Nice. Normal. Comfortable. Safe. Our desire to fit in, stabilise, predict and control is both our social conditioning and biological programming. It’s what we strive for. And yet my coaching experience shows me that when we hold that up as the gold standard for our entire lives, we can lose ourselves in the process.
In the last month I’ve heard people at the peak of their careers, or owners in their own business, or creatives trapped in non-creative roles say things like: ‘Is this it? Is this all I’ll ever do?’, ‘I can’t go through another year doing the same thing’, and ‘There’s not enough valium in the world to get me through another 30 years of this.’ One of the most profound things a leaping client said to me is ‘I have so much grief for doing the thing that wasn’t right for me for so long.’
We very rarely want to face sadness or grief in our working lives. And yet if we don’t, it will write our story for us. As Brené Brown states in The Gift of Imperfection:
“Our unexpressed ideas, opinions and contributions don’t just go away. They are likely to fester and eat away at our worthiness. I think we should be born with a warning label similar to the ones that come on cigarette packages: Caution: If you trade in your authenticity for safety, you may experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief. Sacrificing who we are for the sake of what other people think just isn’t worth it.” -Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
This week’s leap taker had done the things she set out to do with her career. She had created a nice, comfortable life. And yet, she felt incredibly sad. But instead of pushing it away, she turned towards it and used it to fuel a truly authentic expression of who she is.
In the early 2000s, occupational therapist Sarah Rejman undertook a volunteer position in Tanzania after being prompted by an old boyfriend to follow her dream. At the end of her contract, she returned home, only to realise that she was incredibly sad with the notion of ‘being done with Tanzania’. She could see a way to make a difference by creating a unique service missing in the lives of the children she worked with. But in order to do it, she’d need to let go of her previous expectations of what her life should look like, recognise that she’d outgrown her previous ideas about her career, and commit to doing something brave.
Today Sarah is the founder and director of Plaster House, a unique facility in Tanzania specifically designed to rehabilitate children after surgery, ensuring they are fully healed before they go back to their rural communities. Sarah created the service from the ground up, starting with a $1,000 in donations, a rented guesthouse and nine broken beds to care for 12 children. Today she has 50 beds, can be assisting over 150 kids at a time, and is raising funds to build a new facility to care for more children and house employees.
Your unexpressed ideas, opinions and contributions are clues to the leaps waiting inside you. If you think in 20 years you’ll back on your life and say ‘I wish I’d had the courage to give xxxxx a go’, now is the time to try.
What did you want to be when you grew up and why?
I wanted to be a nurse when I was very little, a nurse looking after children. I visited the occupational therapy division at Monash Hospital with my parents when I was about 12, and from then on I wanted to be a paediatric occupational therapist. I wanted to help people – that has been a guiding principal since I was little.
What did/do you study?
I really wanted to study occupational therapy and after a less than stellar academic finish at school, that was not so easy. I took another course in Melbourne for a year hoping to swap over, but wasn’t able to make that happen. I applied for occupational therapy school in Dunedin, New Zealand and was accepted there. This was exactly the right fit, and I loved my studies there.
My job now sees me doing a lot of administration. My boss and mentor once introduced me as: ‘This is Sarah, she is trained as an occupational therapist but is a born administrator.’ I think that sums it up – I am an administrator with an OT eye!
What has been your most scary/courageous leap you’ve ever made (preferably in your business/career/life direction)?
The biggest leap I took was to travel to Tanzania the first time to be a volunteer occupational therapist in a rural rehabilitation centre. I left the known for the desperately unknown. I left a position in a private rehab company in the fabulously beautiful central south island of New Zealand for a two-year volunteer contract in Northern Tanzania.
The second biggest leap was when I went back there. I completed my first contract and tried to pretend that I had ‘done my time’ in Tanzania. I moved back to Melbourne, took a ‘normal job’, set about a ‘normal life’, and went about with a sadness that I could not deny. In 2006, I went back, and have lived here ever since.
And the third and maybe most defining leap was when I opened a small space in a rented guesthouse in Arusha to start The Plaster House. It has lead to huge things – a programme that treats hundreds of disabled children a year who need surgery to overcome a disability, a team of dedicated Tanzanian staff who believe as much as I do that these children deserve a chance and there can be a better life for them.
What were you doing before you made your leap?
I had a fabulous life working for a small private rehabilitation firm in the central south island of New Zealand. A great life, great house, great friends, I was set up. Then I had dinner with an old boyfriend of mine, he was in a similar position but was talking about leaving it for a couple of years in the UK. I asked him why on earth he would want to do that and he replied, ‘If I don’t do it now, I know that I will regret it when I am settled down and unable to do it’. He turned the table and asked me what my dream was, I quickly replied, ‘It would be to work as a volunteer in a developing country’. He didn’t listen to any of my reasons as to why I shouldn’t do it and made me promise that I would look into it. I did. Ten days later there was an advertisement for an occupational therapist to work with the New Zealand development agency for two years in Northern Tanzania. The rest is history.
Who have been the biggest 3 – 5 influences in your life, in terms of your career and doing work?
- My parents: My mum is often seen shaking her head wondering what she ‘did wrong’ to have both her children (me and my little brother) so taken with helping others, in particular, internationally. She jests. Both my parents set strong examples of community mindedness, giving to others and adventure. While I have taken them through the wringer a few times over the years, I know that it is their influence that has brought me to where I am now.
- My boss at the time, a Kenyan orthopaedic surgeon named Murila, he encouraged me to get going and not wait for the universe to send me a written invitation to get started with my little project. I waited for a while to have everything sorted and everyone’s seal of approval before I started. He made sure I moved forward and believed in myself and what I was doing.
