Don’t Just Wait For It (Career Lessons from Failing Up by Leslie Odom Jr)

I am not a person who sticks to reading lists. I can sign out the same book from the library over and over again, or look at the same book at my bookshelf for ages, but until it is the right time, it remains unread. A couple of years ago I bought Leslie Odom Jr.’s book “Failing Up”, loved what I read, but didn’t get very far because it was difficult to take notes while reading on the bus. This October however, after watching an episode about “Wait for It” on the Netflix show “Song Exploder”, finally watching Hamilton, listening to a lot of interviews with Lin-Manuel Miranda, and listening to the soundtrack and other Leslie Odom Jr. songs on repeat, I finally read it.

And it was brilliant. I read it twice through, took ten pages of notes and weeks later, I’m still thinking about the book. In it, Leslie Odom Jr. talks about how you must be persistent in the pursuit of your dreams, but that systemic barriers and racism cannot be superseded by a can-do attitude. That nuanced lens is too often missing from career books and books about purpose and dreaming for more, and I deeply appreciated reading something filled with hope, encouragement, honesty and humility that also acknowledges race and power and positionality. Though not an exhaustive list, here are some of the lessons I took away from the read.

  1. Your work is independent from people hiring you and, the phone ringing.

One of my favourite moments of the book is mentioned twice – firstly in the introduction to the book, and later when the moment actually happens. In that moment, tired of the financial and emotional instability of acting and performing, Leslie Odom Jr. goes to his father in law and mentor and asks him for advice in transitioning to something else. In response, his father in law says:

“Les, of course you can quit. That’s fine. And we can talk about what you might do next and how to go about it. I can support you in that. But I’d love to see you try before you quit.”  What did you do for yourself today? Did you call anyone? In what ways did you take charge of your creative life today? Did you send an email to someone who might be working on something you care about? Did you read anything? Did you write anything? Did you take a class? Did you practice? What step forward did you take for yourself today in the absence of the ringing phone?” (p.10).

This moment was a wake up call and despite being a professional actor with years of experience, Leslie Odom Jr. signs up right away for an acting class with his father in law, and resolves to never think of his work again as solely what he does when the phone rings, but rather, a commitment he has to his craft independent of his paid work.

2. Following your dreams is a spiritual journey

It requires vulnerability and a strong back and a soft heart to pursue your dreams and hopes and nurture your talents. There is so much courage in the stories shared in this book, and Leslie Odom Jr. speaks openly about how hard work is important, but you alone are not responsible for your success. There is a wider context and an attitude of surrender and acceptance needed as you walk toward your dreams. Leslie Odom Jr explains:

 “You will train and prepare to actualize your dream in countless ways. Try not to neglect spiritual fortification” (p.10). This spiritual preparation also means recognising that no’s are a step to successes and that nothing is wasted. This doesn’t mean that rejection is easy though, and part of the spiritual journey is keeping the faith in yourself even when things aren’t going your way. Leslie Odom Jr. elaborates:

“Faith will deliver the reminder that disappointment and failure don’t have to be fatal. In those times when you have done your very best and still come up short, faith fills in the gaps between your reality and your dreams. Faith is what sustains you in the wilderness” [..] You hear a lot about the Big Break from successful people. But I would challenge you to think of your Big Break as an inside job instead of something that you’ll find externally.[..] The biggest break is the one you will give yourself by choosing to believe in your vision, in what you love, and in the gifts you have to offer the waiting world” (p.54)

That spiritual journey also means keeping the faith when you have no idea about the outcomes of what you are doing. Leslie Odom Jr. describes what it was like to be developing Hamilton for years, declining other much more lucrative opportunities because of a belief in the show, and that emotional and spiritual challenge that entailed during the difficult moments, and the self-belief and self-trust needed to keep going.

3. There are no overnight successes. The conversation Leslie Odom Jr had with his father in law was in 2011. His first Broadway experience was in Rent was when he was seventeen. Before and after that first Broadway show hundreds and thousands of hours were spent learning craft. There are no shortcuts to polish one’s talents. It is a daily journey to work towards one’s goals, and Leslie Odom Jr. advises to “start now, every day, becoming, in your actions, your regular actions, what you would like to become ” (p.33).

4. A deep work ethic and critical self-reflection are necessary. Rather than looking at the work and trajectory of others, Leslie Odom Jr advises the reader to focus on their own skills.

“Reliability and craft will get you work (p.77) and when things do not go your way , celebrate the fight because coming close can be confirmation you are on the right path. Ask yourself: What can you do better the next time? What can you do to make yourself more prepared for the next time?” (p.27). Instead of comparing, have your own standards and evaluation criteria for yourself.

