Reka Budai, October 2016 Associate, talks about the importance of soft skills, discovering passions and her journey to On Purpose.
It was way before the famous TED series was launched that I learnt the lesson about Ideas worth spreading. I wish that someone had taught me the full lesson, namely that it is not only about how great your idea is or to whom you spread it, but also about how you spread that brilliant idea.
I learnt this lesson my own way eight years ago at university where we were working in teams on a tricky business case. The brief was to develop a male perfume for a designer brand whose female perfume was so popular that “(…) you could smell it lingering everywhere when you entered the Métro Parisien.”
For some people it is the shower that gets their creative energy flowing, for me it is completely unrelated stressful situations. I was sitting at a French exam, when suddenly I saw our new perfume more clearly than anything. I could not wait to rush to my teammates to share my excitement with them. They loved the idea, and we eagerly got down to working on that world-changing (or at least public transportation-changing) new male perfume campaign. Together we spent hours on fancy moodboards, perfecting our presentation slides and rehearsing them before the big event.
At the final presentation the two guys from our team, dressed as the heroes of our perfume, presented our idea and they impressed the jury so much that we felt we had an incredibly high chance of winning. But before we could win, there was one small moment that ended up not being that small in retrospect: the Q&A session.
There we stood, our team of four, listening to the first question of the jury: “how would you describe the guy who buys this perfume?” Being first in line, I raised the mic slowly to my mouth, but contrary to the exam situation there were no neurons firing in my brain, just a big black hole preventing any sort of thinking.
“Umm, well, this guy is definitely confident,” I said, keeping the tone up and hoping that my teammate next to me would continue the sentence. I gave him the mic at the speed of light, as if it had been burning my hand for hours.
My teammate, a Swedish-American guy with the charm of a blond Viking and the confidence of Obama said, to my utter embarrassment, “Are we going to say one word each or what?” He continued, “The guy, we created this perfume for is a Master of Life. He is not only successful at his workplace, knowing how to smartly navigate office politics, but also has a name in the trendiest spots in the city – where he is never seen alone. He is attractive but does not play games. He knows exactly what he wants.” Bang! Maybe he was not using these exact words, as all I can remember is the fact that I completely blew my chance to shine.
Practice makes Perfect. But what to practice?
What that Q&A session taught me is that if you cannot communicate your brilliant idea with confidence, clarity and enthusiasm, your idea will just stay an idea. Or, even worse, someone else will get credit for it.
Eight years after that Q&A session – six of which I spent working in a large corporation – and I have given I-don’t-know-how-many presentations. They say practise makes perfect, and this holds especially true for public speaking. Perhaps it is a matter of personality, and even if Viking Obama had been born in Central Europe like me he would have been equally remarkable. However, what I have seen during my studies and work experience abroad is that the school system in Central Europe fundamentally shapes how we behave in such situations, and not to our advantage.
The current education system in the region is still rooted in the Prussian model, namely that a good education means memorizing and owning a vast lexical knowledge. I was taught that St Stephen ruled our country from 1001 to 1038 and that the Danube ends in a delta shape when it hits the Black Sea, facts that I can find with Google in seconds, anytime I want. When I went to university in the UK, I realized that the whole concept of learning can be completely different from what we are used to in Central Europe. Suddenly people were asking for my opinion, and even encouraging me to question what the teacher or my classmates were saying. Instead of memorizing facts and theoretical models, we had to apply these models to real life case studies. We worked in teams, split tasks, gave feedback and shared our ideas.
Don’t hate the player, change the game
About a year ago I was chatting with a friend from work whose daughter had just started school, and I felt a déjà vu moment when she described school just as we experienced it 20 years ago. This made it perfectly clear that: firstly, nothing really has changed (apart from having digital whiteboards now) and secondly, either she must do something about it herself, or emigrate with her kids.
This was probably one of the most constructive rants in history, because instead of ending it with “oh, whatever, let’s get back to work,” we instead concluded with “let’s create a course where we teach kids how to communicate better!”
After inspiring two other colleagues to become equally enthusiastic, we developed the idea during numerous work lunches and after-work meetings. Thus, our project Present Perfect was born. With this one year long weekly course, our mission was to teach 10-13 year-old students the skills that would determine their success (not only at Q&A sessions): how to communicate, collaborate and present themselves better. Right now, having existed for more than a year, we offer the course with volunteer teachers in eight schools for about 100 children.
