The Leap Stories #70: Elizabeth Donaldson

Can you imagine the person you might be this time next year? Of what you will have learned, experienced and survived after another 365 days of being you? Because it’s not a matter of if  you’ll change, but rather, how. Change is not optional.

When Elizabeth Donaldson was a DFAT advisor living in Japan, I doubt she ever imagined herself becoming a champion of independent design, retail shop owner and co-working enabler in Adelaide. But after turning forty and waking up to the realisation that the career that looked good on paper was not longer holding her attention, it was time to follow hunches about her next career iteration and a take a leap.

Today Elizabeth is the owner of Brick+Mortar, a retail space for independent local designers, artists and makers, and a co-working space for creative entrepreneurs co-located in a design-oriented environment with a café, workshop/event/exhibition space, and free wifi.  The focus is on creating a destination for local creatives to connect with the community and other businesses in the creative industries.

Despite the notions of not being ‘qualified’ to make the transition, and of being fearful of what people might think if she failed, Elizabeth focussed on how she would feel if she never gave this idea a red hot go. The idea of living with regret, far outweighed the fear of failure. And so she changed her course, changed her idea of what her life could be, changed her relationship with fear and started living her leap.

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Lovely Elizabeth, founder of Brick+Mortar Creative, a creative retail hub in South Australia.

What did you want to be when you grew up and why?

I never had a really strong sense of ‘what I wanted to be when I grew up’ in terms of a particular job description, although the ideas that resonated most strongly were always something to do with travel and a fascination with other countries, people and languages.

My great love as a child was reading so being an author or (due to a lurking suspicion I wouldn’t be a good enough storyteller) then an editor was an idea that persisted. When I was in primary school I wanted to be an airline hostess (but back then they had height restrictions and it looked like I’d be too tall!), then when I was a bit older, a diplomat – not that I had much idea of what was actually involved beyond travel, but that was the allure.

In high school I remember doing work experience with the ABC for journalism and also with a natural health practitioner, so I guess it was always pretty wide open as to what I wanted to be ‘when I grew up’.

In the end, chance intervened and at the end of university a friend suggested I sit the public service exam, and from there I entered the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) as a graduate.

What did/do you study?

I went straight from school to university, with a three month American Field Scholarship to France in between. I actually loved school and was lucky to have gone to an academically focused but sort of bohemian Quaker school in Hobart and remember with great fondness some truly inspirational teachers.

At university (University of Tasmania) I studied Arts/Law (French, European Literature and Philosophy as the arts component). I studied the arts subjects out of interest, and the law subjects out of a sense of obligation to have a ‘serious/proper’ degree. In retrospect although I didn’t enjoy law and am glad my career trajectory veered away from legal practice, it was a useful discipline to study as far as developing clarity of thought and a sense of how the world works.

As part of my time with DFAT and in preparation for my posting to Tokyo I went on to do a thesis based Masters in Arts (Foreign Affairs) at Monash University around Japanese reform prospects under the new and charismatic Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi.

I think if I’d studied what I actually enjoyed at university rather than what I felt I should study, I would have followed a different path, possibly into literature and publishing. Back then, however, there was the expectation that if you got good marks at school you should aim for a career where good marks were a prerequisite. In hindsight that logic is totally flawed but the framework of the job market was completely different than it is today. I remember A-Z lists of jobs you had to choose from as a guide to choosing tertiary subjects – and there certainly wasn’t an ‘e for entrepreneur’!

I don’t feel I have the time or inclination to study in the traditional sense any more, but as my business unfolds I am constantly absorbing information, mainly online – on lean startups, management style, marketing and communication, design and manufacturing, hospitality and retail, coworking, small business models etc – completely new skill sets that I would have found tedious beyond belief before my leap, but now find infinitely fascinating (except for the really dull bits like bookkeeping etc which still require a fair bit of teeth gritting to get through).

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What has been your most scary/courageous leap you’ve ever made (preferably in your business/career/life direction)?

Definitely the one I’m in the middle of now. I guess I’d made incremental ‘bunny hops’ before, but they felt like they were all part of a path I was already on – leaving my home town of Hobart to head to Canberra for my first ‘real’ job, then moving to Tokyo for four years, leaving DFAT and moving to Adelaide to be with my step-son. In career terms they were sidesteps, compared to what I’m doing now which feels more like leaping off the cliff of fiscal certainty into a whole new world.

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What were you doing before you made your leap?

Working as a senior adviser in government (to the Deputy Chief Executive of Premier and Cabinet in South Australia), mainly on international and strategic policy plus a good measure of whatever was on the agenda for the day. I had a brilliant female boss who was an amazing role model, a super smart team who I loved working with and was constantly inspired by, job security in an industry where that was becoming more scarce, and huge variety in terms of work coming across my desk. So strangely all the things that should have made me ‘not leap’.

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Who have been the biggest 3 – 5 influences in your life, in terms of your career and doing work?