5. Never relinquish your ability to say no.

This is a critical point in this book. Leslie Odom Jr. explains:

“Come what may, through the fat and lean years, you must retain ownership of your yes and your no. In many respects, it is all you own in this world for a very long time. Yes can come easy. No takes a bit of practice. Your no, your willingness to walk away when something doesn’t feel right for whatever reason, will be one of your greatest assets. It will set you on a path you will own as well” (p,78).

Although work is important, not every environment and job is for you, and each job interview, or work situation or audition is as much about you investigating and assessing that environment as it is about them assessing you. Work that asks you to give up principles and pieces of yourself and crosses boundaries of your dignity and self-worth may not be work that you want to do.

6. Define space for yourself. Know your strengths, identify what you want and what you can do well, particularly because “you will meet people along the way who will be lining up to place limits on you. You don’t need to beat them to the punch” (p.96).

7. Say thank you. Make gratitude a daily practice. Throughout this book, Leslie Odom Jr. thanks people along his path by name and specifically outlines some of the ways they helped him. From his early teachers, to his wife, his father in law, this is a book that overflows with gratitude.

8. Ask yourself what success look like for you and give yourself permission to thrive. Interrogate your ideas of success and whether they resonate with you because success “looks different to each of us. The more clearly defined, the easier it will be to recognize when it shows up” (p.182).

8. Have compassion for yourself. Know that persistence through failure, grit, tenacity, does not supersede systemic racism. Your career success is not always about you understanding your skills better or articulating them, there are systems and institutions and ecosystems that can limit your success as well. Be part of building new tables.

9. We need a revolution in education, affordable post-secondary education and failure-safe spaces.  This paragraph stuck with me:

“I made plenty of mistakes in school, but I wish the environment had encouraged and provided more room for failure. My training hadn’t included any focus on audacity. Nothing in my training encouraged or spoke to the value of taking real risks and so I wasn’t in the practice of taking any. The tuition came as a particular hardship for my folks, and I racked up student loans in the shortfall of financial aid. I took the sacrifice seriously. I wanted my transcripts to reflect the seriousness with which I approached my education.

“I did really well and graduated with honors from Carnegie Mellon University.  I learned what was expected of me, and in most cases, I delivered. Because of the grading system in place and quite possibly (I say in truth and with respect) the egos of some of my professors, there’s no premium placed on risk. That meant wasted valuable time, because risk is much harder once you leave campus and stakes go up. More room should be made on our college campuses for trial and error.” (101)

From deep spirituality, to committing to yourself and your dream, being specific about your dreams, believing in your abilities, this is a book to return to again and again when you need a coach, or inspiration and a reminder to do the work. If you’ve read it, what have been some of your take-aways from the book?

Life is Too Short for Mediocre Books (Some 2020 Reading Recommendations)

2020 has been a year of both being unable to read for months and months, and also having spurts of reading a lot.  And with that reading, I’ve had a chance to read some incredible books, and have started posting on my YouTube channel again. Here are two recent videos. The first is about my eight favourite reads of 2020 thus far, and the second is a review of an incredible book: “The Vanishing Half”. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

 

Gems from Treading Lightly: A Nature Walk & Dialogue On Muslims & Environmental Stewardship

Healing is all around us

A few weeks ago I went on a community nature walk through the Vancouver Renfrew Ravine Park led by Lori Snyder, a Métis herbalist and educator. The walk was a project organized by Fellows from the Muslim Community Fellowship, and was a wonderful afternoon, filled with learning, reflection and good company. I love gardens and nature, but I struggle to identify plants and trees, and I often don’t notice the details of what’s in front of me when I walk. Walking with Lori was an opportunity to zoom in, to notice details, and to not just see the greenness of a park or ravine, but to actually better understand what is around us. Lori’s advice to us  was to just try and understand one plant and get to know it better, and over time to try and get to know other plants too. Her wisdom and the wisdom of the group was an invitation and an opening to be in better relationship with nature, to cultivate a friendship with the natural world, to eat differently and decolonize our diets and to strive for internal peace. I madly tried to take notes throughout, but this is only a small portion of what was shared during the hours we spent together. Jumbled as they are, I thought I would share my notes from our conversations with Lori here:

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Discomfort does not mean danger: Thoughts on Heritage Vancouver’s 2nd Shaping Vancouver Conversation

Neighbourhoods

During my graduate studies in Planning at the University of Toronto, my major research project explored conflicts that arise when communities go through the planning approval process to build new mosques. I examined the role of planners in deconstructing and challenging those conflicts. Mosques are some of the most contested building developments in the world, and by and large, when mosques applications are up for approval, deep community opposition about parking regulations, traffic, and compatible architecture among other complaints arise through the community consultation process.

