There are so many aspects of our personal and professional lives that become habitual and routine, from the journey to work each day, to the meal we order for lunch and the way we take our coffee. It’s easy to fall into patterns that stimey creativity and deeper thought, especially since the level of digital engagement we now experience is fundamentally changing the way our brains work. We’re less likely to ‘get bored’ and think differently about the problems we’re trying to tackle.
That’s why last year, having been in New York for almost half a decade, I wanted to throw everything into question – from my relationship with technology, to the way that I approached solving problems. Somewhere inside, I knew that to do this I needed to put some distance between me and everything that was normal and familiar, and find an opportunity to embrace the unknown.
So, I applied for the TIE program, which meant taking a month-long sabbatical from my job as a strategist to work for an NGO in Sierra Leone as their marketing consultant.
The month in Freetown was hugely formative and deeply restorative for me as a person and as a professional. It has breathed a new lease on life into my work, which helps me have a deeper impact. And most importantly, it taught me a lesson about the value of always seeking out a fresh perspective, both in business and in my personal life.
It challenges you to let go of how things ‘should be’
When you’re thrown into an entirely new context, everything is done differently. I was without phone data and running water for some periods during my stay, and often without WiFi. This forced me to step back, and reconsider how to approach tasks. We had meetings in person, sent fewer emails, and I took time to write concepts and ideas down on paper with a pencil rather than tapping away at a computer.
Surprisingly, this simple act of slowing down and changing up where and how we work helped us think more broadly about a task or challenge. It reminded me that there are downsides to our modern conveniences, especially when trying to be creative, and build out a truly innovative idea. Taking time away from the computer to ideate alone or discuss with your team undoubtedly leads to a more robust end solution.
It makes you more flexible and creative
We spend a lot of time in organizations trying to upskill and train employees, but the most valuable way to learn a new skill is by doing it. This became clear when, during the week of filming a branding video, I had to take on the role of film producer, interviewing live on camera, setting up shots, and managing the crew. Later, we decided that it would be great to also capture drone footage, so we quickly had to find someone who had a drone and build out a shot sequence that was filmed during the course of a morning.
This is why moving out of your comfort zone is important. You get used to thinking on your feet and finding ways to make things work without all the resources you might usually rely on. Bringing a ‘can-do’ attitude into an organization can help move past blocks that have existed for years, whether it’s suggesting a new approach to winning business, or simply finding a solution for flexible working for all employees. You’ll look with new eyes at challenges that arise when you return, and will think nothing of volunteering to take them on.
It cultivates the desire to lead and take ownership
There’s often a feeling, especially for women, of being uncertain of what your role should be, or whether your voice is valid. Being thrust into a new organization in Freetown for a short period, where I was seen as the subject expert, I realized that there was no time to question whether I should speak up or not. I just had to get going and embrace the role.
Fostering leadership in this way is a benefit to any business. Giving employees these important opportunities be become more self-assured will allow their organizations to benefit from the ramped up leadership skills and confidence.
It teaches you how to focus on what’s important
Having periods where I couldn’t use my phone made me far more conscious of the way it distracts my attention, and that of others while trying to focus on a task, or during meetings. Reassessing our relationship with technology, and getting clear with ourselves about where we want to place our focus at a given time, is a valuable tool for cultivating more presence, which in turn leads to clarity of thought and impact.
Simply setting an intention of not looking at your phone, or deleting a few social media apps that are time sucks can dramatically change the way you use technology, increasing productivity and making you more available and present to those around you whether they be your co-workers, friends, or family.
During the course of my stay, I met inspirational people, particularly women, who had a life experience that couldn’t be more different than mine. It was both humbling and inspiring to see the abundance of strength and positivity that they displayed in some very challenging circumstances, which motivated me to take on a project that I may never have been able to experience in my usual role.
Opening ourselves up to a different culture, a new role, or a different context can be daunting, but the personal and professional benefits can be astounding. Once you’ve done it, you’ll be more likely to embrace something because it feels a little scary rather than hide from it. The experience was so rich that I continue to draw on it day after day, which I’m sure will soon become year after year.