, you’re sweating, and your face is the colour of beetroot, you will walk off that stage with a sense of pride and a new-found confidence.

Later, I sort of forgot about singing for a bit. I was studying in Leeds and doing other things like flying kites, writing essays and getting drunk (not at the same time…mostly). It never occurred to me that I could fit singing into this, apart from at karaoke, in my room, or while driving to Morrisons listening to Kelly Clarkson.

After leaving Uni, it struck me that something was missing from my life. A friend of mine (who is an incredible musical person with a gorgeous folky voice) felt the same way, and so we went onto Gumtree and posted the ad: ‘Hayley and Siriol want to sing!’ 

And so started our search for a few people to start an a cappella group, just for the joy of singing together.

This brings me nicely onto the second reason you should sing: joy.

The emotions that are generally wrapped up in music can be intense, whether you’re enjoying it at a gig, in your headphones, or playing an instrument – if you get that tingle, or that lump in your throat you know what I mean.

When you take that spark and force your love of music through your lungs and your throat and your breath, engaging your muscles and your brain – and you do it in harmony with others? Well, it is just magnificent.

The first session of our little group was four of us, gathered around a piano. We had put together some really simple harmonies and sang together for a couple of hours: I was inspired, my heart felt full.

That’s science there by the way, folks. The elation you feel when you sing comes from the endorphins that are released in the process, making you feel pleasure, muddled with Oxycontin, another hormone released that reduces feelings of anxiety. Win win! You can’t argue with science.

LCH2
LCH, doing our thing in rehearsal

We called ourselves Leeds City Harmony and grew to about 16 members, singing everything from gospel to 00’s pop, making friends, doing gigs. It was incredible. We were pretty good too, but mostly just enjoyed singing together. I left the group when I moved to London, and I’m so happy it continued to bring joy into other people’s lives after I left.

While in London, I sang in another a cappella group, one that I think changed me forever. They’re called Kitsch in Sync, who sing primarily 80’s pop covers, and they are one of the nicest, most fun bunch of people you can hope to meet.

We got together on Wednesdays; there would be wine and snacks, we would laugh, talk, sing, get drunk, sing some more, go to karaoke, have weekends away. I miss it dreadfully.

And we were good! I was MD for a year, a golden year, as it was one of the best things I’ve ever done for my confidence. That group taught me so much about myself, at a time where I really needed to learn who I was, and I have a lot to thank them for.

You see, group singing can change your life.

Well, that’s three then: it’s life changing.

This is a big one – it’s the friends you will make, friends for life, the journeys it will take you on, the confidence you will gain. It is the sense of achievement you feel after putting in hours of rehearsals, of late nights, of listening to the same songs on repeat, culminating a gig where the crowd are blown away and give you a standing ovation.

It’s making thousands of pounds for charity by singing and shaking buckets at Christmas, when your throat is raw, you’re freezing and if you have to sing ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ once more you might punch yourself in the face!

When you do those gigs and achieve something through teamwork and dedication, bringing pleasure to those watching, that feeling stays with you. It changes who you are, and it lives in the fabric of your being long after you leave (if you ever have to leave!).

Here are Kitsch In Sync, pink and fabulous, as always:

When I moved to Cambridge, I started at a new choir called We Are Sound – a 100-person strong contemporary choir who, under the incomparable dedication and talent of our MD (seriously, I’ve never met anyone who works as hard as Andrea), we have done incredibly innovative gigs, singing beautiful and intricate arrangements.

It can be hard work, and I leave some rehearsals where my brain has gone to mush, but it’s so completely worth it when we put everything together and the sound that comes out is just heavenly. This is one of my favourite parts of the process, when Andrea starts putting the jigsaw together, building the layers. The harmonies start to shine through, and you get that first glimpse of that whole picture. Goosebumps every time.

And the passion felt by the members of this choir is obvious too, from the smiles that stretch across faces as we sing, to discussions about favorite songs, to the friendships forged and the fun had at gigs.

we are sound
Find us! http://www.we-are-sound.com/

I’ve been so lucky to have sung with incredible humans over the years in the community choirs above, but also through Voicelab (where we sang with Gaz Coombes), and the Big Sing at the Southbank Centre under the direction of Mark De-Lisser. So, so lucky! And I’m not even very good!