Years later, I still feel resistant towards conversations about heritage because of what I learnt through that project about how arguments about compatible architecture can be deployed to oppose the spatial needs of non-dominant communities. And so when I saw Heritage Vancouver’s October 9th event titled “What do we do about neighbourhoods?” the second conversation in their “Shaping Vancouver: What’s the Use of Heritage?” series, my interest was piqued. One of my goals over the next twelve months is to learn more about planning in Vancouver. Since most programs in the city aimed at increasing civic education and involvement are aimed at the under 30 age group, and I fall outside of that bracket, I’m learning on my own, and this event felt like a good step on my learning journey. (On that note, anyone who is interested in starting/creating the equivalent of the DiverseCity Fellowship or the Maytree Policy School  we need you in Vancouver.)

But I digress. I admit, I was nervous to attend the Heritage Vancouver event.  When I think about planners or conversations about cities, I often imagine  planners and community members who are white, male, and passionate about bike lanes.  I don’t imagine someone who looks like myself: racialized, female and Muslim.  At the event I was overwhelmingly in the minority and I quickly sought out the other racialized women at the event. (As a sidebar: It can be a bit daunting to share your thoughts in such a space, and I recommend approaches like the one described here to structure post-event question periods so that questions not just follow the order of hands that go up, but actively seek to hear from different voices in the room.)

The panel had four panelists:  Jada-Gabrielle Pape, a facilitator and consultant with Courage Consulting, Jennifer Maiko Bradshaw, a pro-housing activist and Director of Abundant Housing Vancouver, Richard Evans from RePlan, a committee of the False Creek South Neighbourhood Association and Scot Hein, adjunct professor in the Master of Urban Design program at UBC. More detailed bios and information about the panelists can be found here.

Here are my takeaways and questions from what the panelists shared that night.

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11 Suggestions to Create a more Islam-friendly Workplace

Praying at the Cape Town International Airport (Jan 2019)

Does your organization have equity policies and practices to help you become a more welcoming, inclusive workplace? Do these policies and practices address how to be a faith-friendly workplace? With Ramadan just around the corner, now is an excellent time to revisit how your company/organization can support or become better at supporting faith identities, and though this is not an exhaustive list, here are eleven suggestions to become an organization that is more inclusive of Muslim employees.

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Is the Gig Economy a Good Thing? (It depends on who you are)

Is the gig economy a good thing?

For the past two and a half years I’ve been thinking about the following question: What helps young people graduating from postsecondary institutions best transition to the world of work? That question has been at the heart of the digital offerings I’ve created, the writing I’ve done and the programs and workshops I’ve designed. And as part of that work, I’ve read a lot, and spoken to hundreds of students and many faculty members to witness and support their experiences, their pain points and their questions. In addition to hearing those stories however, over the past few years, I’ve become increasingly interested in the larger systems that influence our experiences of work. In August 2018, I went to Kingston Ontario to attend the Queens International Social Policy Institute titled “The Future of Work: Where do we go from here?” Going to Kingston was an opportunity to deepen my knowledge about emerging trends in the world of work and to meet academics, government officials and policy analysts from around the country and internationally working in this space. It was an incredible experience, and you can learn more about the panelists and their sessions here.

And so a few months ago when I came across Sarah Kessler’s 2018 book “Gigged: The End of the Job and the Future of Work” in a Johannesburg bookstore, I was intrigued. Written over six years, the book follows debates about the changing world of work and demonstrates that not only is the world of work becoming much more precarious but depending on who you are, this precarity can manifest as highly desirable flexibility or deeply troubling instability that erodes real wages and worker benefits. Using stories to guide her narrative along, in Part 1 and 2, Kessler describes how the age of the job as we know it is ending, and notes that the gig economy is appealing because modern workplaces increasingly demand more from workers and are built on the structure of single breadwinner families even though, more often than not, that structure does not resemble what families look like today.  Given the pressure of 9-5 (and beyond) work, the gig economy has felt like a key to more flexible work that can help families and individuals where both partners are working to structure their work in more life-suitable ways, and a way to create work opportunities for those who cannot find traditional work:
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From Whole Selves to Deep Relationships – Six Teachings from Decolonizing Wealth by Edgar Villanueva

Take-aways on every page.

“We are all related, all connected. The Native way is to bring the oppressor into our circle of healing. Healing cannot occur unless everyone is part of the process. Let it begin.” (p.181)

In my first job after graduate school, I coordinated a fundraising campaign supporting social priorities in the Greater Vancouver area that raised over a million dollars over two campaign cycles. After that role, I moved to Toronto, and worked at United Way Toronto supporting community projects in a donor engagement capacity. Because of these experiences, over the past few years I’ve been a part of reviewing grants within different organizational environments. The more I am involved in gathering and disseminating money, the more interested I become in how to do philanthropy well.

