20 Nov 2015

On running an organisation that supports people to find their life direction, while losing sight of your own

By Guest

Recently, Olivia Comberti, a BGV alumni and Founder and CEO of Before I Die Network wrote a touching post about how it feels if you don’t quite hit the lofty ambitions you set out for yourself. We wanted to share it with you here, and Olivia graciously agreed. 

In our Before I Die Network Socials, there’s a question I always enjoyed asking.

“5 years from now, this group is reunited for the first time. As luck would have it, you’ve all achieved everything you ever wanted and more. So stand up, assume the posture and attitude of your successful future self…and introduce yourself to your neighbour.”

The answers were always as beautiful as they were diverse.

“That charity I was dreaming of starting 5 years ago? We now employ 20 people, and have impacted over 50 000 young women around the world.”“I have 2 daughters, and we live by the sea with our pet goat, Charlie. The cupcake business is BOOMING.”“I’m now a travelling photographer, documenting social issues around the world. I’ve just got back from my 2nd awards ceremony for the work I’ve done.”

It was a question I enjoyed equally for the clarity it brought myself – and as The Before I Die Network was starting out, my answers were ambitious and far-reaching:

“Globally, young people have changed the way they approach their lives and careers. The whole concept of ‘human resources’ (Humans! As resources!) is laughed at, and over 1000 000 young people around the world connect with the BIDN community to dream more boldly, and follow a life path that inspires them!”

As the realities of running a tiny start-up with dwindling cash and staff and tech capabilities set in, and yet another digital platform prototype didn’t quite take off, my answers became more reserved…

“Against all the odds, there are now BIDN community hubs in over 10 countries around the world…”

After a while, it became a question I came to dread having to offer my own answer to. I stopped using the organisation’s name in my answers, although my vision for the change I wanted to create never changed.

“It’s been a rollercoaster, and there were times when I thought we’d never make it, but the workshops I run have helped to build communities of people in the UK who support each other to pursue the kinds of lives they want to live.”

The trouble with running a social enterprise that’s all about helping people to live out their wildest ambitions is that it makes it that much more difficult to admit that you’re failing to do that for yourself.

After a year of dwindling savings, endless late nights and increasing self-doubt, I decided to put things on hold to figure out the best way forwards.

I felt profoundly guilty. I didn’t know what to say to this beautiful, ambitious community I’d worked so hard to grow – and who were deeply embedded in my own ambitions. I felt as though I’d asked them to put their faith in me, and I was failing them. I didn’t know how to talk about feeling lost, or not having all the answers, or feeling as though this thing that I’d nurtured into the world was slipping away from me, or the anxiety I felt about continuing and the grief I felt about giving up. So I said nothing.

And therein lies the problem with the Before I Die Network model. We tell people to plan out a pathway towards their beautiful, ambitious, terrifying goals – to identify their first actions, to build a support network – and then to start walking. And yes, things probably won’t work out quite how you originally planned. Certainly, there will be potholes along the road, but if you keep walking, you’ll get there eventually. In the idealised BIDN pathway, potholes are allowed, but there isn’t space for ravines and crevasses.

If you’re going to start something that allows people to be vulnerable, and to be ruthlessly authentic in the lives they pursue, you’d better be damned sure you can do that for yourself.

There are many lies that we tell about entrepreneurs, and one of the most damaging is that they must be invulnerable.

There are too many stories in start-up culture that don’t get shared. And when we don’t talk about vulnerabilities and the times when we’re struggling, the consequences can be severe.

Back in March, I ran a workshop in Brixton to help young entrepreneurs to develop their business ideas. There, I met a homeless young man called Nathan. We spoke about his idea for a start-up – to support other care-leavers like him to develop skills to find employment and resilience. We worked together to plan a fundraiser to get it off the ground, I crowd-sourced links to organisations who could help him to get started, and we spoke about vulnerability; how damaging it can be when we hide behind a mask of ‘normality’, because when we look around and everyone else is doing the same, it can feel incredibly lonely. I could tell the conversation struck a chord.

Nathan drifted out of contact a few weeks later, and I’m sad to say I never heard from him again. Two weeks ago, I got a call to say that he’d committed suicide.