That’s the beauty of this! You can sing in most community choirs without being musically trained, without be able to read music, or to sight sing (I am/can do none of these things properly) and without audition. There are so many welcoming and friendly groups where you can join with no experience and just see how you get on.

All you need is to go with an open mind and heart.

And if you are ‘proper musical’ then great! There’s something out there for anyone who wants a go.

So, if while you have been reading this, you have felt even a glimmer or excitement, that’s it! That’s all you need – that little spark that you will nurture and grow into a mighty fire of life-changing joy and empowerment. Don’t be nervous, just take a deep breath and get out there. Sing with other people. You won’t regret it.

Simply Google ‘find a local singing group’ or ‘find a local choir’ and so much will come up. Seriously. I don’t need to post links. GO!

Cheesecake

The fantasy

If you’ve read my post about projects, you’ll see ‘my cheesecake company’ on the list of things that I have tried and subsequently failed at or quit.

While I’m trying to gather subjects for my stories, I thought I might as well tell you a little of mine. Maybe you’ll read this and not repeat my mistakes, or if you’ve succeeded in realising a foodie ambition, you can tell me all about it!

For a long time, I fantasised about running a food business.

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A note left for me by my friend, Natasha, in 2012!

Specifically I wanted to run a food van: this was back in about 2012 when the street food business was gathering serious momentum. London was buzzing with it, and I was cooking and baking and making up recipes and blogging about it.

Inevitably, life happens and I didn’t do anything about this fantasy. I had no cash, it all got spent just existing in London. And to be honest, I was having a great time, and I enjoyed the fantasy: I was in my mid 20’s, climbing the digital career ladder, and I liked having this idyllic future in my head where I spent my time creating delicious food, traveling the country, and spending my summers at festivals.

Future Hayley would achieve this one day, and it was for future Hayley to worry about.

Four years later, I was fed up with life and after banging on about my foodie ambitions to my friends, I was given a golden opportunity in the form of my wonderful friend, Vicky.

I had just moved to Cambridge, and she came to visit me, offering me an investment to finally try and get this loopy food idea off the ground. I was dumbstruck…and terrified!

In the fantasy, I imagined there would be hard work, but it was an easy version of hard work: the fun version, like a movie montage that ends with two friends kicking back with a couple of cold brewskis admiring their work.

Now the fantasy was about to become real, and I was going find out what starting and running a business was all about.

I’ll pause for a second to thank Vicky – she gave me an incredible opportunity and she believed in me. I’ve said in a couple of posts that it sometimes takes a stroke of luck to open doors, and she was mine. She was also incredibly supportive when things didn’t work out. When I was mortified that I had let her down, she told me it was OK. I’m very honoured to have a friend like her.

So, the work began.

The reality

I started by making contacts in Cambridge. I got in touch with a lovely lady called Heidi who runs foodPark in Cambridge, a collection of street food vans, as well as EAT Cambridge, a yearly food festival. I did some volunteering for the festival and she also put me in touch with a chap who ran one of Cambridge’s food trucks and was looking for some help.

I went down to part time hours at work so that I could work on the food van, getting experience in what it takes to run one, as well as spending time planning what I was going to do, setting up my company, and experimenting with recipes.

Working on the van was eye opening, not least to see the ups and downs of the street food trade. We worked days where we were run off our feet, and days where the rain left you with no customers but plenty of perishing stock that had to be binned.

Deciding what I was going to sell was much harder than I thought. I always imagined I would sell hot food, and was hung up on veggie burgers for a while. But, the upfront commitment to that, the expense involved, and the fall out if it didn’t work, was incredibly daunting.

I decided to take things down a notch, and do something a little different at the same time. I wanted to do something that was a bit cheaper, with a simpler setup, that could be friendly to the environment, and sell well at festivals.

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One of my trike sketches

My business plan ended up being for milkshakes – boozy or non boozy – kept simple and delicious. I called it ‘Miss Molly’s’ and decided to sell them from a trike rather than a truck, decked out in a quirky 1950s style. The profit margins weren’t going to be significant immediately, but I thought it had potential to grow.

