When I quit my first job as an attorney more than a year ago to move to Africa with my husband, I was thrilled and nervous at the opportunity to take a path less-trodden. An endless sea of opportunities lay ahead and I was all geared up to pursue them; after all I was young, educated, brimming with ideas and energy, and determined to bring good to this world.
15 months ahead, I am beaten and battered and only just beginning to realize how little I really know…about life.
After I left school I went on to join a large city law firm as an associate, clocking 80-hour weeks and having very little of a life outside of work. It was hard work but I was willing to pay the price to reap the fruits. I left my first job with the same mentality that I had to develop in order to thrive there:
- GET THINGS DONE, FAST.
- ALWAYS BE IN CONTROL.
- TRUST NO ONE.
- MISTAKES ARE UNFORGIVEABLE AND COULD MEAN A LAWSUIT.
These had become values to me, and I approached my pursuit of a new life in the same manner. There were so many things I wanted to do; I was eager, impatient and demanding of myself and others. I started projects simply because I needed something to do, and I was utterly convinced that as long as I tried or worked hard enough, there was nothing I could not do.
However, I began to learn that hard work or having a good idea might not be enough. Some of my initial projects ended in disappointment because the people I had gone in with were unable to keep up with me, or were simply not as committed and eventually left. Other projects simply fizzled out because I had not known or thought about it enough before I went in, and sooner or later things surfaced which made me realize that it would not work, at least not with the level of knowledge and resources I had at the time.
I was stopped in my tracks. Hard work had ALWAYS paid off for me in school, and it had paid off too in my previous job (and I mean it literally; the more hours spent the BETTER).
But I realized that without the right people to work with (assuming you can choose) and the right timing to move in, hard work could be in vain. This is a somewhat serendipitous combination of events and probably works differently for everyone, but for me it has boiled down to Learning, Watching and Waiting – things which I had never quite been able to grasp.
My latest project is to build a social enterprise with a coffee enthusiast friend who had started as a past-time teaching unskilled and unemployed women in Tanzania to hand-roast coffee beans. The beans were a hit in our local community of expatriates and we planned to start a sustainable business of roasting and selling beans and coffee beverages.
I started out with big dreams and formulated an impressive business plan which would culminate in us opening the first western-style luxury espresso bar in our neighborhood. I started looking at property and seeing lawyers barely a week after we decided to start the business. After a whirlwind two months, I found myself running on empty, getting nowhere, and I suddenly panicked and asked myself if I could really do this. Was it really a good plan to start with such a huge debt? Did I have the right personality, drive and motivations to see this though? Were my partners and I even a right fit? Would I be letting down the people who were willing to provide initial financing (namely, my in-laws)?
Could all this end in disaster?
Everything fell apart and my partners and I were wracked with all kinds of doubts and problems. So we took a time-out. For 2 months we went about our usual lives and did…nothing.
During that time there were days I was so resentful and frustrated and wished I was back in my comfy old’ job, working like crazy but at least with the certainty I would walk a certain path. On other days I would read online articles and have a close to nervous breakdown from the amount of new trends and information about starting a business which I could not finish reading, and wearied myself bitterly envying the people (I read about) who somehow had managed to start a successful business with 30 chains and another 50 on the way before they turned 30.
I realized how little I knew.
So I read and learned and observed and reflected, and as weeks went by I learned to wait and I learned to be okay with waiting. I began to feel a reassuring certainty: This wasn’t failure. This is really only the beginning.
I came to peace with the idea that I might have to shelve my dreams of grandeur for the moment and start from square 1 with a day job and simply watch and learn. Keep myself updated, talk to people and keep my eyes and ears open. Not every successful entrepreneur started out like Mark Zuckerberg to become a billionaire in his twenties. Still, it doesn’t mean one can’t succeed if you’re past 30.
2 months later, things suddenly moved again, unexpectedly. We got offered a rent-free venue to start our first store, and although it changed our initial plan completely, somehow we were convicted that it was a perfect fit.
I abandoned my initial high-capital business plan and scaled down the model such that it was easier for us to take on with minimal initial financing, and broke it up into stages and milestones so we could pace ourselves – given our lack of business experience. I realized that things for some reason seemed to move the most when I stopped trying to arrange, plan and control everything, and when I admitted that I really didn’t know much about doing business after all.
Letting go (something which does not come naturally to me) helped me to step back and see that we would not be destined to fail if we did not open by Christmas or if we over-spent on cups; and it helped me to enjoy the process more. Contrary to what I learned and held as values as an attorney and had tried to take away with me, I now realize that in the larger journey of life it IS okay to make mistakes, it IS okay to go slow, and that we CANNOT always be in control.
As things stand right now, things are still moving slowly and surely, and everyday we are a little closer to the goal. I am working for my husband’s business while setting up my own, and I have no clue what I will be doing 2 months from now. But I am okay with that. It is only the beginning, and my time would come