Although less painful than my perfume experience, I did learn a lot from this one year journey. Here are a few of the most important:
Your passion might not be the answer – I have to admit that I too fell prey to the “Find your passion” literature, having read numerous books and articles about it. They give valid advice, but unexpectedly you might not find the answer thinking of your most enjoyable experiences. The advice I find the most useful urges you not to spend hours searching for a passion, but rather thinking about a problem you really care about. And surely there must be a topic that you keep venting about to your friends…? It can even be something seemingly small, like how much water your neighbour is using during showering (hello inventor of a new ecological showerhead). For me it was education – I did not want kids to experience the skills gap compared to their Western European peers.
Say yes to opportunities – I am not at all spiritual, even saying “ohm” at the end of yoga classes makes me feel awkward and I would rather opt for lip-syncing. However, what I started to see with our project was that doors suddenly started opening and each milestone happened without too much sweat or being overly pushy. Learning to embrace those opportunities, and accept help, was vital. People who heard about our initiative started to help in any way they could: some devoted their time by becoming volunteer teachers; others gave us an otherwise pricy venue for free to organize our Kids Presenters competition. One afternoon I was sitting with a colleague on the way back from a business trip when I told her about the project. She happened to be the mother of a 12 year old whose school was 15 min walk away from home. Next week I was already in a meeting with the headmaster who immediately endorsed the idea.
Having a side project – Looking back to how it was before I had this project, you might think that surely I used to have loads of free time. This is totally not the case, probably because of the famous Parkinson’s law: the accomplishment of a task stretches to the available time in front of us. This is why if you have four hours to finish a summary, you will most probably take four hours, even though you could possibly complete it in only one hour. The time that I spent on the side project was probably previously occupied by some seemingly important thing that could have been done in a shorter period (I am betting on browsing the net…).
I always encourage everyone around me to have a side project, as it is the best way to figure out in a small-scale, relatively risk free way, whether your passion could become a full time job. Because sometimes, the answer is no! Like for the guy who wanted to quit his corporate job to open a surf shop. Once he had actually worked in one for two weeks, he realized that liking surfing and making a living from surfing are two entirely different things, and instead he chose to pursue another more intellectually stimulating job.
Simply do not do it alone – I would go so far as to say that you cannot do it alone. No matter how enthusiastic you are about your idea, motivation is not a Duracell bunny that just keeps buzzing in you, making you a constantly smiling energy ball. You can have the best job in the world and still on some days you will question whether it is worth it and whether you are actually making any difference. Yes, having other people on the team is helpful for splitting tasks, but the biggest benefit I have experienced is that, even if one day your motivation hits rock bottom, another team member will have that enthusiasm to cheer you up and bring things into perspective. So in the end, together as a team you will manage to be that glowing energy ball 24/7.
Challenge how you think of yourself – I remember in business school the mere sound of the word networking was enough to make me wince and run somewhere quite to hide until “the great opportunity to network” went away. However, I realized that any time I had to talk to strangers about our project at a meetup or conference, this feeling associated with networking disappeared. Get an introvert talking about something they care about and they will not stop.
The same thing happened with teaching – in every family there are some unwritten roles and in ours teaching was something my sister should do as she was the ‘patient one’. I am glad that I went to networking events and embarked on the teaching experience, as I managed to banish those labels I believed in along the years. The worst thing that can happen is that you have a go at coding, photography or dancing and with a shrug you conclude that it is not for you. But at least you tried.
A side project can also be a great catalyst to start something completely new, and for me it was a kick-starter to consider a career move towards the Social Enterprise sector. After researching different options to pursue a full time job with more purpose, I discovered On Purpose and embarked on this one year journey with great expectations. I could not be happier with the opportunities this programme gives me. I am currently working at King’s College London, enabling fair access to education as part of their Widening Participation department. After that I will be working at one of the largest edtech startup in UK, FutureLearn.
Career moves today are not as straightforward as before, and getting from A to B is most probably just a stop on the journey to C. But that is the greatest thing about On Purpose, opening up a wide range of opportunities in front of you.