- My husband. Before we met, Jack started a small home for children whose mamas are incarcerated. His experiences with that proved for great stories while we were courting. He is my sounding board, he listens to me for hours – and when he finally says to me, ‘I have heard about this enough, you have to make a decision!’, I know that it is truly time to jump!
- My children. I have had three girls since I started the Plaster House, their influence on me was to re-balance in my life. For a while, Plaster House was it, all-consuming. This was no longer possible once I started having to share me with, first a husband, and then my girls. While there are weeks I flex up to 90 hours working, there are also weeks with half days to see school plays, go biking, or out to see the giraffe and elephants.
What did you have in place before you made the leap?
Moving to Tanzania both times: Not a lot. My family believed in me. That gave me a huge amount of strength to get out here.
Opening the Plaster House: I had $1,000 in my pocket of various donation money that I had collected over the previous 6 months. I rented the guesthouse, ‘borrowed’ nine broken beds from the hospital store, bought the linen, kitchen items and the first few weeks of food and opened a rehabilitation centre that I thought would house 12-15 children at a time.
What was your defining ‘I can’t do this anymore’ moment that led you to the leap?
I could not see our surgical interventions continue to fail – we needed a place where we could safely and healthily look after the children after they had had their corrective surgery. Our children are from rural Maasai homesteads and they come to us for corrective surgery; sending them home to a place where they shared the space with animals, had no running water and were typically getting one meal a day was meaning surgical failure. Children would return to us (or not) with bugs in their plaster casts, unchecked infections or non-healing due to inadequate nutrition. To succeed at our overall programme, we needed the residential component to extend their rehabilitative care.
How did/do you overcome/work with the fear that comes with leaping? How do you decide to choose courage?
I have a strong belief that what my team and I are doing is right: it is changing individual’s lives for the better, it is changing the perception of people in Tanzania living with disabilities, it is changing communities. When I have a speed wobble, I remind myself of this.
I reflect a lot (maybe my healthiest habit), I self-analyse, and then I change my style and the programme for the better. This, of course, is not just about sweeping in and making a change from the top, it all gets turned around and becomes my staff’s ideas and decisions – development.
Where I am now with the programme I feel is another precipice – we are set to double the number of children we treat annually over the next five years. We are spending this year strategising, staffing, building systems and new beds; all the things I haven’t had time to do before as we have been too busy treating the children. When I throw us back on the radar, we will be stronger and bigger than ever before, and we will be celebrating our ten-year anniversary!
The fear of the leap I find somehow exhilarating and addictive. It truly makes me feel alive, stretched – yes, but alive.
How did you fund your leap?
A little bit here and a little bit there – I was a funded volunteer at the hospital. The rehabilitative surgery programme was initially funded by a small Rotary grant, then there were a few years where we looked after the children and took them in without knowing where the money would come from to pay the bills. We are in a stronger position now, but are still totally dependent on donor funding for the work that we do (and I am still a funded volunteer).
What other leaps have you made?
Australia to New Zealand to study occupational therapy. To my first volunteer placement in Tanzania then going back to Tanzania.
What leaps didn’t work out? What did you do about it?
I don’t think I have leapt and fallen – yet.
What are you most fearful of? How do you deal with it?
I am fearful that any of the threats in my SWOT analysis will come into effect. I am fearful that our reputation won’t hold, that our funding for treating the children will stop, that the government will change its view on foreigners living in Tanzania, that a child is hurt physically or psychologically in our care, that we lose a child…
I reflect, change and manage what I can by effecting new policies. Other fears I keep healthily at bay by acknowledging them and losing them when I am at yoga!
How would you rate your level of happiness about making your leap? 1 being sad, 10 being rad.
8 – It really is great, but it is huge too.
What’s the biggest upside to making the leap?
I love knowing that I started a programme that changes lives. I love the interaction with each of the children I meet in my work. I love seeing the pride in the faces of my team as they take responsibility for the change process. I am proud and happy in my work.
What’s the biggest downside to making the leap? And how do you get through it?
The responsibility. There are times that I have 150 children sleeping in my 50-bed centre up on the side of Mount Meru at various stages of their treatment. I sleep easily because I have to have the energy ‘tomorrow’, but the responsibility does not escape me.
I have established an international advisory board who I lean on for advice especially when I am making the biggest decisions about the direction of the programme. I have also grown a very strong senior management team who share the challenges, joys and responsibilities with me.
What might be your next leap?
I am currently living mid-leap in two directions. Growing the Plaster House programme and my husband starting an Air Ambulance company out of Arusha. I think I am nearly ready for a leapless spell!
What are your favourite words to live by?
‘Life does not have to be perfect to be wonderful.’ Annette Funicello
Who do you admire who also made the leap?
A piece of advice for someone with an itch to leap?
You won’t know if you don’t try. You will only regret what you don’t do. Follow your dreams. Life is short.
It all sounds so corny but what I found was, I was 75% there, not everyone believed in what I was doing, but I did. I had enough to believe in myself. I leapt, and the rest fell into place around me and under me to build the road into the future.
Right now I’m:
Hearing: Any music my children like to dance to.
Eating: Healthy – lots of great fresh fruit and vegetables in Tanzania.
Drinking: Peach and raspberry herbal tea.
Loving: The excitement of a new project – and the weekends in between with my family.
Crafting your career is a creative act, and what was right for us once, may not be what’s right for us forever. It’s OK to change, it’s OK to express yourself, it’s OK to create things that don’t yet exist. It’s OK to leap.