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The one piece of advice you would give to your younger self

If you were to look back to your first day in your career (in my case, as a PA, but this can relate to any role) knowing everything that you now do, what one piece of advice would you give yourself?

I was asked this question not so long ago which stumped me a little.

Whilst, on the one hand, I don’t regret what I have done and how I did it during my corporate career, it made me think much more about whether or not I would do things differently if I had an opportunity to do it all again.

And here comes the cliché which, I hope, I explain candidly and directly to keep your attention long enough to hear where I am coming from.

The answer, in short, is no.

What if we could rewind time to do things differently?

We would never learn and, in turn, grow.

I am where I am now because of all the experiences I have had, the people I have had the fortune (and misfortune) of meeting and the successes, a little luck and a huge amount of hard work and integrity that I have been brought up to understand is necessary to achieve half of what I desire.

It might have been easy to say that I wasn’t going to work on a day that I shouldn’t have been working; or miss a family commitment because I had to fight another fire to ensure the disruption in travel did not affect the plans of my boss and his family; or any other urgent matter that arose unexpectedly and had to be dealt with ‘out of hours’ (is there such a thing these days?) efficiently.

If I had done that, would I have more quickly recognised the boundaries that I did not set, together with the flexibility and adaptability that makes me good at what I do?

If I had put higher boundaries up earlier in my career, would the people I worked with trust me like they did, recommend me as a professional that was flexible to their needs or would I have had the extensive experience of working to tight deadlines, out of hours in sometimes stressful situations with little resource (no wi-fi on an iPhone that was low on battery whilst making a personal deadline at the same time).

Whilst I recognise that, at that age, I was aiming to impress, prove that I was credible, demonstrate my work ethic and professionalism, I acknowledge that the very subservient nature of being an Assistant (at the same time as being responsible and accountable for much of what is an executive’s business and personal life) can pull an Assistant in different directions.

It comes with experience (both through life and work) and age (!) that it has become clear that if unhappiness or resentment creeps in to anything that ‘is out of the norm’ it can and will never work.

So how can Assistants deal with the increasing pressures of what is expected of them in their role today at the same time as prioritising their mental, social, emotional and physical well-being in order to maintain positive relationships in all aspects of their life because, undoubtedly, if they can maintain the balance in all areas, it is a win-win scenario for everyone that is part of their life.

Learning how to do things in the time that works for anybody has definitely come to the fore in more recent years because, a wholly happy person is undoubtedly going to offer more to anybody that crosses their path.

This is what any person in such a role should focus on.

As a focused and disciplined person, taking the path I took to achieve my own objectives and goals was fairly clear to me. Had I deviated, I might not be doing what I do now.

And that is the point.

We learn new things every day in what we didn’t succeed at the first or even second attempt but provided we are moving forward, developing and feeling happy in the existence we lead, it doesn’t present much of a problem.

Following dreams naturally leads a person to follow a conscious and often subconscious route with ease without putting themselves under unnecessary pressure. They might not like working over a weekend that they have been asked to, however, if their end goal is clear and in sight, it becomes more palatable.

Throughout my career, my work ethic, professionalism and integrity has been repeatedly commended. Whilst I am proud of this (it’s the only way I know to be due to my parents coupled with the boarding school education I had), had I done exactly what I wanted, when I wanted, said what needed to be said unfiltered and less considered, I might have fallen out with many more people along the way.

Diplomacy is key.

Together with that, an honest and mutually respectful relationship with whoever a person works with shall lead to longevity in whatever they do together.

If there is something that I have learnt in the past few years is that life is too short.

If you are only present physically, but not mentally, emotionally or socially (I don’t mean going down to the pub every week either!) the existence you have will never be the one you deserve.

In hindsight, it is the recognition that my full presence in all aspects of life was crucial to my role as an Executive Assistant and member of the senior management team and should never have been negotiable (to myself) that, perhaps, I might have found useful all those years ago on the first day of my career.

The aim of setting the office alight and becoming indispensable (a myth in itself and for another time) is often one that is followed by many, and possibly derives from a loud speaking inner critic, or threat of not progressing and perhaps a general lack of support (particularly for learning and development).

My well-being, and many others in a similar position to my past self now, was regularly demoted for the sake of others. Those in a similar role might recognise the feeling of there simply not being enough time to invest in themselves because they are flat out doing things to make others people’s lives easier.

I recall most of my ex-colleagues telling me that I worked too much and that I should take more time for myself often to avoid ‘burn out’.

It shouldn’t be misunderstood that I did appreciate people’s concern, however, like now, I knew my capabilities and handled myself the best way I could without compromising on quality. I honestly felt that, had I followed their instructions about ‘taking time out’ for myself and not work so much, the results I provided would never have been what they were and they might not have meant what they said if that had been the case.

There was simply a lot to do, I knew how to do it, I knew how to do it well and I enjoyed making sure that I did just that.

However, I do believe I might have benefitted if I had done one thing differently…

Whilst I have always had ‘a voice’, when I was younger and less experienced, I might not have set my boundaries high enough.

I do not regret the opportunities provided to me, the things I have accomplished and the career path I took. I do wonder at times, though, how life might have looked if I had said ‘No’ a few more times.

My advice to any Assistant when starting out in their career is to have a clear goal in mind and keep that central to everything you do.

There will be sacrifices that are made (there is anything in life) and there will be elements of the role that you dislike (nothing is perfect) but having an end goal and mini objectives to meet that becomes much easier for anyone to take on.

Investing in yourself and being able to develop in aspects of your role that will make your life easier is key; and being able to do this independently with someone that has ‘been there, done that’ can make a significant different in your mental, emotional and social well-being.

With that, hold onto your beliefs, have the conviction of saying what you feel (diplomatically) and don’t settle on something if it goes against your moral compass and better judgement.

It is only when you believe in yourself that you allow others to do the same.

Further reading:

How can a business owner avoid burnout (I see Assistants as mini business owners)

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