I became a lawyer originally because it was my parents’ dream.
We were a working class family, and because I was a straight-A student it was presented to me by the school careers advisor “you should be a lawyer or a doctor.”
My parents got wind of this and weren’t interested in my pleas that I was going to be an actress. “There’s no money in that” said my dad.
Since I hated the sight of blood, I took the law option.
I was fortunate enough to secure a much coveted training contract with a large law firm, and I remember the day I got the formal contract offer through in the post. My starting salary was more than my dad earned at that time. He cried with pride (I’d only seen him cry once in my life before), and I had to hide my feelings of disappointment and frustration. And off to Uni I dutifully went to study law.
In my final year of university, before I actually graduated, I lost my parents within 6 months of each other. My father had a sudden heart attack and my mum had cancer. I was only 20 and I found myself responsible for my younger brother who was only 13 at the time.
During my 20s, I felt compelled to make a success of my legal career. Not only did I have to financially support my brother and myself, I also took on my parents’ dream and felt determined to make them proud.
Sometimes when I describe this period of my life, it’s hard to convey the difficulties and pressure I was under, although I do know that I used my grief to power me on. I also knew I was so lucky to have this opportunity to train in a profession and coming from my working class background, it was a huge achievement. I had a friend at College of Law who had received 800 rejection letters from law firms. It’s a competitive industry and there’s still a lot of “who you know” influencing those who get admitted.
I learnt a huge amount during my many years practising the law, and I am grateful for the wide exposure to business and commercial challenge which taught me discipline, analytical skills, logic and to be calm under pressure. I met some great people and of course I carved out financial security.
I wasn’t happy though.
I was not well-suited to be a lawyer in such a structured and rigorous environment – I found all the rules and the regulations very suffocating and creativity was not encouraged. I was forever coming up with new ideas for change or innovation and being put back in my box. I had my first panic attack during this time, as I struggled to conform and be someone I was not, whilst battling grief and putting a stiff upper lip on pain.
I’ve previously shared how I was asked to STOP wearing my favourite red suit and to wear only black or grey or pin stripes. Life was in black and white. I worked long hours, practised my fake smile, kept my mouth shut. I saw much but said little.
Fast forward many years and I finally took the leap into entrepreneurship – and I’ve let myself show up in technicolour, set my own rules and follow a path which suits me.
Running my own business gives me freedom and a deep-set desire to inspire others to take that leap.
I want others to live life in technicolour too, and most importantly spend quality time with loved ones instead of trapped in jobs you hate or buried under #shoulds or conforming to societal expections or obligations from others.
As I’ve got older, I’ve helped many others to deal with adversity. We have no choice but to get through the difficult times, to just keep taking steps forward – however small. Whether it’s financial reasons, personal challenges, health problems, relationships, business disasters, there are many difficult experiences that hit us through our lives.
Often we get back on our feet, to be suddenly knocked backwards again. I reached a point when my career was flying in the law, I was living in a penthouse flat on the South Bank of London, fallen in love with a great guy (now my husband) and my younger brother had gone off to University. We got a middle of the night phone call to say he had died in a car accident and I’ll admit that was a period in my life when depression and darkness really dragged me down. I remember asking Richard to hold me tight because I didn’t trust myself not to launch off the roof of my apartment. The pain of loss was too hard to bear.
And just in the last couple of years I have had to deal with my daughter going through cancer treatment and this lead to such uncertainty and anxiety which has required me to soul-search and dig deep for more resource and strength. She’s now finished her treatment and is doing so well in remission, but it’s been a heartbreaking time for us as a family and it’s opened my eyes to a whole world full of new pain.
Change for the better
I guess I’ve come to believe that these big crises can however be the very things which force you to reassess your life and make the decision you need to change for the better. Every day we each have lots of smaller challenges to face, and we always have a choice how to response. There’ve been times when I’ve had no money, times when relationships have broken down or when friends have let me down. I’ve taken the opportunity to learn how to manage my thoughts and my responses in order to regain an element of control, or alternatively to be able to let go and simply trust in the outcome.
I do feel like I am a bit of an expert at overcoming adversity and resilience. It wouldn’t have been my chosen speciality (!) but at the same time I feel honoured and privileged that each day I get to inspire and help others through difficult times and to later hear that I gave them the strength or the compassion to keep going when they were ready to give up.
I don’t find it easy to share these personal parts of my life openly, but at the same time I know it’s important to be vulnerable and speak my truth. In particular I notice that people meet me and see my successful business, my lovely family and friends, the fact that we live in a great house in a safe neighbourhood and go on holidays and all those outward-facing clues to a “happy life”.
These people sometimes look and say ‘it’s all right for her, she’s got a business and she’s making all that money, she’s a lawyer probably from a rich family’ without even thinking about what I might have had to overcome on the way.
As human beings, we make all sorts of judgments and assumptions and this blocks us from reaching our full potential.
Comparison-itis is one of the most dangerous diseases for women in business. We never know what someone has been through or what is going on for them “behind the scenes”. Don’t second guess. Trust your intuition yes, but don’t assume based on appearances. Keep an open mind.
I share my story and talk about resilience and adversity to demonstrate that you just don’t know what people have been through. To demonstrate that it is possible to pick yourself up and keep searching out happier times ahead when it feels impossible and dark.
The people you are speaking to every day, or the people that you meet online or at events, you have no idea what their story is.
As women, we’re often tempted to show up all shiny and polished and saying we have it all together whereas in reality, we’re all furiously pedalling along trying to keep the plates in the air.
If someone treats me badly or does something to hurt me, I try to have a level of compassion.
I think to myself “I don’t know what’s going on in your life right now and I am not going to judge you, I am just going to keep my heart open and take responsibility for my own response and actions.”
I am not saying that’s easy, it can be one of the hardest things to do but I try to make it my default position.
When I’m helping clients to overcome challenges in their business or adversity in their personal life, really it is more about holding that space for them to have a strong vision, creating a manageable plan to gently push forward through the overwhelm. I like to think of it like you are in a swamp and you are really stuck but just in the distance you can see the desert island and the sun and there’s mojitos and a soft breeze, and that’s where you are headed.
You just have to keep pulling one swampy foot up after the other and edging forward, hold that vision in mind and know that sunshiny days will lie ahead. For me, the one good thing that’s come out of having all that adversity is having an inner knowledge that I am strong and will cope with whatever life throws at me.
This makes me determined to live every day as best that I can, to be the best that I can be in any given moment, to embrace joy and laughter and stay in the present day.
I think that’s the most important thing to do, given we can’t control tomorrow.
By the way, I still hate the sight of blood. So in that sense, becoming a lawyer was a very sensible decision.
Well done me.