This plan came together in the four or so months after my visit from Vicky. I was excited. I had set up the company, I had my idea, my trike was ordered and I had the work planned out that would allow me to turn it from a normal cargo trike into a mobile shake shop.

Over the summer, the trike was converted, and things were progressing nicely. A very lovely designer friend was creating my logo, I set up a website and Twitter account, got myself a business bank account, read loads, got my food hygiene certificate – I was full steam ahead.

(I even worked with a well established food vendor at Secret Garden Party to try and get a taste for festivals, and get some tips. Boy that was hard work. Like, bone aching exhaustion levels.)

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With the summer disappearing, the likelihood of me trading at any summer events in 2016 disappeared too. I was out of time for that year.

Also, I had learned that a lot of larger events and festivals wanted photos of you in action, as well testimonials about your success of trading, of which I had none, considering I had not traded yet. Bit of a catch 22 there.

If I was going to trade the following summer, I needed to build up my street food CV over the autumn and winter, and who wants milkshakes when it’s cold? I needed an interim product, something that fit my branding and my trike and my kitchen facilities, that would not be too far detached from my ultimate ambition.

So, I tested out some American style sweet pie and cookie recipes, but settled on baked cheesecake – a favourite of mine and something I’m good at making. Something that can be made ahead, be frozen, and easily adapted. Something where I could batch make the the bases and then jazz it up with flavours and toppings.

A bit like milkshakes.

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I thought I would trade at some Christmassy events, get the photos and the experience I needed and be ready to rock the next spring.

I was over the moon when I was offered a pitch at the Mill Road Winter Fair, a local but heavily attended event where the food market is an important element. This would test me, but it was my chance.

I painted and branded the bike, bought decorations, planned my festive flavours.

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Set up and ready to go at the Mill Road Winter Fair

The fair was…hard. And disappointing. I realised a number of things:

  • My kitchen was woefully inadequate for these levels of baking, including my crap, unpredictable oven
  • I was naive about the time EVERYTHING takes to prepare
  • Cheesecake is easily smushed
  • At this small scale, I was never going to make a profit on this product
  • Events are relentlessly hard work, even the small ones
  • Pitch location can make or break you
  • Having someone by your side to cuddle you and tell you everything is OK when you are crying at midnight and covered in cake mix will save you from total breakdown (Thank you, Josh)
  • It would take a lot more practise to be ready for the big events I had pictured myself at

I’d met some nice people but sold maybe two thirds of what I had made. Sadly, a popular hot food stall was next to me and their long queue (good for them) was in front of my stall ALL DAY. My product relied on people seeing it and being tempted into treating themselves, and I just wasn’t getting noticed – the curse of the dessert I suppose.

I was exhausted and downhearted. But, the lessons were important, and after Christmas I started looking for small, local events. The plan was to keep getting experience, and keep getting better.

Out of all my contacting and applying, In 2017 I got offered two events, both of which my circumstances meant I couldn’t do in the end. I started a new job that January, was working full time and just couldn’t commit.

It felt awful, but something in me kept saying it wasn’t the right path at that time. Events are time consuming, and with limited holiday and a need to work full time, I had to try something else.

I spent a lot of time thinking and scribbling that spring. I’d had some success over Christmas with private orders, and selling to other street food traders, so where I landed was the idea of selling via some of the local cafes, as this could be a way of keeping my hand in while I figured things out.

Sadly, there was little interest generally, and eventually, the one cafe that did say yes to me decided not to continue stocking my stuff. One coffee van also looked really promising for traybakes and cookies, but I didn’t hear any more from them.

I was also offered some work by a local events company, but despite the fact that they initially contacted me, when it came to actually ordering anything they dropped off the face of the planet.

I listed myself on a local wedding directory but that didn’t turn anything up either.

By the end of 2017, with regret, I officially gave up.

To be honest, when I finally accepted that things weren’t working I felt significant relief. I didn’t realise how much I felt it hanging over my head, the stress of having this ‘thing’ I ‘should’ be doing but just couldn’t make work.

In that 18+ months I had learned – not just from my experience but from people I had worked alongside – that this business probably wasn’t right for me after all.

