What is it about perfectly capable women that makes them doubt themselves? It made me think about my own progression in my working life and how I have held myself back at almost every stage through lack of self-belief. I wrote the post below a few months ago and at the time I didn't feel ready to post it, but this sisters comment brought it to mind and I thought this might be the time to post:
I have had my ups and downs with work the last few years, but I am really enjoying my job at the moment. I am six months into an eighteen month secondment to a programme team that is trying to design what our organisation should look like in the future. This involves lots of research, planning and learning at quite a fast pace. The working day goes by really quickly, which is how I like it and I feel like I am stretched and challenged continuously.
The change has been more than welcome after doing spreadsheet based performance work for the last few years. I felt that I was bogged down in the detail of work I didn’t fully believe in and that I was learning nothing new. What this did give me was time for my mind to wander elsewhere and really spend the time thinking about what I wanted to do with my life.
Looking back on the last almost 20 years of my working life, I sometimes wonder if I could have achieved more and ask myself if I should have taken a different path and made different decisions. Sometimes I feel as if I should have been at a different place in my career by now and then I question if that is really realistic. Sometimes it has felt a bit like climbing through an obstacle course with numerous deep pits and high walls blocking my progress. I don’t believe in looking back with regrets if you have tried your best, because I accept that each outcome was meant to be. I also believe that each time there is an opportunity to learn and grow. I think that learning becomes even more valuable when you share it with others who may be treading the same path and asking some of the same questions of themselves.
My first block came when I graduated and had to think about what to do next. I studied psychology at university because it fascinated me and I knew I would enjoy my three years of learning. At the end of the course I had some ideas of what I wanted to do, but no realistic idea of how to get there. I also learned that the to do something with my degree I needed to study further. I learned that I should have dome some thinking about what to do with my degree and have a plan in my final year to guide me on what to do next. I also felt that when choosing a degree its good to go with something you are passionate about and would enjoy, but it really helps to identify where the professionalism is with your subject – do you need a post graduate or years of experience at the end of it to be able to use it and is this something you can commit to?
Once I started looking for work, I found employment in the Civil Service fairly quickly. This came after navigating lots of thinking and advice around what people in my family considered a suitable job for a Muslim woman (teaching, teaching and maybe…teaching?). I had to make it clear that I didn’t like the idea of zoo-keeping other people’s children and I didn’t want to be a teacher at all. That still left me trying to work out what could be appropriate work – nothing that required me to work late hours or travel away from home, not vocations that typically had a male-dominated environment, something family friendly. An admin job fairly low down in the civil service seemed to fit the bill. I spent eight years in the civil service and enjoyed much of it, proceeding through the grades fairly quickly. I also got bored and frustrated enough to start writing this blog. I learned that what people say, what they think is appropriate for you – it’s all noise. It blocks out what is important – what you think. What you really believe is your purpose and what you desperately want to be and do. I also learned that there are benefits to being bored and miserable – the discomfort gets so bad you are forced to search for meaning and purpose and direction and take some step towards them.
Whilst I was in the Civil Service I was encouraged by my manager to apply for the fast-stream, the service’s fast track development programme for future leaders. I assumed it would involve long hours and travelling from one job to another. I decided it wasn’t appropriate as I was a Muslimah and a mother and turned down the chance to apply. I was asked to apply a few years later by another manager and did the same. I look back now and think it was a mistake to talk myself out of it without even trying. I realised you have to get your foot in the door before you can start negotiating things like hours, location and family-friendly working practices. By not even applying I didn’t even give my self a chance to see if there was any way I could have made it work for me.
After eight years in the Civil Service, I felt that I was stuck in an operational role when I was interested in strategy and policy. I couldn’t see a way to get from one type of career to the other, so took a random sideways move into a managerial post. I did this for a year, having my third baby Gorgeous right in the middle of it and decided that it felt like a dead end and left to work in local government, starting again in a low post. I realise now if I had been patient and stayed a year or two longer I would have ended up in the corporate centre where I wanted to be anyway and possibly ended up doing something more interesting. After much thought on this I came to the conclusion that these choices were neither good nor bad. I gained managerial experience, I gained experience of working outside the civil service instead of wondering what else the world had to offer and I moved from working in operational posts in the outer reaches of an organisation, to working in the corporate heart and learning how organisations worked.
Throughout this time I had to contend with a long line of well-meaning, but sometimes very judgemental, sisters and aunties telling me that I should be at home with the kids. I was told that my priorities were wrong and I must be money hungry, that my children would suffer, that it was neglectful and bad for them. Lots of sisters encouraged me to stop working so that I could stay at home and wear niqab. One lady even told me that a woman who works wages war on God and his Prophet (PBUH) – that one really hurt. For years I worked hard, spent everything on my family, juggled all the elements of my life and then just felt guilty and selfish. Every time I had an opportunity for growth or development, I asked myself if it would suit my family. It took a good seven or eight years as a mum for me to come to the conclusion that I hadn’t ruined my children’s lives or brought them up terribly. I came to understand the thing that has the biggest influence on your children is the kind of person you are yourself and how you conduct yourself, regardless of whether you work or not. I learned that you should not hand your power, self-respect ad dignity as a mother into the hands of others who have absolutely no understanding of your circumstances. I also realised that some people are so busy looking at others and judging them, that they have no time left to look at themselves.
After a year working with residents and elected Councillors I moved into the performance service and learned business planning, performance management and project management. Various re-structures meant that scope of the role was narrowed down to just performance work, leaving me bored to tears. Despite working for short stints on interesting projects like the boroughs planning for the the Olympics and the use of the Olympic Stadium, I was coming to the conclusion that I was at a dead end and something had to change. I left work last year for a stint on maternity leave with my fifth baby, with lots of gentle teasing and some pointed rude comments about going on maternity leave “again”. While I was away I spent most of the time trying to find my feet and stop feeling so lost and overwhelmed with baby number five coming at the same time as trying to sort out my oldest daughters secondary school.
I had no time to think or plan for the future. Instead I prayed for a breakthrough. I asked Allah SWT to guide me towards work that was fulfilling, satisfying, would let me learn and move me closer to my purpose. I returned from maternity leave to be told that I would be working on a new high-profile new programme. I have to say at that point I felt slightly mind-blown and very, very grateful. I felt as if my dua's had been answered. I am really enjoying my work at the moment and learning so much. I also found that all of those years of tedious, thorough work - detail, thoroughness, are standing me in good stead now. The skills and techniques I picked up are really coming in useful in this project, a bit like the kid in The Karate Kid – he had to do the wax on wax off before he could actually bust the karate chop moves.
So in answer to my sisters questions - don't let others dictate what you are capable of doing. We grow into the roles we find ourselves in and we grow as a result of being challenged. There is nothing like being thrown in at the deep end to make us learn quickly and find solutions to make a situation work. The only thing I would do differently if I was starting my career again would be to aim higher, not to doubt myself and to always step outside of my comfort zone. Of course istikharah is a big help and should guide your final choice for the most barakah, but if it is positive, then never underestimate how much good you can do.
And We have certainly honored the children of Adam and carried them on the land and sea and provided for them of the good things and preferred them over much of what We have created, with [definite] preference. ~ Quran 17:70
“[Then] when you have decided on a course of action, put your trust in Allah: Allah loves those who put their trust in Him. If Allah helps you [believers], no one can overcome you. if he forsakes you, who else can help you? Believers should put their trust in Allah. ~ Quran 3:159-160
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” ~ Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of "A Course in Miracles"