The biggest influence is my husband Joe. He understands me to my core, (better than I do sometimes – I’m not much driven to introspection) and has relentlessly encouraged me over the 17 years we’ve been together to shrug off the ‘I should be’ internal pragmatist in favour of following my instinct and taking a risk. He’s taken a million leaps in his existence, often spurred by generosity to support others – like leaving great career opportunities to follow me to Tokyo, and is motivated by bold ideas and helping people and bringing the two together. He’s also worked hard to pull off things people assumed were pipe dreams and done them regardless relying only on his own resources, so is a veteran at understanding the physical and emotional demands of being self-employed. Joe’s the one who gave me the confidence to leap, and while it’s financially scary both being self employed, it’s also a wonderful opportunity that allows freedom.

I’ve also been lucky enough to work for a number of extraordinary bosses. You learn a lot by watching people who inspire you and I learnt about the importance of emotional intelligence in building teams, of networks in developing strategy and decision making, and leading by example. Of course the converse is also true and there are a couple of bosses that displayed the opposite traits and while it was traumatic at the time, it intensified that message (and probably my resilience!).

My mother. When I look at my mother’s generation and the number of smart and creative women whose career prospects, or even opportunity for professional fulfillment and financial independence was stymied by social infrastructure, it makes me so aware of how different things would have been had I been born a generation earlier. When I look at things I take for granted now that weren’t the case back then (like being able to get a bank loan without a male guarantor, having the same educational opportunities as my brother, not having to quit the public service when I married) I’m grateful for gains towards equality made within a generation and hope my daughters will inherit a future that closes the opportunity gap between men and women.

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What did you have in place before you made the leap?

Most importantly, in a practical sense, I had personal savings to buffer a 12 month period of no income and investing in setting up a new business. In terms of what I needed to know in setting up a small business, I now realise I didn’t have nearly enough in place (it’s always a question of the things you don’t even know you don’t know)! I was moving from having worked in policy development and project management in a team environment to a solo enterprise running a store, a café, a coworking space, events, workshops and exhibitions, doing the marketing, social media, community building, fitout, and all the small business admin that comes with it.

But maybe that’s not a bad thing, sometimes it’s better to start something big with only part of the picture. It’s like having children, if anyone told you how little sleep you’d get and the heartache and worry all parents go through you’d probably never do it, but once you have made that ‘leap’ into parenthood you’d never look back, and any hardship becomes insignificant in the grand and wonderful scheme of pouring your soul into something you love.

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What was your defining ‘I can’t do this anymore’ moment that lead you to the leap?

I was losing the ability to focus properly on my work, almost like my brain was involuntarily disengaging from what I was doing. It was an odd feeling, as on paper I had the perfect job with the perfect colleagues. But for some reason I felt my mind was pulling me elsewhere and I wasn’t giving 110% to my current job – and the last thing I wanted to do was let anyone down.

And the more I thought about it the more I realised that I’d never felt like a perfect fit in my job, and I’d thought that was normal. But working with people who loved what they were doing and were passionate enough that work was integrated with the non-work part of their lives it dawned on me that maybe I should listen to the other part of me that got excited about design and creativity and all the things I wasn’t ‘qualified’ to do but had always been drawn to. And then I turned forty and knew I wasn’t engaged enough to aspire to promotion but equally didn’t want to just tread water for the next however many years. I thought if I don’t do it now, maybe I’ll lose my courage and miss my chance. So it was almost the external factor of a fairly arbitrary milestone that pushed me to jump.

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How did/do you overcome/work with the fear that comes with leaping? How do you decide to choose courage?

The fear was all in the lead up to starting. Once you press ‘go’ and are past the point of no return it’s just a mixture of adrenalin, momentum and sheer determination to do everything you can to make it work, there’s no time to be scared.

The fear I felt before leaping was the fear of failure. Not in the sense of manifesting the project, as despite being inexperienced in most of the aspects of the project I was about to embark on, that didn’t induce fear. My time working for DFAT had consolidated an attitude to work versus fear that if there was something that needed to be delivered (even if you felt totally out of your depth and terrified) then you just got on and found a way. ‘Impossible’ just wasn’t in the vocabulary, and I believe rightly so. Ninety-nine percent of the time there is a way to do something, it’s just a matter of persevering until you find it.elizabeth-donaldson-quote-7

 

When I really break it down, my fear was that, if the business didn’t work out, other people would think I’d failed. For the first time I was putting myself out there to deliver my own vision and I would be personally judged (as opposed for delivering a project for an organisation which holds ownership). And when you analyse that, it’s probably the most ridiculous reason for not doing something. But it’s also a powerful one and shedding the tendency to care what people think has been a liberating by-product of this venture.

As for ‘choosing courage’ it was weighing up what would happen if I didn’t do it. Really what’s the worst that can happen – you lose your savings, a couple of years of your life, and possibly your dignity? It sounds flippant but it’s actually true – it’s a small consequence in the scheme of things, and insignificant in terms of the ‘what could go wrong’ on projects I’d worked on before.

But the longer I’m in this the more comfortable I am with the concept of ‘failure’ and why it’s not actually important. I’d take putting my all into something I really want to pursue, that really stretches and inspires me, and see it fail spectacularly, over settling for feeling disjointed from your true self for the (not insubstantial) portion of life that you spend working. I think fundamentally I would regret always wondering ‘what if’, and in the end I’m so lucky that enough factors in life coincided to allow me to try this out.