This is one of the hardest things to deal with. For years, I had lived with a fantasy in my head, an escape. I thought I knew what my dream was, and turns out I was wrong. That leaves you with a void, and feeling like you know a bit less about yourself.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. I’m still proud of what I did achieve, and for giving it a go.

What I learned

  • How to set up a company, the paperwork and legwork that’s involved!
  • About working for myself and the independence but also stress that could bring;
    • That despite the stress, this is still attractive to me
  • Street food is a tough mistress – I had lots of support but essentially was doing it alone. This is definitely a team sport! If you’re thinking about it, I’d say find a very good buddy and do it together.
  • Opening a business bank account is slow and very boring.
  • Be patient – it’s OK to start small, take it slow, learn and grow.
  • Stick to your business plan! There’s a reason you have to do one. Research it properly, and work your numbers out thoroughly and realistically.
  • Contacts – make them! Talk to people, ask them for help, and offer them something in return. Listen, be humble, and take heed.
  • If you want to do events, plan early to make sure you are ready when it’s time to apply.
  • Use your friends and your support network – they want to see you succeed, so don’t be afraid to ask for help.
  • Listen to your gut! It is usually right.
  • Be meticulous in your planning, and always include contingency.
  • Importantly I learned that I make a really, really good cheesecake. And pretty good cookies. And a very tasty banana custard slice. And great coconut cream pie.

The biggest lesson though, and what you should take away from this if nothing else, is:

Don’t let fear of failure get in your way.

If there’s something out there you want to do, give it a go. Even if the risk is that you end up not being able to daydream about it anymore when it goes tits up. I know that daydream is lovely and comforting and shiny and filled with gooey hope, but NOT exploring that desire will just leave you bitter.

And, exploring it might be as easy as talking to a few people, or doing some work experience – it needn’t be a ‘both feet in the deep end’ kind of affair.

So that’s a bit of my story – feels good to get it off my chest. Not every pursuit of a dream will have a happy ending, and that is important to know, I think. We learn, we move on, we try again.

Do get in touch if you can relate, I’d love to hear from you all out there.

Corinne

‘I was a jumper’ says Corinne as we walk through Cambridge.

We are talking about the context of this blog, not some previous life as an Olympian or anything, and how some people take leaps when it comes to starting something new, while others take a more stepped approach.

Corinne knew what she wanted to do from when she was a kid, and that was archaeology and anthropology. But as we know, life happens, academic study wasn’t the right thing for her, and she found herself working in the health service in Leeds in personnel.

This was after trying many jobs, most which were short term, ‘two hours in one case’ she tells me. The role in the health service paid reasonably well, there were opportunities, she enjoyed it — it was, well, fine.

While in Leeds, her husband encouraged her to do an Open University course, studying sciences, to ‘use her brain’ Corinne says. She was able to earn degree credits and realised that maybe studying was for her after all.

In 1979, Corinne got offered a similar role at Addenbrookes hospital in Cambridge and so left the North behind. Despite her new found enjoyment in academia, Corinne assumed she’d work at Addenbrookes for a couple of years, gain some experience, and head back to Leeds when she was done. She really didn’t like this new job: it had a draining atmosphere, with a stifling hierarchy and she knew she couldn’t be there long term.

It was one small event, while out for dinner with a friend, that changed everything.

Corinne and her friend were sat eating, when they overheard a couple of men sitting behind them talking. They were at Eraina, a place with cheap and simple food that attracted students. The two young students were braying. “‘I am superior.’ ‘No, I am superior.’ that sort of thing’’ Corinne tells me. She said that they were so condescending to staff, assuming they were better because they were Cambridge University students.

Corinne and her friend found this amusing as well as frustrating, pointing out that ‘they are no cleverer than us’. They decided to prove this, and so both applied to Cambridge for the next academic year.

‘They are no cleverer than us’

And so in 1981, and Corinne at 31, she was finally pursuing her childhood dream of studying archaeology and anthropology, getting into Cambridge off the back of her valuable credits earned at the OU.

I’m fascinated by this idea of parallel lives, or universes, and the theory that each decision splits you off into another direction. Corinne and I laugh at this, and wonder where that Corinne is now that went to a different place to eat that evening. That other Corinne who didn’t get annoyed by some students with superiority complexes. Maybe she did go back to Leeds. Maybe somewhere down the line she still would have made that big decision to study — we can only speculate.

