5 years ago I gave a talk on a new type of career labelled the Potentialist. This is the short story on how, looking back, I now feel like I’m actually starting to become one.
At university I studied property undergrad and then at Masters level, and I really enjoyed it. Throughout my degree I figured I’d get good grades, get a good job and then build a good career. But as I came towards the end I began to get an itch that may be this set career path might not be for me. I’d always wanted to have my own business but could this actually be an alternative? Should I not just become a surveyor first to earn some money, then may be look at something more entrepreneurial later on when I’m more financially secure?
When it came round to graduation I was asked to do the student vote of thanks — you know that moment when Elle Woods in Legally Blonde says a rallying speech to her fellow graduates to sum up all they’ve learnt about life and to set the scene for the exciting careers that await them. Well, this was 2009 and to say the property market was not looking great would be an understatement. What the hell was I going to talk about?
So I started with “we are graduating into the worst job market for 2 decades… but I feel ready to take on that challenge!”
With a mix of emotions around graduating — having decided that I don’t actually want to work as a surveyor, the market being in dire straits anyway and having an entrepreneurial itch — I figured there must be an opportunity here.
I had been exploring ideas around starting businesses to help support graduates and young entrepreneurs in the industry, and even perhaps ways of helping graduates get out of the industry and into something more fulfilling. It was at this time that I stumbled across Tribes by Seth Godin and Escape the City (so my idea’s already been done, and in a far better way than I imagined it), but what this proved to me is that I’m not the only one feeling this way. There is an alternative.
And this really was something new. A movement was beginning that over the next 5 years would become a whole new way of working that would enable you, me and people like us to figure out a career that works on our own terms, makes us happy and enables us to do work that realises our full potential. I’d got it!
“We are the lucky ones, we graduating at a time in history when great change is afoot. We have the opportunity to decide what we truly want to do with our lives, what our passions are, and to follow that.”
A Potentialist is someone who values personal improvement and self-fulfilment, grabbing life with both hands and making the most of every opportunity — i.e. realising their full potential.
So what the hell, I don’t want to work in industry, I want to be my own boss. My first business was Saffron Organic, an online retailer of Soil Association certified organic skin care products from British brands. I had a passion for sustainability so this fitted nicely with my values and I saw a gap in the market. I went for it. And of course I plugged it in my graduation speech - I had a captive audience, who wouldn’t, right?
Over the next 4 years I struggled with website developers, marketing and margins. I didn’t make any money, but I learnt a hell of a lot about business and about myself: I don’t like running stock based businesses, but I do love working with people and creating new connections is one of the best parts of running a business. People are so inspirational and I find it so intriguing hearing about other peoples start up journeys.
But while I was loosing money and gaining experience on the business, I also had a full time job working in research in sustainable real estate. So I hadn’t completely abandoned my degree. I leveraged my skills in this area with a subject I was passionate about (sustainability) to keep the money coming in, which allowed me to live while I figured out the whole entrepreneurship thing.
Over this time I also dabbled in a few side projects including setting up the Inspiring Ideas Series, which looked to support and inspire entrepreneurship in the property industry, and Urbanfarmacy, a community growing project to get useful herbs planted in public urban spaces. At the time I just did them because I like being busy and having lots of different things going on, but looking back this was a great way of exploring my interests and developing my experience in start up.
I definitely learnt that I love change. For me, a lack of change makes me feel stuck, like I'm not achieving anything and gives me a sense of claustrophobia. But this also means I'm always looking for new opportunities and exploring different ideas, which for me is key to being a potentialist as it's really an ever-evolving mind set that grows through curiosity, courage and action.
I'm so glad I chose a path less trodden. At the time, as I was failing at my first business, doing a job with little career prospects and dabbling in projects with no real long-term plan I was seriously questioning my choices. Other people around me were becoming qualified surveyors, had impressive sounding job titles and earning good salaries. How could this possibly all come together in the end? Am I just not cut out for this? What am I doing with my life?!
But you know what, I've learnt a huge amount about myself, the value that I am able to create and entrepreneurship. I know what I'm good at, what I love doing and I'm building a life that lets me continually develop those further. Even if I'm not as well-off financially as some of my fellow graduates are now, I'm so excited about the career I'm building for my self and the enormous possibilities that are open to me and anyone else who chooses to realise their potential.
“I am immensely proud to be graduating with you all today and wish that you go out into the world with courage of conviction, a passion for life and the drive to realise your full potential.”