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What leaps didn’t work out? What did you do about it?

I don’t really have an answer to this one, not having really ‘leapt’ before!

What are you most fearful of? How do you deal with it?

Losing precious time with my children while they’re young. It’s so important to be present in parenting and just the sheer hours involved in the startup phase of this business mean I spend less time with them than I want to. They’re five and eight years old so we talk things through and they understand that there’s time I need to work and they let me know when things are out of balance. I also see them learning lots by being around talented creative people and hope that as they grow older their comprehension of what ‘work’ is when you’re doing what you love and playing to your strengths will be broader than mine was.

How would you rate your level of happiness about making your leap?
1 being sad, 10 being rad.

10. On any given day it’s a 10 coloured by frustration, stress, exhaustion, excitement, hilarity and satisfaction – the whole spectrum of emotions, but yes, 10.

What’s the biggest upside to making the leap?

I feel fully engaged every day in what I’m doing. I’ve never actually felt like that before and had always had a very clear distinction between work versus life. Work was challenging and interesting and I tried hard, but time outside work was where I experienced ‘flow’ in the sense of being able to be effortlessly absorbed in learning new things, be recharged by friendship, travel etc.

I love the diversity and daily challenges of running a multifaceted business, the satisfaction from small wins and nutting something out, learning new things every single day, and the autonomy of having control over the direction you choose to take things, being able to make decisions quickly.

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What’s the biggest downside to making the leap? And how do you get through it?

The toll it takes on your social life – finding the time to catch up with friends, trying to switch off, looking after yourself, all the things that recharge you and help you be creative and productive. Too often the important loses out to the urgent (like managing admin, worrying about financials etc).

What might be your next leap?

Maybe a sideways one. I love connecting people and I’m really intrigued by so many aspects of design I’d like to develop these elements. That or win the lottery and live by the coast in Croatia!

But for now I feel I’m at capacity with Brick+Mortar and the prospect of another leap seems too much to think about, unless of course I’m pushed through external circumstances and it’s an involuntary leap, in which case I’ll feel like I have more resilience and skills to start again than I had just over a year ago when I started this.

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What are your favourite words to live by?

Oh so many great words and phrases to choose from, but what first comes to mind is my daughter’s kindergarten motto: ‘Be Kind, Be Friendly and Do Your Best’. That pretty well nails it, but I’d also add ‘be grateful’, there are a lot of people in the world in very hard times and it’s important to remember that and act accordingly.

Who do you admire who also made the leap?

There are so many people who leap every single day, often just to make ends meet or overcome adversity, it’s those people I admire the most. In the context of making a career leap to follow your heart though, interestingly I’ve worked most of my life alongside incredibly smart and talented people who absolutely love every part of what they do and are in it for the long haul. So within my personal experience it’s almost a case of admiring people who’ve already found their passion and are pursuing it wholeheartedly (and by default realising that if you don’t feel like that then maybe you need to leap).

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A piece of advice for someone with an itch to leap?

Just do it. There will never be a perfect time or perfect circumstances and once you’re on your entrepreneurial journey it’s a mad ride, so just give it your all and be prepared to work hard, be humble, be open to opportunity and don’t be too hard on yourself, you’re doing the very best with all you have.

I remember a piece of advice from a serial entrepreneur that it’s best to try your second best business idea first so you make your mistakes and experience your biggest learning curve before you embark on your ‘first best’ business idea. While that’s good in theory, a) you may never get another chance and b) the whole process is a learning curve, about your business and yourself so you’ll come out ahead either way.

What was unexpected that translated from your leap?

All the fear and caution that had prevented me from leaping for so long just dissolved. I’m now taking much bigger risks than I anticipated I would and feel like I’m starting to find my feet and able to trust my instincts more readily.

Right now I’m:

Hearing: The Avalanches ‘Wildflower’
Eating: All the fresh seasonal foods that come with spring, emerging from all the lovely comfort foods of winter.
Drinking: Waiting for the hot weather of summer to drink soda, umeboshi (pickled plum) and cucumber (with a dash of vodka/gin as required).
Reading: Not enough, I love reading but haven’t seemed to find the time lately. But two books I have next to my bed to re-read at some point are Hannah Kent’s ‘Burial Rites’, a book of beautiful prose by a South Australian author, and Thor Heyerdal’s ‘Kontiki Expedition‘, a small volume written in 1948 but an enduring favourite for its sheer adventurous spirit.
Loving: My beautiful family: the incredible and enduring support of my partner Joe and my awesome kids who are hands down the most spectacular human beings I know. Also the privilege to be pursuing my dream, I’m so grateful to have this chance.

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Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said ‘Nothing endures but change.’ As this year draws to an end, ask yourself ‘What changed this year?’ and recognise all the myriad of ways we, and the people, circumstances and ideas around us evolved this year. And then follow up with ‘What would I have liked to have consciously, deliberately changed in my life by this time next year?’ Perhaps the draft of your own leap story lies in your answer.

Lovingly,

Kylie x

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