So there she found herself, accepted by Wolfson College and quitting her job. ‘It was lovely to get away’ she says, but having no income after a decade of earning was very difficult. Luckily she was still owed a government grant for further education (yes, kids, in those days the government would give you money for a degree) but still needed money to live. She lived in a small, cheap house share and worked around her studies to pay her way.

As someone who had had their own place up North, a good job, and decent money, starting again like this must have been stressful. But, to follow a dream, it was worth it for Corinne. She tells me she ‘definitely had the feeling it could be done’.

And she had a wonderful three years. She jumped, she gambled, and she’s never looked back.

The hard work didn’t stop after University. She knew getting a job would be hard, so Corinne had spent time being a ‘groupie’ as she calls it – a groupie of the archaeological and anthropological kind. She had been helping academics while studying, and now put the word out that she needed a job. She got various bits and bobs, including one job sorting flintwork, but her interest had always been in bones.

‘I was a groupie…’

Her stroke of luck came when an assistant post came up with the zooarchaeological lab in the archaeology department. This was her in. The money even let her put a deposit down on a tiny flat, but she still worked an additional job every night — admin, typing, that sort of thing — to pay her mortgage.

Her assistant job was mostly ‘dogsbody’ work Corinne says, cleaning down animal skeletons using roaches. My face at this point is screwed up in minor disgust, and Corinne laughs and tells me ‘I’m not squeamish’ — well, thank goodness. I can cross this one off my own list as a potential career change though!

She worked this job for 14 months, gaining good experience before a second stroke of well- timed fortune hit. The technician was retiring from the Department of Physical Anthropology, and she applied for and got their job working with human skeletons.

We go off topic slightly here and start talking about the idea of fate, whether all of this was ‘meant to be’ given the situations she found herself in, and the good fortune that befell her.

I’ve written about this before, that a dollop of good luck can help you on your path, but it is still up to that person to put themselves forward, to work hard, and have the guts to pursue something different. It won’t work for everyone, and we also talk of friends who seem to have perpetually bad luck, not getting where they deserve no matter how hard they try.

I like to think that those people (me included) feel better for at least trying; after all, it’s better to try, right? Or you never know, do you? And you just have to hope that one day, the winds will change and all your hard work will pay off. It’s a lottery on one hand, and a slog on the other.

We get back onto Corinne’s story, and we are now in the early ‘90s. Corinne is managing a skeletal collection of 18,000 specimens that presented an ‘incredible’ opportunity to learn, but she had the misfortune of having a nasty set of bosses that wanted to squash her down.

While in the role, she met her second husband who encouraged her to do a PHD, which she did in Oriental Studies after being given a grant to do so by her college. During this time she had her daughter, and went back to finish her studies in 1994.

Alongside all this, Corinne was doing contract archaeological work, analysing finds from development and building sites for example. It was her bread and butter. She was also asked to give talks at Madingley Hall, and this made her realise she had it in her to teach, something she has kept doing to this day.

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In another turn of good fortune — or, some might say thanks to her years of hard work and glowing reputation — Corinne was approached by the local Home Office Pathologist to work on skeletal finds from crime scenes, and so started a new branch of career in forensic archaeology and anthropology.

After doing a new course in this subject at Bradford University, she was pretty much immediately called in to analyse remains from a murder site. This job was incredibly interesting, but a struggle given the demands on time, the short notice work and juggling that with a family. ‘It was demanding but good’ she tells me, and the support of her mum was what allowed her to continue it.

Corinne spent the next 15 years in forensics until handing the business over to her assistant. Now, she still teaches, still does contract work, and is even working with TV producers on a series about unusual murder cases.

Corinne loved this work in these 15 years, despite its grisly nature. ‘You’re trying to put something right, to give someone back a name’ she says, and that overall she has ‘loved everything she’s done’.

We talk about how difficult things are now in comparison. Dropping everything in your 30s to go to University requires planning, mostly so that you have the funds and time to do it. It can no longer be a spontaneous decision — whether you have a childhood dream to follow or not.