So I was thrilled when I came across Edgar Villanueva’s book “Decolonizing Wealth”,  a book that is a clarion call to rethink the way foundations and philanthropic organizations operate, relate to others and seek to create change in the world.  The subtitle of the book: “Indigenous wisdom to heal divides and restore balance” is a theme throughout, and Villanueva’s thoughtful, generous reflections on how we need everyone in order to create a decolonized world left me with softer perspectives, a wider heart and a desire to live my life in deep relationship with others.

The book is divided into two sections. The first section, titled “Where it Hurts”, outlines problems with the philanthropic sector, and evokes slavery with each chapter title to powerfully remind us that wealth in North America is more likely than not created through systems of oppression, and acts of theft and violence. In this section, Villanueva describes how philanthropy itself is based on colonial notions of separation and scarcity, notes that philanthropic organizations typically mirror colonial principles, outlines how funding largely does not reach people of colour, details how philanthropic organizations often do not share power meaningfully with those more marginalized, and critiques the sector for generally not addressing intersectionality well and creating unnecessary barriers to funding through the way applications are administered.

Reading about the pain and problems in the sector, it seems an impossible task to reform philanthropic spaces. But this is a book of hope, and in the second part of the book titled “How to Heal”, Villaneuva outlines seven steps (grieve, apologize, listen, relate, invest, repair) on how to heal and decolonize our relationship with wealth in order to use money for social good. Villanueva’s arguments are compelling, and are supported by the deeply personal stories he shares, his interviews with numerous practitioners in the field, and the scores of articles, books and scholars he references. This book invites readers to read more and there is so much this book offers for its reader to look up and continue learning.

Though this is not an exhaustive list, here are some of my take-aways from the read.

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Good Networking Skills Are Not Enough (And Other Decolonial Career Lessons from Gabrielle Union)

Healing stories

A few weeks ago while in South Africa on holiday, every time I passed by a bookstore I stopped to check if they had a copy of  “We’re Going to Need More Wine” by Gabrielle Union. But from Johannesburg to Cape Town, the book was sold out. And so, as soon as I was back in Canada, I wasted no time trying to find a copy of it in my local library.

The book did not disappoint. Union describes the relentless advocacy needed when you are trying to support children of colour through the school system, gives advice to get over heartbreak, explores why Hollywood is so white, is honest about the power differentials that arise when you have a different income from your partner,  describes the pain of miscarriage, talks about importance of investing in people and curating gatherings that matter,  shares why you need to find your voice, value yourself,  and be brave, and urges her readers to recognize that comparison and tearing people down does nothing for you in addition to many other topics.  Overall, Union covers a lot of ground in this book, and reading it felt like spending a weekend or several hours with a wise, honest friend who is not going to hold back in her advice. I loved it.

What  stuck with me the most from this book however, is Union’s reflections on career. Over the past two years, I’ve spoken to hundreds of students about building a career of meaningful work, and for me, this book was a reminder that when it comes to finding work as a person of colour, your experiences are not determined solely by what your resume looks like or how good your networking skills are. How employers make space for you and respond to you plays a role in your employment experiences too. And so, given that the average career book does not offer advice on how to navigate the job market as a racialized person, here are five take-aways from the book to help you both navigate the world of work as a racialized person or a co-conspirator trying to support the career journeys of others.

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Motherhood Necessitates Self-Reflection – Six Lessons from Sheila Heti’s Motherhood

Hurrah for public libraries

What does it mean to not be a mother? Who does such a life look like? This question lies at the heart of Sheila Heti’s extraordinary, deeply intimate and also strange book titled “Motherhood” and published in 2018. In the first Seriously Planning podcast episode of 2019, I share six reflections and take-aways I took from this book.

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We Need to Decolonize the Concept of Democracy – Ten Takeaways from Democracy XChange 2019

Democracy requires us to do things

Last week I was in the emergency room of my local hospital being poked and prodded with needles, having more blood drawn than I was comfortable with and hooked up to various machines as doctors tried to figure what was wrong. During those several hours, I kept thinking about Democracy Xchange 2019. I had been invited to participate in DXC19 by the Inspirit Foundation who generously supported my attendance, and I had been looking forward to the conference for weeks before my sudden emergency room stay. So a few days after that hospital visit and after one of the hardest weeks of my life, I boarded a flight to Toronto for Democracy Xchange unsure whether it was a good idea to go, but hopeful for the possibility of healing and learning  through a new experience. It was an incredible weekend, and here are some of my take-aways from the conference. 

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