I thought I knew what I wanted, certainly career-wise. The work I do informs much of my identity as a left-handed, Glasgow-born, London-raised, Ghanaian woman who loves to travel, and lives in the US.
But those markers – including work – don’t speak to who I am. Though for much of my life I thought it did. That’s because I’ve always seen my work as a vocation. I’m fed by my work on a good day. I’m moved by talking to people, and I thrive on connecting people and ideas.
Growing up, I developed and held on tight to ideas of what I should be – career-wise at least. A lot of those ideas came from my parents. You know, things like, “Don’t take a gap year, get into a ‘top top’ university, finish the degree the first time around (re-taking exams means you failed), get a ‘top top’ job with ‘big big’ money, get married, have children, kick ass in the kitchen, put your family first…”and on and on and on.
I took the career part seriously, I was always in a rush to collect career achievements; ‘journalist,’ ‘works for NPR,’ ‘has been on the BBC’, because I wanted that life where I didn’t have to worry about money, and could take holidays. Those titles didn’t make me feel like a better person, but I believed the power those titles carried would give me access to the financial stability and influence I wanted. The latter, ‘be a good and dutiful wife’ part? I fought that concept from the first time I was scolded for being ‘lazy’ because I questioned why my boy cousins weren’t being told to take the dishes to the kitchen like I was.
What I’ve learned over the years is whether you go along with, or fight against something, that ‘thing’ will always shape you. In my case, that need to be financially stable and influential in my career came from my Dad, from his ambition, and the way British society treated him as an African man. I took on every slight he suffered and pumped my fist at all of his wins. His fights were my fights. And because I’m loyal – and I’m my parents’ kid so ain’t no punk – I fought the world for both of us using my words and my charm. I took it upon myself to charm, work and intellectually shine my way up the career ladder. I’d show the world that we were ‘just as good’ as our white counterparts.
Those identities no longer made sense when Dad died. They were shattered by a big, heavy ground-shaking one: ‘fatherless-child.’ When it landed on me, it threatened to crush me. It slowed me down. It halted me completely.
I have never done ‘nothing.’ Ever. I didn’t know how to. If you’re reading this, I know you know what I mean. I tried, but every time I lay down, I’d quickly find something to do, because ‘it needed to be done.’ When I eventually gave in and reluctantly accepted it I started to listen to the silence.
And in that silence, I heard a small voice. It was the voice of my self. And I finally started to listen. I realized that I didn’t have to hold on to those old ideas of success, or my identity anymore. It was OK to be the goofy, smart, awkward Black girl I always was – the one my dad always saw and loved.
When I started really listening to myself, I started to see who truly supported me in all of my foolishment, in loud and quiet ways. I stopped thinking about what I wanted, and feeling what I needed. And people, just like that, things started happening again. The kind of work I wanted came to me, people who believed in the mission I talked about came to me. And without thinking about it, I started playing again. I took up tennis, y’all, And I realized very quickly how much I missed playing, you know like a kid, jumping, running, falling – and laughing. I finally started living again.
Last year I kept saying the words, ‘I can’t believe I’m here.’ This year, I can’t stop saying ‘I’m grateful I’m here.’
When you let go, you give yourself the chance to see who you really are. When you do, the things you want start to come to you. I believe that wholeheartedly.
Fam, people will tell you what they think they think you are. They’ll tell you that they got the thing you got before you did. They’ll tell you trying something new is dangerous, or that ‘it’s not what we do as Africans, Black people, women, or whatever you happen to be. Society will tell you what you should be. Let THOSE voices go, let it go, so you can create space to embrace you.