And, if you do have tens of thousands of pounds lying around, spending it on a degree is risky. What if it isn’t everything you dreamed? What if you don’t get a job at the end of it? For most, it is just too damn expensive to take a punt on.

Corinne says that she was fortunate, and says that not being able to try something and see if it fits without worry must be so infuriating. She tells me about the young people she teaches, and how you have thousands of students competing for two jobs, compared to so many fewer competitors when she was studying.

She tells me what she tells them – you have to stand out. Be confident, be passionate.

‘You have to stand out’

And if you want to learn something new, yes it’s not easy but perhaps it’s not impossible. Online courses such as those on Future Learn and OpenLearn (at the Open University), might give you a taste of something new.

Try an evening class, watch YouTube videos, read books, volunteer. Study part time and work at the same time. It’s time consuming, and you have to be self motivated, but it’s something.

It’s easy to be downhearted when you have a hankering to go back to school but feel there are so many blockers in your way. What I learned from Corinne though is that even when you are broke and juggling a hundred things, if you are prepared to work your arse off, and make your name known, you will find yourself in good fortune.

Below, I have listed some websites that provide free or low cost learning, or those with a free trial period. I did a fiction writing course with Future Learn which was definitely rewarding, inspiring me to write more.

I’d love to hear about any other resources that I can add to the list, or about any positive (or negative!) experiences you have had with the following (I am not endorsing or vouching for any of these, but they came up consistently in my research):

Don’t forget as well to take advantage of what your workplace might offer, such as secondment, training, shadowing, mentoring programmes, conferences – a move sideways or within an organisation might be the start of something. Good luck 🙂

 

Projects

If you’re eager for a change, but don’t have the foggiest where to start, the most common piece of advice I have come across is to ‘try new things’.

Get a new hobby, start a project, volunteer, read some new books, learn a new skill.

This makes sense: give yourself a taste of this and that, and maybe one of these things will reveal themselves as your passion.

Of course, it’s immensely frustrating if you keep trying things but nothing fits. I know it’s frustrating because I’ve been there. I’m the eternal trier and subsequent quitter. Or forget-about-er.

Here’s some of the hobbies/projects/new things I have either tried and failed at, or tried and quietly left behind:

  • Gymnastics (when I was about 8)

OK I won’t start that far back…that would take an age.

  • Tai Chi
  • Bread making
  • Yoga
  • Fiction writing
  • Blog writing (I have many dead blogs)
  • Crochet
  • Running
  • Baking
  • My cheesecake company
  • Needle felt
  • Tie-dying
  • Obstacle course racing
  • Photography
  • Drawing
  • Playing the guitar
  • Volunteering at a hospital
  • Chess
  • A course in nutrition

And I’m sure there are more. Reading that list, there seems to be a theme in the things I like – there are a lot of creative activities there as well as a few exercise based activities. Also, I have at least one hobby that I’ve for a long time, and that’s singing in a choir (which is just a joyous thing that I think everyone should try, even if they think they can’t sing).

But none of it stuck as a passion, or something I’d like to do with the rest of my days. I still do some of these things from time to time – I’ll still enjoy baking a loaf of bread, or making a little felt animal.

So I’ll keep trying.

My latest project was supposed to be doing up the campervan that my Dad’s friend extremely kindly gave to me a couple of years ago. The plan was to turn it into a home on wheels and do some traveling in it, see some of this country, find some stories from further afield.

Sadly, I discovered that it needs about £7,000 worth of work to fix it’s rust problem, so that’s a non-starter (there’s that pesky money issue, getting in the damn way again!).

Hope is not completely lost though. I am patching it the best I can, making some rudimentary improvements on the inside and we will just run it until the doors fall off while I re-think things. And, it gave me the idea to start a new section of this blog about trying new things, about projects, whether mine or other people’s, in the hope that something, one day, will fit.

I’m going to be adding a ‘Projects’ page to post a bit more about it, but for now, here is the beauty just before having a bath in preparation for rust treatment and painting:

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Update – 7th August

As you can see, no projects page has appeared! It seems you can’t add a ‘section’ to the blog…hmmm. If anyone has any tips let me know! I’ll post some more pics anyway at some point.