For an upcoming International Women’s Day event at work, I am privileged to have been asked to be part of a panel discussing advice that we would give to our 20 year old selves. This has got me thinking.
At 20, I was studying hard at University, engaged to my first husband, looking nervously, but with excitement, to my life ahead. I often felt out of place – I was a girl from a council estate and a local state school studying at Cambridge University. I was a woman studying maths, where only 15% of my fellow maths students were women. I was shy. I knew that I had been very lucky to have been born with intelligence and drive, and had been encouraged by my parents to follow my dreams and be the best I could be. I didn’t want to waste my skills but I also didn’t have a lot of confidence that I could do anything with them. I often felt like an imposter.
And what I am like now? I feel incredibly blessed with my life. I am happily married to my best friend, I have a job I love, I am surrounded by family and friends who support me and I make time to follow my passions. I am, however, still pushing myself hard. I always feel that there is more I can be doing. I still feel like an imposter at times. I still have times when my confidence disappears. I still doubt myself.
I wanted to know how 20 year olds today may be thinking about the future and so I asked my wonderful goddaughter for her views.
Some of her comments mirrored how I felt at 20. She talked about pressure amongst her peers to be successful, to keep on top of work, exercise and a busy social life. She talked about some practical worries – finding a job, buying a house, paying back student loans. She also talked about the excitement of seeing what her and her friends could go on to achieve. She liked being surrounded by such driven people (in particular, women) with so many different interests, passions and aspirations. These comments all resonated with me.
But some of her comments showed how the world has changed. She talked about global problems such as climate change and inequality and the fear of not doing enough to tackle these. She felt that the younger generation were under pressure to do something and she wanted to but knowing how to do so was a challenge. The pressure of living in the social media age was high. She was excited by the opportunity to connect with people across the world for work and other opportunities. Finally she wanted to make a change in the world through her career choice.
I read her comments and was so proud of her. Our future is in good hands if we have inspiring 20 year olds who want to drive change to resolve the biggest issues we face as a society. I wanted to encourage her and give her the confidence that she can achieve all that she wants to. So what would my advice be to my amazing goddaughter, her friends and to my 20 year old self?
Surround yourself with people who lift you higher
Your family and friends are so important in your life. I couldn’t live my wonderful life without my amazingly supportive husband and family. My two closest friends from when I was 20 are still my two closest friends – one of whom is my goddaughter’s father. They know me, they care for me, they are there when I need them and they are part of my family. You will go through tough times, everyone does. You will change as you grow up. Your thoughts will evolve. But your true friends and your family will be with you. They will encourage you, they will make you smile, they will hold you when you cry and they will be there to celebrate your successes. People will come and go in your life and you’ll have some amazing times with them but your family and closest friends will stay. Invest time in them, tell them how much they mean to you and never take them for granted. They are part of you and will help you be the best version of yourself.
Our lives begin to end the day we are silent about things that matter
This is as true about personal things – sharing how we are feeling – as it is about societal issues. We must all stand up for what we believe in. I have had moments where I haven’t said how I am feeling, when I haven’t called out poor behaviours or I haven’t been clear in what I believe in. And I can remember each one because I know I should have acted differently. Your integrity, your purpose and your values are fundamentally who you are and we all have a duty to speak up. We can all make a difference by doing so.
Difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations
Take the path that you believe is right, even if it is hard. It wasn’t easy to leave my first husband and get divorced when I was still in my 20s but I knew it was the right thing to do. It hasn’t been easy to be a female in a male dominated working world (although, thankfully, this is improving all of the time). It hasn’t been easy to run marathons and climb mountains but it has brought me moments of pure joy and memories that will last me a lifetime. You can have a nice life by following the easy road but to have an amazing life, to achieve what you really are capable of, I believe you need to continually push yourself, you need to go where you thought you were incapable of going. And goodness is it worth it.
Be fearless in pursuit of what sets your soul on fire
We all have things that we love. It may be our family, it may be a faith, it may be a hobby, it may be all of them. Your work should be fulfilling (and if it isn’t, you should change it) but it is only your work. Don’t let it be your whole life. I found my passions ten years ago when I started running and mountain trekking. I would never have thought these would be my passions (I was the girl who got her lowest report score in PE!) but they have brought me joy, have allowed me to raise lots of money for charity and have given me friendships that are incredibly special to me. Your passions give you a different perspective, they refresh you, they challenge you and they make you smile. Find yours and follow them.
You are enough, a thousand times enough
Whilst you will want to push yourself, and I believe you should, always believe that you are enough. You are unique, you are loved and you are beautiful. Be gentle with yourself. Allow yourself the time that you need to enjoy your life. Take the breaks that you need. Take care of yourself. You are too special not to.
On this International Women’s Day, thank you to my amazing family and friends who have supported me over the last 26 years (where have they gone?!) to develop from the hopeful 20 year old into the happy, fulfilled woman of today. And thank you to my wonderful goddaughter and amazing seven year old niece who inspire me for the future.