There is a conversation missing in the world of start-ups and innovation. Tech Insider notes that 30% of entrepreneurs surveyed have depression – far higher than the average population. There is an inherent loneliness in start-up culture – where by definition, you are attempting to do something that hasn’t been done before. I was reminded of a talk by UnLtd founder Cliff Prior – that the single most unifying factor amongst social entrepreneurs is having been in a situation that they didn’t know how to solve.

And before anyone starts making panicked phone calls to my mother – I’m not suicidal, I never have been, and (touch wood), hope I never will be. To draw comparison between my own situation and Nathan’s would be callous and insensitive, beyond which to say – our cultural inability to talk about mental health and the moments in which we’re struggling is catastrophic, far reaching, and stifles some of the most creative souls on the planet.

So, for the sake of openness and vulnerability, and in the hope that it might strike a chord with someone else who’s been battling similar demons, here’s what I’ve learned over my past 6 months of ravine exploration.

1. Stop living your life for your critics.

One of the most powerful lessons I’ve learned in the past 6 months was inspired by a Seth Godin blog:

“Are you working to make… the 5 star reviews more intense, more numerous and more truthful than ever…? Or are you working to minimise the number of 1 star reviews?

It’s very hard to obsess about both, since they tend to happen together.”

I have lived too much of my life in fear of those who will criticise me. In doing so, it sacrifices my ability to create change for those who matter. So here’s what I’ve come to realise. If everyone in the world rejects you for what you create, but through that you manage to change one person’s life profoundly, that makes it all worthwhile. Live your life to connect with people whose own lives you can change deeply and profoundly. That’s who to live for.

2. Melancholy and confusion are important parts of life. Give time to them.

To pause. To reflect. To contemplate. To get stuck, and upset, and to niggle over a problem for days and weeks and months. We need to allow and give space to our struggles as much as our successes, because often those moments teach us far more than all of the rest.

3. Build a great support network

The past 6 months would have been immeasurably more difficult without the support of some incredible women. Nadia Laabs, Katy Robinson, Claire Malaika, Josiane Smith, Katie Welford, my psychotherapist(!), Ariana Jordão, Claudia Comberti and countless more… you’ve helped me more than you could know.

Surrounding yourself with people who have the patience, passion, enthusiasm, non-judgementalism and belief in you when you’re struggling to find those for yourself can be the difference between throwing in the towel and doggedly persisting through the rough bits for that bit longer. I owe them my undying gratitude.

4. Connect back to your vision/your passion/the change you want to create

Find what remains unwavering even when everything else is cast into doubt. Put the big stuff on hold, and focus on that. Reconnect with the people you’re doing this for.

Even when everything seems hopeless, and you have no idea how you’re going to make things work, keep moving forwards. Take baby steps. And follow Laura Billing’s advice – if piloting an idea feels too overwhelming, simplify it until it feels achievable. Run a pre-pilot!

5. Your end-of-life self has some pretty awesome advice

Surrounded by the overwhelm of everything that’s going on in this moment, it can be difficult to find perspective. And – this won’t work for everyone – but imagine yourself many years down the line on your death bed, when it’s time to pass on, reflecting back over the long and eventful life that you’ve lived. Ask that person for advice on where you are now. The response can be surprisingly insightful.

Moving forwards. So where do we go from here?

A memorial fund is being set up by Nathan’s friends and family to launch a foundation to raise awareness of mental health issues amongst young men. You can support the project here.

The Before I Die Network is continuing! After 6 months of reflecting (and melancholy, and breakdowns, and slowly finding answers), we’re running another workshop this December at the Impact Hub Brixton: Before I die I want to…Live Boldly. Find out more here.

My dream has always been to place the tools in the hands of those who can best make use of them. So we’re prototyping a new workshop format, which will give you everything you need to run a social for your own community. It’s currently in pre-pilot phase, but if you want to get involved, drop an email to olivia[at]beforeidienetwork[dot]com.

And finally if you’ve been struggling – reach out. Speak to someone. Speak to me! You’ll be surprised how many people have been through exactly the same thing.